What Do Totalitarians Do When They Gain Power Democratically?
By Barry Rubin
In the last scene of the film “The Candidate,” about a U.S. Senate election, the victorious candidate expresses American cynicism about politics by asking, “What do we do now?” The idea is that politicians just want to get into power but have no idea of how to deal with problems or even a coherent worldview. Soon deadlock will set in and nothing is really going to change. It is the sarcasm fit for an open, non-ideological system where individual ambition prevails. But as long as there’s always another election, we know that things will be all right and life will be tolerable.
Not so in the Arabic-speaking Middle East. These politicians know precisely what they want to do: seize state power (albeit by peaceful means, if possible), fundamentally transform their societies, and hold onto state power forever. And they are capable of changing things a lot.
Naïve Western officials, journalists, and “experts” think that an electoral victory for the Islamists is just fine and dandy. They will obey the rules; be worn down by the necessary compromises of democratic politics; have to focus their effortson collecting garbage, running schools, and fixing roads; and then another election will come along and things will always be all right.
They come close to saying: "Ha, ha, ha! They’re in power? So what can they possibly do with control over the state and all of its resources to change anything significantly? There are democratic rules after all!"
That’s not how it works.
Is this anything new? Consider these quotations from a Middle East leader:
Before taking power: “The foundation of our Islamic government is based on freedom of dialogue and we will fight against any kind of censorship.”
Before taking power: “Personal desire, age and my health do not allow me to personally have a role in running the country after the fall of the current system.”
After taking power: “Those who are trying to bring corruption and destruction to our country in the name of democracy will be oppressed. They are worse than Jews, and they must be hanged.”
Who said these things? Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Back to 2011. The media-expert-journalist complex has missed every element of this year’s big Middle East story until it was painfully obvious and too late to do anything about it:
--Islamists are strong not weak.
--Moderate “Facebook kid” democrats can’t compete with them.
---Islamists are radical not moderate.
Now we are on to the fourth point. When totalitarians take power, by election or other means, they proceed to consolidate power. There are ways to do this other than lining up all of your opponents and shooting them or chopping off their heads. The strategy is to take control of national institutions, transform the national debate, use the amount of repression that’s necessary, and pursue populist policies (both economic and demagogic) to win mass support.
This is what the Turkish model is all about. After several years you get reelected; or, in Iran’s case, steal the election; or, in the case of the Palestinian Authority’s and Hamas, stop holding elections altogether.
Let’s look at some of the details. For two centuries we’ve seen how non-democratic revolutions work. At the moment when the old regime is overthrown, one hundred flowers bloom and one hundred schools of thought contend. It is a moment of euphoria when anything seems possible. Nobody could possibly believe that a repressive society could possibly return. In the words of Wordsworth on the French Revolution,
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/
But to be young was very heaven!”
Nature, however, (that's human nature) abhors a political vacuum. This outburst of freedom is due to the fact that there is no government, no political system, and that whatever authorities exist are letting people blow off steam.
Then comes the new regime. In this case it is a regime led by people who believe to the depths of their being that the master of the universe has ordained precisely what the laws of the land should be, how society is conducted, and that no human mind can formulate proper legislation to the contrary. Of course, they are interpreting the will of the divine being to their own specifications but they don’t know that and won’t believe you if you tell them that.
The question is not what is to be done but how much they can get away with doing at any given moment. Such is “moderate Islamism.”
And hence they begin the short march through the institutions:
--Education. Textbooks to be rewritten; the principle that Islam is the only proper religion to be made as central as possible; all teaching of Islam according to their interpretation. Christians and Jews are evil; non-Muslims are enemies; Israel is demonic and must be destroyed. Teachers and administrators who reject their program of indoctrination to be fired; opportunists and careerists will go along.
--Government bureaucracies. The hiring of as many ideological supporters as possible; those who go along will be promoted; those who don’t will be fired or pushed aside. Requirements to be altered so that religious educational certificates will be made equal to academic education degrees in qualifying for high posts. If your wife doesn't wear a hijab forget about being promoted.
--Media. Government control over state-run media will be renewed and strengthened. Licenses, censorship, subsidies, the whole panoply of government powers will be applied to reward flatterers and punish critics. If necessary, riots will be organized, threats made, fines imposed on those who don’t toe the line, though some margin of freedom will be permitted as long as it threatens nothing.
--Constitution. A new constitution will be written by a commission dominated by Islamists. In some cases they will do what they want—Sharia as the “main source” or “the source” of law—while in others they will hold back and be patient—promises that everyone will have equal rights. The new constitution, however, will provide the basis for Islamizing Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, etc.
--Religion. The ministry of religion will be under Brotherhood control. That means it can decide which mosques can be built or not built; who gets hired as imam in each mosque; what the sermons say; which preachers get on state television and radio, etc. Normative Islam will be Muslim Brotherhood Islam. The existing gap may not be wide but it is significant nonetheless. Eventually, the Brotherhood will get in control of naming the mufti of Egypt and the head of al-Azhar University. There will be only one interpretation of Islam and it will prevail through the country and shape the minds and behavior of Egyptians.
--Courts. There are some courageous judges but the Brotherhood will tame the courts by the power to control who becomes a judge, shaping the law, intimidation, and just not enforcing any decision they don't like.
--Army. The Brotherhood will be patient. The deal just struck between the Brothers and the soldiers might be the precedent for arrangements under the new regime. The Islamists leave the army alone to control its budget and run its business enterprises; the army does not interfere with the Brotherhood’s governing of the country. Remember that while the now-broken Turkish army consciously saw itself as secularist, the Egyptian army holds no such doctrine. Many of the officers are quite pious.
The issue here, then, is not one of doctrine or of power—the army does not want political power—but related to the officers’ economic self-interest. Consequently, the Egyptian army can accept an Islamist regime far easier than observers think.
The other potential point of collision is if the regime wants to do something that the army deems to be creating a mess in which it would suffer. That would include a war with Israel that the army would have to fight (and lose) or actions that would alienate the United States to the point that it cut off aid.
I’m not joking when I say that literally nothing the Egyptian regime would do short of a shooting war with Israel would persuade the Obama Administration to cut off aid. There are a number of ways the regime could find to avoid pushing the army to the point of rebellion. And of course the Islamists would be working steadily to infiltrate the army, propagandize the soldiers, and work with opportunist officers who want to promote their career.
--The Presidency: This is the other remaining potential roadblock to an Islamist Egypt. If presidential elections are held, as now currently scheduled, in June 2012 who will win? The only person who can possibly beat the Islamist candidate is the 75-year-old Amr Musa.
A demagogic radical nationalist, Musa is also somewhat tempered by his diplomatic experience and some pragmatic impulses. Yet the liberal reformers won’t support him and will divide the vote to the point where the Brotherhood candidate will probably win.
Folks, it doesn’t look good for Egypt. So when you read articles minimizing the threat if the “moderate Islamist” Muslim Brotherhood takes over, ask them if they can refute the above article. Note, too,that the kind of slow, behind-the-scenes takeover and transformation I discuss above is not the stuff of headlines. The mass media haven't even gotten around to reporting and the Western leaders and "experts" haven't properly analyzed these things in Turkey. Only when the process is far advanced are they likely to notice.