The Bush Administration’s policies in the Middle East were originally sold as a means of encouraging democracy. What they’re actually doing is fostering a growing pan-Islamicism
The Bush administration calls it the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a frighteningly deceptive misnomer for a policy that does little to foster real partnership, substantially more to alienate. More accurately, Bush’s reform-minded efforts would be titled the Middle East Pan-Islamic Initiative. That is exactly what MEPI, bolstered by a heavy dose of foreign aid assistance from U.S. Congress, is doing: fostering a pan-Islamic movement throughout the Middle East.
Administered by the U.S. State Department, MEPI has long understood, and rightly so, that “People in the broader Middle East seek greater freedom and opportunity, and a growing community of reformers in the region has emerged with new energy and ideas to make these aspirations a reality. Nothing could be closer to the truth. Reform efforts are undeniably mushrooming and new energy is bursting at the seams. It is called pan-Islamicism.
Having long ago spoiled the idea of successful secular Arab nationalism, U.S.-backed governments in the Middle East are now oft-perceived as puppet regimes for the West, forcing disillusioned populaces to rally under an alternate political umbrella, most recently a religious one. For many, it is the only political framework left with any remnants of integrity. Iran’s religious revolution in the late 1970s is a perfect example of this trend. Now, nearly 30 years later, a similar ideological shift is happening in Egypt.
Egyptians are growing restless, deeply distrustful of President Mubarak’s pandering to Western donors. The U.S. pays heavily for Egypt’s compliance. Despite his public attempts to scold Israel and defer attacks on Iran, Mubarak has remained surprisingly quiet about Israel’s occupied territories and IDF incursions throughout the Middle East.
The sum total of U.S. funding to Egypt, a breathtakingly impressive figure that annually nears $2 billion (most of which is military aid) and is second only to Israel in U.S. foreign aid assistance doesn’t seem to matter. Egyptians are telling America that money can’t buy their love. Furthermore, they are taking the protest to the streets by boycotting American corporations. The American response, in an attempt to justify U.S.-Egypt relations, boasts Egypt’s democracy-building as resulting from U.S. funds. MEPI’s site, for example, propagandizes success stories detailing Egypt’s multi-party elections, women activists, empowered youth and micro-credit opportunities. To Egypt’s populace, however, this is a fallacy. Mubarak’s regime continues to be domestically repressive and regionally acquiescent. Public faith in this secular government is gone. What lies in the vacuum of disillusionment are political Islamic parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, in whom faith increased significantly in Egypt’s 2005 elections.
Consequently, for Egyptians, and for much of the Middle East, the utility of pan-Islamicism is undoubtedly clear. In many minds, pan-Islamicism is the only ideological vehicle capable of liberating, much like Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was liberated, Palestine’s occupied territories, Syrian’s occupied Golan Heights, or Lebanon’s occupied Shebaa Farms. In many minds, pan-Islamicism is the only regional force capable of balancing the U.S.-Israel alliance, an alliance made explicitly clear in the recent war in Lebanon. In many minds, pan-Islamicism is the only available counterweight to ward off the Bush Administration’s grand plan for the Middle East, one that will inevitably secure further U.S. protection over oil-producing states. People in the broader Middle East want to end the tyranny of U.S.-backed governments and pan-Islamicism is perceived as the tool for the job.
The surprising irony is that the Bush Administration is quite pleased with this burgeoning revolutionary pan-Islamic movement. Bush thinks that pan-Islamicism can build a pretext that will legitimate statements like one recently made that claimed “Islamic fascism culpable for recent security threats. No doubt there will be more saber-rattling toward Islamic leaderships coming from the Bush camp.
However, if Bush were genuinely interested in fighting so-called Islamic fascism, he would examine the prevailing ideological drivers of Islamic political movements, those of freedom and justice. Freedom and justice is what drove, in 1979, an Islamic political movement in Tehran to overthrow a U.S.-sponsored dictator and to reclaim a government stolen from the people by the U.S. in the 1950s. Freedom and justice is what will also drive, in the coming years, an Islamic political movement in Cairo to overthrow a U.S.-sponsored government which continues to offer acquiescence and complicity in Middle East affairs while filling its coffers with almost $2 billion annually.
Consequently, the underlying intentions of the Bush Administration’s freedom, justice and democracy initiatives, whether through MEPI or foreign aid assistance, must be exposed. Realizing quickly that the Middle East cannot be converted to American standards, Bush is doing his best to polarize and Islamicize in order to establish the pretext for further invasions, knowing full well that American stereotyping of Muslims is at a record high and that American prejudice will support such invasions. Populations on the receiving end of the Bush agenda, therefore, what MEPI describes as those who “seek greater freedom and opportunity who are “reformers in the region that have “emerged with new energy, have the unsolicited task of legitimating, in the eyes of the world, Islamic political movements. Pan-Islamicism, though birthed by legitimate grievances, will not be quickly stomached by the West. The task, accordingly, is difficult but not insurmountable.
Michael Shank is with the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington Virginia. He wrote this analysis for The Daily Star Egypt.