by Ayman Ahmed (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 53, No. 6, Muharram, 1445)
The month of August revives painful memories of the Rabaa Square massacre a decade ago in Egypt. It was perpetrated by the western-backed military junta led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Apart from being a regional tragedy, the Rabaa massacre eliminated a fundamental pretense of neo-colonial western regimes that advancing secular liberal democracy is the prime catalyst for their involvement in the Muslim world, especially in West Asia and North Africa.
Such fancy terms rarely fooled the better-informed segments of societies at the receiving end of western neo-colonialism. Yet, the Rabaa massacre eliminated any lingering doubts, however slight, in the minds of those who naively believed that western powers were interested in people’s well-being.
Even though details of the massacre were documented by numerous NGOs and journalists, including those in the west, it is important to remind readers that peaceful demonstrators were mercilessly gunned down simply for protesting against the overthrow of Egypt’s only elected president, Mohamed Morsi.
As the years went by, the Rabaa Square massacre and subsequent oppression were often framed by numerous western pundits, academics, and media outlets as yet another failure of an Islamic movement to form a viable governing system.
Although recently some balanced information and framing has begun to emerge. Nevertheless, analysis on the events in Egypt and the wider region which led to the overthrow of President Morsi are still being framed within the secular-liberal paradigm and narrative. This paradigm fails to accurately analyze the broader regional chessboard.
A recent attempt to look at the external and ideological aspects of events in West Asia and North Africa post-2011 uprisings was made by Dr. Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. During his in-depth interview with Ontario’s public television network’s (TVO) program, The Agenda, he highlighted several aspects relating to Washington’s direct involvement in Egypt. The purpose of such interference was to make sure that an elected government in Egypt did not succeed.
The broader framework of the conversation started with a false assumption drawing several inaccurate conclusions relating to West Asia and North Africa. It posited that secular, western-style democracy is somehow part of the calculation of the region’s leading political trends. That this is the primary socio-political aim of all Muslim societies.
The title of The Agenda program, ‘Why Hasn’t Liberal Democracy Worked in the Middle East?’ gave the game away. It clearly implied that liberal democracy was somehow the aim of the 2011 uprisings and assumed that liberal democracy as understood by the western establishment is the ultimate goal for other societies as well.
The real answer to the question why liberal democracy hasn’t worked in West Asia can only be found by first acknowledging that in every successful popular electoral process, Islamic movements attracted the largest number of votes. Thus, the people of the region aim to organize their societies according to their own worldview based on indigenous values and beliefs, and not on western secular-liberal dogmas.
Every time the ballot box produced a genuine result, western regimes backed autocratic forces and worked to either completely abort the electoral achievement as was the case in Egypt, Algeria and Palestine, or exert extreme pressure on the country to make it ungovernable, as is the case in Lebanon today where an Islamic political party, Hizbullah, enjoys huge popular support.
Another key perspective often missing from the western narrative on the issue of elections, freedom and governance in the Muslim world is that western regimes see Islam and Islamic movements as ideological competitors, especially in the realm of soft power.
Dr. Shadi Hamid correctly pointed out during his Agenda interview that in the 1980s, the US started to be less hostile to real outcomes of the so-called democratic changes in South America and Southeast Asia. This was because the Cold War was ending with the collapse of the USSR as a result of the ideological decay of communism.
In West Asia, the US did not adopt the same attitude towards authentic indigenous electoral processes. Why this is the case can rarely be answered accurately by those holding secular-liberal bias.
Thus, let us try to analyze Dr. Hamid’s important practical point mentioned during his insightful interview outside the secular-liberal paradigm. There are two specific angles which make Dr. Hamid’s Cold War/South America analogy inapplicable in West Asia and North Africa.
First, even though leftist trends made a political comeback in significant parts of South America after decades of US-instigated oppression, on a deeper ideological and philosophical levels, those movements are still ideological and philosophical descendants of western civilization and west-centric political philosophy which operate within the secular-liberal paradigm. Thus, their ascension to power would not be ideologically or philosophically degrading to western secular-liberal worldview and supremacy of their political philosophy.
The case with Islamic movements is different. Their ascension to power via a freely-expressed popular will would bring a force which is fundamentally different from western secular-liberalism. It will thus annul the west’s claim to being the only viable model of success and prosperity for any society.
The second aspect is more practical. It is rooted in the fact that there is already a functioning Islamic governing system in the region: the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a matter of principle, it provides support for the establishment of an Islamic political polity in the region. Thus, to a certain extent, Iran can and does play the role that the USSR played in South America earlier, by supporting authentic Islamic movements in West Asia in their struggle against foreign imposed despotic regimes.
Thus, it is highly unlikely that western regimes will ever willingly accept an authentic electoral result in West Asia or North Africa which runs contrary to their ideological and geopolitical interests.
The Rabaa massacre in Egypt showed that secular-liberalism in West Asia and North Africa is a socio-political trend which cannot sustain itself in power without resorting to brute force. The world’s leading “democracies” literally had to indulge in the massacre of civilians via their proxy to reverse the electoral gains of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Such brutality is not confined to Egypt alone. The political history of Türkiye between 1930-2002 serves as another clear example. Once the entrenched militant secular regime in Türkiye lost the ability to use the Turkish army as a political tool, it was unable to retain political dominance via the ballot box.
Although secular-liberal forces and trends will continue to play a role in West Asia, they are unlikely to ever rise to a level where they will be able to outperform Islamic movements and parties at the ballot box. Without external financing and political cover, secular liberal forces lack indigenous socio-political mechanisms relevant to West Asian and North African societies to sustain themselves independently as politically relevant forces.
The is not the case with Islamic movements and parties as the experience in Iran shows. Utilizing the institutions of Hawza, Marjayiya, Khums and Juma prayers, they ushered a revolution which knocked down the pillars of western neo-colonialism in the region.