Rubin Reports

The Wild Card in Arab "Democratic" Politics: Extra-Parliamentary Violence

Consider just a small part of what’s gone on in Tunisia, a relatively moderate country where the radical Islamists “only” got 40 percent of the vote and were forced to lead the country from within a coalition with moderate, secular parties.

Hundreds of Salafis rioted in several cities and set fire to police stations as well as the offices of non-Islamist parties and secular-led trade unions. A truck carrying alcoholic drinks was set ablaze, too, as were shops selling electronic goods, providing access to “immoral” entertainment.  Salafis using clubs and stones attacked police who fired in the air to escape. Shooting at the demonstrators would recall memories of the old regime and lead to even worse rioting. An art gallery whose exhibition was labelled immoral was hit with firebombs, almost killing staff members.  Eighty-six rioters were arrested; at least one man died.

But this is only the start.

Do not take this kind of thing in isolation, for it is the harbinger of a new era. In Egypt, Tunisia, and other places where the hand of dictatorship is weakened or removed, political violence–and its more self-interested sibling, crime–is going to flourish.

On one hand, the Salafis, joined at times by Muslim Brothers, are going to burn and attack churches and strike at Christians; destroy old non-Muslim cemeteries; attack symbols of modern culture; close down aspects of secular education including university courses; harass and beat women wearing “non-Islamic” clothing; kill or injure secularists and stop them from meeting or speaking; go after Western tourists; and a whole long list of other such activities. One item on this list could well be attacks on American citizens or installations.

On the other hand, Muslim Brotherhood officials, the armed forces, and the police will only interfere if absolutely necessary to protect government property or to keep anarchy from going too far. In other words, they will not protect women seeking rights (as we saw when Salafists broke up a Cairo demonstration against the harassment of women recently), Christians, and secularists. When Salafists strike out at Christians in Egypt, the authorities are more likely to arrest and punish the intended victims.

Why is this? Because the Salafists have the same basic beliefs and goals as the Muslim Brotherhood and to stop, arrest, and punish the most extreme would be unpopular and divisive. As for the police and military, they want out of politics as much as possible for a lot of reasons. One is that they know they are vulnerable to being accused of crimes during the previous dictatorship; another is that the leadership doesn’t want to give the Brotherhood regimes an incentive to replace them. And also even in these institutions there are many officers who sympathize with the Islamists.

Imagine, for instance, that you are an Egyptian army officer in the Sinai. If you see Hamas or Salafist terrorists stockpiling weapons, smuggling arms into the Gaza Strip, or even–though this is a tougher decision–planning to attack across the border. What do you say? Most likely, either:

“How much of a bribe are you offering?”;

“Good luck, brother!”;

or both.

Of course, this lawlessness also serves the Brotherhood because it weakens their rivals at home and their enemies abroad. It helps them achieve a Sharia state. And it costs them little or nothing especially since they can deny any responsibility for the violence.

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood leaders can claim that these are the deeds of the radical Salafists–against whom they are protecting society–and take bows as moderates who love electoral democracy.