With political unrest spreading across the Middle East, the only thing certain is that things will not be the same.
To help provide some insight into the situation, the Kokomo Perspective sat down with Michael Harris, chancellor at Indiana University Kokomo, professor of Public Policy, and a former major in intelligence with the Israeli Defense Forces.
Harris discussed what’s behind the situation, and what America’s role should be.
Kokomo Perspective: A lot of people are confused about what is driving this movement. There has been some concern that it is being driven by radical Islamists and different religious movements. Can you provide us with some insight into what is driving this movement?
Harris: I don’t think the unrest has really been analyzed accurately and appropriately. I believe that the root causes of the unrest are economic conditions. Three fundamental problems that all of those regimes share are:
1. High unemployment and increased cost of food.
2. Poverty and the lack of meaningful jobs and career opportunities for those who go to college.
3. A serious wealth distribution between those that have and those that don’t have.
Combine those factors with a reality in which those countries are ruled in a non-democratic and oppressive manner and it is a clear prescription for dissatisfaction and civil unrest. The deep surprise and sense of amazement at the unrest that has spread and why intelligence agencies were caught surprise are mysteries to me.
Unemployment, lack of economic opportunities, increases in the cost of living and a very serious wealth distribution are deep sources for discontent. To that you add non-democratic regimes that rule through force like Hosni Mubarak who has been in power over 30 years, and Qaddafi who has been in power for over 40 years. That leads to unrest, destabilization and calls to challenge the status quo.
Therefore, I conclude that at the heart of the unrest are serious economic problems and challenges. I said it about Egypt a long time ago, and it is pretty much all across the Middle East. All the way from Bahrain to Tunisia, it is very similar. We have people facing serious economic problems and a single ruler who controls all resources and revenues in countries like Yemen, Bahrain, Tunis, Egypt, Lybia. They all have a single ruler who has ruled for so many years. To that you add several elements which are unique to each of those countries and you have a wide unrest with many similarities. In Bahrain, you have a situation where you have a minority of Sunnis who are ruling a majority of Shiites. In Egypt, part of the unrest has been the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been active since the 1920s, etc. Each of those countries has its own unique groups that certainly want to change the status quo for different reasons and gain control for the future. That is the main challenge and danger. Who will end up in the ruling position? Will democracy prevail? Will extreme fundamental elements gain control? One of the most important challenges in all of those countries is the lack of a middle class that would sustain a stable regime. You can’t have anywhere in the world a stable democratic system of governance if you don’t have a middle class.
KP: Creating “the other” has always been a huge catalyst for political change. That socio-economic unrest has also been used by some radical groups to target the United States. They need to direct that unrest somewhere, and now it no longer seems to be working.
MH: That is very true, and it is a pattern that we see over and again. In Libya, Qaddafi is trying to use similar language as did Mubarak. He is blaming outside agents in influencing the unrest and is trying to argue that they are doing so in order to hurt the country. Qaddafi, of course, is using extreme strange arguments in addition to his use of vicious force by his own army and hired hit men against his own people.
The fact of the matter is that those rulers know that the easiest thing to unite people is to try to find some perceived, common, outside danger that everyone needs to unite against; if they don’t unite, they warn that something bad will happen. The problem for them is that, that no longer works. The people in those countries no longer believe those arguments.
The alarming fact is that even when the economies in those countries were growing and revenues were increasing, the wealth was been accumulated by very few. The Egyptian economy has been growing for the past few years. Egypt was even recognized by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for economic growth. The trouble is that there is a strong assumption that when there is economic growth that it is distributed. Egypt is a great example where despite economic growth very few enjoyed all the wealth that economic growth brought about to the country. Libya is also a good example. It supplies 2 percent of the world’s oil. The regime accumulated billions while people were living in terrible poverty. The same can be said for Bahrain.
KP: There has been a lot of fear-mongering labeling this movement as religious and saying they are trying to overthrow Egypt’s “democracy.” Can you discuss why Egypt is simply a “democracy” on paper.
