Wouldn’t it be ironic, after all this fighting, if Col. Muammar Qaddafi was right all along? The "Brother Leader" – who briefly repaired his relations with the West by handing over intelligence on Al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks – once warned the West that if he was toppled, power would shift to the Islamists.
Well, here we are, and as The New York Times points out, the most respected politician in Libya, Ali Sallabi, is an Islamist. The most powerful military leader, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, is an Islamist. And Tripoli’s Municipal Council is dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Democracy is like that. Given the chance to choose their own leaders, people often do so.
The Times’s Rod Nordland and David D. Kirkpatrick managed to get an interview with Mr. Sallabi, an Islamic scholar who helped whip up the demonstrations that kicked off the rebellion. Sallabi sums up his understanding of democracy like this: “It is the people’s revolution, and all the people are Muslims, Islamists,” but he adds that doesn't mean excluding secularists.
“They have the right to offer their proposals and programs," [Sallabi] said. "and if the Libyan people choose them I have no problem. We believe in democracy and the peaceful exchange of power.”
It would also be ironic if all this democracy-building in the Arab world had something to do with former President George W. Bush. Shadi Hamid – as director research at the left-of-center Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, and by no means a Bush sycophant or a neoconservative – writes a persuasive argument in this month’s Atlantic Monthly that makes this very point.
Mr. Hamid starts off by acknowledging President Bush’s missteps – the mistaken connection between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks, the misguided search for weapons of mass destruction – but then says that Bush’s third reason for sending troops into Iraq, democracy, may have sparked off democratic aspirations across the Middle East.
“Would the Arab spring have happened without September 11? With so many variables at play, it is a difficult counterfactual to entertain. What we do know, though, is that the 2000s, alongside Bush's democracy promotion program, were a breakthrough for democracy in the region. December 12, 2004 saw Egypt's first explicitly anti-Mubarak protest. Soon, protests became a routine sight in the streets of Cairo. The numbers were rarely overwhelming but a precedent, at least, had been set. Across the region, elections, however fraudulent, offered a semblance of competition. There was something to fight for. Whatever its faults, and whatever its intent, the Bush administration had helped inject democracy and democracy promotion into Arab public discourse.”
Democracy is a messy business, of course, as the Monitor’s Robert Marquand writes about the ongoing Denmark elections. These are the first real test of public opinion – and the first test of the power of the far right – since the Norway shootings, so political scientists are watching this election closely.
Some political scientists argue that it’s better to allow those with extreme views to participate in the electoral process, peacefully, than to have them lobbing rocket propelled grenades from the outside. Others point out that Adolf Hitler came to power through an election, and it took a world war to get him out.
And let’s be clear, democracies make mistakes. Here in the United States, a country with a constitution that guarantees the right to religious expression, it appears that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is training its agents to believe that mainstream moderate Muslims in the US are Al Qaeda sympathizers. As Spencer Ackerman – a columnist for Wired Magazine’s “Danger Room,” and also known as @attackerman on Twitter – writes in this week’s Wired, these training programs are not merely repulsive. They may actually be “playing into al-Qaida’s hands.”
“Focusing on the religious behavior of American citizens instead of proven indicators of criminal activity like stockpiling guns or using shady financing makes it more likely that the FBI will miss the real warning signs of terrorism. And depicting Islam as inseparable from political violence is exactly the narrative al-Qaida spins – as is the related idea that America and Islam are necessarily in conflict. That’s why FBI whistleblowers provided Danger Room with these materials.”