Arab Awakening or Dawn of a Dark Age?

By Greg Sheridan

These are the times that stir men's souls. We may be witnessing, in Cairo, Tunis and throughout the Arab world, one of the most momentous episodes in modern history.

Is this the beginning, at last, of the Arab awakening: to democracy and liberalism and responsible self-government? Or is it the beginning of a new Arab dark age of Islamist fundamentalism?

What is happening in Egypt and across Arab North Africa more generally represents a distinct new phase in the existential crisis of Arab civilisation.

The Arab encounter with modernisation has been catastrophic. In a region uniquely endowed with natural resources, the politics are feudal, the societies often squalid and divided, and the economies mostly decrepit.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's failing dictator, naturally added his own touch to his country's predicament. Like Indonesia's Suharto, he stayed too long and he didn't provide a credible plan of succession. His rule is personalised, not systematic.

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It is telling that the social media - WikiLeaks information promulgated by Google, demonstrations organised by Facebook and Twitter - worked in Tunisia and Egypt, but not Iran. Compared with Iran, Egypt and Tunisia were relatively liberal. In Iran the regime was capable of bludgeoning, raping and killing large numbers of its citizens to stay in power, and willing to do so. Iran is an ideological, totalitarian regime. Egypt and Tunisia are ramshackle authoritarian regimes.

This shows, by the way, the sheer dishonesty of blaming their problems on America. Washington has always urged its Arab allies to liberalise. Without this American pressure, Egypt and Tunisia would have been more authoritarian and more able to resist popular pressure with brutal responses. Washington's enemies, Iran and Syria, are pretty effective at crowd control, in part because they don't have to worry about US reactions to their methods.

One grim corollary of all this, however, is that it is more or less exclusively American allies in the Arab world that are under threat today. Decades of Islamist conspiracy theories and anti-Western paranoia have had this perverse result: in many of these countries the governments, which have to deal with reality, are more liberal in foreign policy than are their populations. Do the majority of the Egyptian people, for example, actually support their government's peace treaty with Israel?

Analysts posit three obvious potential outcomes from Egypt's turmoil. These are the institution of liberal democracy; the consolidation of a new, probably military, dictatorship; or the triumph of a radical Islamist regime lead by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course there are many shades of grey available, and at least two other major alternatives. One is ongoing crisis, unrest and uncertainty, and another is a democratic but radically nationalist regime.

The collapse of political Islamic moderation, from the Middle East to Pakistan to Turkey, is profoundly disturbing. However, there is one region which is a serious exception, Southeast Asia.

The two most democratic nations in Southeast Asia are its two big Muslim-majority nations, Indonesia and Malaysia. This may seem unfair to Thailand and The Philippines. But in Thailand there are too many coups, and in The Philippines too many journalists are killed, there are too many private militias and too many insurgencies.

Malaysia is not a perfect democracy. The opposition doesn't get a fair shake from the media. But its elections are clean and several of its state governments are controlled by opposition parties.

Above all, both Indonesia and Malaysia are legitimate nations with legitimate governments. If the people don't like their governments, they are more likely to try to change them at the ballot box than by riots.

East Asian regionalism has had a very good effect on these two nations because it has emphasised economic growth, whereas Middle East regionalism has reinforced autocracy and sterile religio-political rhetoric against Israel.

Last week I had a long discussion with Malaysia's formidable Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.

I asked him how it was that Malaysia had so comprehensively avoided acts of Islamist terror. He replied: "I like to think it's more than divine intervention. I think it's partly historical and partly it's our policy and our very proactive actions.

"From the historical perspective, the coming of Islam to this part of the world has never been associated with violence. It was always a peaceful conversion to Islam.

"Second, the way we have interpreted Islam, and applied Islam in a very moderate and progressive way. I would even call it an enlightened way. Islam is seen here as a religion of peace and understanding and able to relate to other religions. We've been able to put in place policies which allow the peaceful coexistence of other religions in this country."

Malaysia has substantial oil wealth, like many nations in the Middle East. But it has not rested on that resource. It has always pursued an open and diverse economy, and this has become a part of its national identity as well as its economic policy.

Says Najib: "I believe that Malaysia, indeed any society, to prosper should be open and should be fully engaged with the global economy."

Malaysia survived the global financial crisis remarkably well. Najib offers three reasons for this: a robust and well regulated banking system; an extremely large stimulus package; and a diverse economy such that when manufacturing fell it was compensated by commodities rising.

Sound familiar?

It is a singular good fortune of Australia that our Muslim neighbours are two legitimate, practical minded states, focused on economic development in a broadly successful region. Indonesia and Malaysia could not be less like the states of the Middle East, though developments there will affect them too, which is one of the many reasons the roiling tumult in the Arab world is our business too.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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