In the Middle East, an old and confounding puzzle may soon be solved, for the better and in an entirely unexpected way – if the United States acts wisely.
About six years ago, I met with one of the senior most players in the making of our foreign policy during the prior two decades. Our talk turned to Arab–Israeli relations and our nation’s on-going battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. This former senior player said to me that he felt the United States had, somehow, to come to terms with Syria.
Though out of courtesy I didn’t say it, in the context of a discussion about Israel, I was inclined to dismiss coming to terms with Syria as leading to compromises that would endanger in unproductive and unwarranted ways a key American friend. I viewed many of the regimes in the Middle East as needing an ongoing battle with Israel to strengthen their own fragile legitimacy. But today, in the continued uprisings throughout Syria as well as the upheavals in Cairo, perhaps we are seeing a scenario other than sacrificial diplomacy playing to this former senior official’s desired end.
I know all the worries about an Islamofascist takeover of the revolutions through the Middle East and North Africa. I share them. I think of the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian Revolution or Napoleon’s takeover of the French Revolution and ask will the Muslim Brotherhood and their like soon take charge in Damascus, Cairo, and elsewhere?
And yet we also hear the democratic voices in the streets. Let me suggest that the movement toward democracy and toward Islamofascism share a common source, a source that in part points the way for American policy. The Tunisian street vendor who ignited himself and the entire region is the clue. For in many ways he reflects the profound social turmoil of so many parts of the Islamic world – and indeed the entire developing world.
Starting in the early 1990s with the fall of communism and the rise of markets, the energies and aspirations of the shopkeeper, the small craftsman, the local manufacturer, and those who – like the Tunisian street vendor — aspire to be them have been aflame. In rigid societies with entrenched local elites, these rising classes are profoundly disturbing to the establishment.
Peruvian and former World Bank economist Hernando de Soto was the first to identify this phenomenon and to study it. He focused on a number of developing countries, in the Middle East looking particularly at Egypt. And yet his findings almost certainly apply to most if not all countries in the region, including Tunesia and Syria.
According to de Soto, publishing in 2003, in Egypt 92 percent of city dwellers and 83 percent of the rural population live in homes without clear legal title, that is, in informal sector homes. The reason is that, as de Soto’s research teams found, if you lack bribe money or family connections, it would take 111 steps and 19 years of uninterrupted work to gather all the permits required legally to start an enterprise or acquire title to a parcel of land.
De Soto’s teams went to considerable lengths to estimate the value of the wealth locked up in real property in various national informal sectors and compared that wealth to the value of major indicators of economic development.” In Egypt, it was thirty times the value of all shares on the Cairo Stock Exchange and fifty-five times all foreign direct investment.
Viewed as political and social phenomena, such numbers suggest a titanic tide of human ambition and intellectual and financial power pounding at the ancient sea walls of established social structures. The great battle of the twentieth century was between freedom and totalitarianism — an entirely political conflict. The great battle of the twenty-first century may well be between the forces of creative destruction and those of destructive preservation — much more a social and cultural conflict.
Now think of al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and their like on one side and the democratic forces in the region on the other. Some say that Islamo-fascism is a product of poverty. But more likely it is a product of this social upheaval. The Islamo-fascist leaders are not poor but wealthy and privileged. They are among those at the top of society whose status is threatened. Using their fanaticized variant of Islam, they seek to combine with those on the bottom who are frustrated. Their common enemies include those street vendors and shopkeepers and others who are rising in society’s middle – and who, if the street vendor who immolated himself in Tunisia is an example, are peopling the Arab Spring.
After World War II, the Soviets tried to take advantage of the social and political turmoil of the period to highjack elections and through them seize control of Western Europe. The United States put on a covert full press to stop them, building up and funding democratic parties of all persuasions throughout the region. That campaign was a success. We need something like it today in the Middle East.
For if such a campaign were to prove a similar success, that leader with whom I spoke more than a half decade ago could turn out to be right. But the reason will not be diplomacy at the highest levels. Rather it will be a transformation of regimes that creates a new reality in an ancient part of the world.