MH: There is no true democracy in any of those countries. In order to have a democratic system, you need institutions and a middle class. There is no democracy in the world that doesn’t have a stable middle class. In order to have a democracy, you have to have the appropriate institutions of a democratic and civic society. It is not all about having elections. We sometimes confuse elections with a democratic system. Elections should be a manifestation of a democracy. It means you need to have a constitution that allows for free elections. You need to have a constitution that describes and prescribes clear institutions of government. You have to have three branches of government that are separated. You have to have checks and balances. It is not for nothing that the framers of our constitution wrote the most brilliant social contract ever written in man’s history. It built the institutions of democracy.
Let’s take Egypt, for example. Egypt had a king until 1952. King Farouk was overthrown by the military. Then they had Nasser, followed by Sadat and then Mubarak took over. All three were generals in the military. People like to say that in Egypt the one respected institution is the military. The one stable institution is the military. However, that is not a democracy. Libya is not a democracy. Even in Jordan, where they have a modern king, it isn’t a democracy.
That is why the Obama administration faces a serious challenge. The challenge is that we believe in the values of democracy, we believe in equality, equity and freedom. We believe in justice, the rule of the law and the value of each life. We support the spread of these values around the world and we also hope for “stability” in the Middle East. Moving from non-democratic regimes toward a democratic system requires a process that brings about uncertainty and instability. There is a deep concern that such a process and a vacuum will allow for a country that is moving in that direction to be hijacked by extremists. That was the case in Iran. When the Shah was overthrown, people thought democracy was maybe going to “break out” in Iran and it was going to be a great democratic society, but it ended up being hijacked by the Mullahs and now it is one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. The clash of values the administration and all of us face is that we hope these countries turn into democratic regimes, but in order to get there you need a sense of stability. Democracies are not mushrooms; they don’t pop up after the rain. Democracies are something you need to build; it’s a process with much opportunity and great risks.
KP: The Obama administration has been criticized for appearing to kind of sit this one out. What should our response be?
MH: We need to build our response based on two fundamental pillars. They are our values and our national security interests.
We do have an interest in stability in the Middle East. We do have an interest in the flow of oil from that part of the world. There is nothing wrong with saying that. We do want to have many more regimes that are friendly toward the United States. We also want to see a spread of our values and the creation of democratic systems. How do we balance all of that? That is the big question. The fact of the matter is that the unrest that we see spread across the Middle East is now, interestingly enough, taking place not only in pro-American countries, like Egypt and Bahrain, but also in Libya and Iran. What are we going to do when an anti-American regime will use force against civilians? We were clear about the end of the regime in Egypt. What do we do when Gadhafi turns against his own people?
We need to stick to our values, but we also need not to forget our national security in the process. You can’t just say you are for social justice and whoever takes over and captures the regime is acceptable to us. That didn’t work for us in Iran. We don’t want to lose the Middle East. I think Egypt is a good example. I think we worked closely with the military there. We were able, through the military, to oust Mubarak. It is not over yet, but we are trying to do all we can to make sure the Muslim Brotherhood does not take over Egypt.
Let’s not rush to elections like we in the Gaza Strip, where there was this rush to elections and the Hamas won. They hijacked the Gaza Strip.
We cannot be naïve. We cannot allow forces that want to take advantage of a process of building a democracy to capture control. That is the biggest danger we face, being naïve.
KP: So our response should be to be engaged in what is happening, but not to have soldiers with boots on the ground?
MH: We should have troops marching only when we have a clear and specific national security goal. When I was asked that question about Egypt several weeks ago, I said that: “The only time we would need to consider troops would be if our national security would be at risk.” That would be if there would be a blockage of transportation through the Suez Canal. Otherwise we should not use U.S. troops. We should be extremely cautious not to use troops.
The unrest in the Middle East could lead to many opportunities for the people of the region and to the world. It has the potential to result in positive changes. It is the risks that we need to watch closely.