Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East

One of the presumed justifications for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent occupation, was to bring democracy and political stability to the entire Middle East. As Robin Wright, who has covered the Middle East for over 30 years for The Washington Post, makes wonderfully clear in this important, highly illuminating, and provocative new book, the goals of regional democracy and stability may be mutually exclusive.

Wright travels across the region, including stops in Gaza, Cairo, Tehran, Beirut, and Baghdad, interviewing leaders and meticulously investigating political realities on the ground. Her knowledge of the region, its troubled past and its problematic present, is deeply impressive, as is her ability to gain access to the region’s leading government officials, religious leaders, academics, and reformers. The picture Wright paints is a mixture of unexpected hopes somehow holding up amid bleak realities.

In her gripping chapter on Egypt, Wright describes the three “crats” who dominate the present Middle East: autocrats, theocrats, and democrats. In a conclusion that runs opposite to the hopes of many eager interventionists, she concludes, “The democrats are the weakest.” A case in point: Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, a secular leader (in power since 1981) and U.S. ally, rules with the proverbial iron fist. Those calling for democratic reforms, including fair elections, often find themselves imprisoned without charges. Wright interviews Ghada Shahbender, who established a web site to monitor Egyptian elections. After the web site revealed widespread, pro-Mubarak voting fraud, Ms. Shahbender was harassed and threatened with violence. A pro-democracy demonstration in Cairo produces an illustrative contrast: “only fifty people showed up,” Wright testifies, and so did “five police trucks with police in riot gear.”

Autocratic regimes throughout the region — Morocco and Syria join Egypt in this respect — have used the threat of a burgeoning Islamist movement to justify cracking down on dissents and denying democratic reforms. In Egypt, Wright also interviews a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic organization at the root of much of the region’s anti-Western ideology: “The United States after 9/11 has adopted a new strategy to establish an empire,” he tells Wright. “It wants to control the Middle East.” The Brotherhood is no friend of U.S.-backed autocrats , such as Mubarak, who regularly uses his secret police to arrest radicals.

In Lebanon and among the Palestinians, Wright shows, Islamic groups like Hezbollah and Hamas (backed by well-armed militias and anti-Western ideologies), have gone further, playing important roles in the political system. Indeed, the book opens with a focus on the January 2006 Palestinian elections won by Hamas, which avowedly wishes to destroy neighboring Israel. In Lebanon, Hezbollah advocates a parallel hostility, has a history of terrorist violence, and enjoys a surprisingly solid popularity with the electorate. “The coming conundrum in the Middle East,” says Wright about the democratic success of radical Islamic groups, “is that free and fair elections may not initially produce a respectable democracy.”

The result often smacks of paradox. The U.S., for example denied foreign aid to the Palestinians after Hamas’s surprising electoral victory. When Wright interviews the Beirut-based head of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, he condemns U.S. hypocrisy: “Your administration says it is assisting the democratic process in our countries,” he tells Wright, “but it has to respect the results of this process…. The Palestinian people have chosen Hamas, and the American administration is punishing all the Palestinian people because they elected Hamas.”

The author sees a similar scenario likely to play out in Iraq. Free elections, like the 2005 parliamentary elections, have unintentionally exacerbated Iraq’s sectarian divisions: “Religious parties fared better than secular groups,” notes Wright, who describes the widespread sectarian violence that broke out after the elections. In the absence of centralized security, “more than two dozen militias ruled the streets, intimidating society, dictated to business, and defied the government.” And the author takes seriously the region-wide view that U.S. attempts to promote democracy in Iraq have actually “undermined — even sabotaged — prospects for political change.”

Dreams and Shadows also includes an eye-opening chapter on Iran, which paints the picture of an Islamic nation tottering between pro-Western reform and anti-Western paranoia. The Iran Wright describes is far from monolithic, containing a number of reformers (such as Nobel laureate Shrin Ebadi) who seek to interpret Islamic law in a way consistent with human rights and Western values. Former Iranian president Khatami, who held power from 1997 to 2005, introduced reforms that sought to open up Iran to Western influence. Wright lucidly explains Iran’s anticlerical uprising (especially powerful among the young) against aging, inflexible religious leaders. Khatami tells Wright, “I have been pressing for a reading of religion that would allow us to achieve independence, freedom, and progress. If we can interpret religion in a way that conforms with democracy, both democracy and religion will benefit.”

Yet in 2005, Iran experienced a backlash against Khatami-inspired openness. Current Iranian president Ahhmadinejad’s electoral victory represented a return to conservatism and resurgent Iranian nationalism. Despite threats from the U.S. and its allies, today’s Iran refuses to give up its nuclear ambitions. President Ahhmadinejad, says Wright, is “a throwback to the angry militancy and misadventures of the revolutionary early years” of the U.S. hostage crisis. Iran is also training insurgents in Iraq and elsewhere, and Wright draws on a familiar image of global conflict to illustrate the ratcheting up of tensions:: “Throughout the Middle East, the United States and Iran were by 2007 effectively engaged in a new Cold War. It was a race for supremacy in ideology and influence.”

So, what is the likely future for democracy in the region? Most of the pro-democracy advocates Wright interviews are either now in prison or have spent long stints behind bars for their beliefs. Instead of stable democracies, the region Wright describes is defined by unstable autocracies that increasingly fear radical Islamists and unstable theocracies fearing the “poison” of Western culture and American imperialism.

Without an open forum for political dissent in countries that are effectively police states, Wright sees the power of religion on the rise. The pro-democracy reformers Wright does find must perilously navigate between the Scylla of “well-heeled autocrats who have no intention of ceding control” and the Charybdis of “Islamists who believe they have a mission from God.” Dreams and Shadows may not tell the story that Americans would prefer to hear, but it’s a profoundly realistic and unflinching look at today’s Middle East. We need more of Wright’s open-mindedness and clarity of vision, lest we continue basing public policies on our own dreams and shadows.