RFE/RL, February 13, 2011
It's not difficult to imagine Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri huddling together listening to Arabic-language broadcasts inside some nondescript house in a teeming Pakistani city. Like their enemies in the West, they are probably grappling with one fundamental question: how to manipulate the popular revolt on the "Arab Street"?
In a purported Internet message this week, the Islamic State of Iraq -- the Iraqi franchise of Al-Qaeda -- called on Egyptians to declare a holy war against their current government. "Here is the market of jihad, and all the reasons to facilitate it in your home," the statement said. "The doors of martyrdom have opened."
But almost no one among the hundreds of thousands thronging Cairo's Tahrir Square or marching in Tunis or other major Arab capitals has demanded the imposition of Shari'a law or said they want to depose their authoritarian corrupt regimes as part of their pursuit of a happy afterlife.
The protesters are among the burgeoning young generation who constitute the majority of the Arab world's 350 million people. Spread across 22 countries in Asia and Africa from Iraq to Morocco, they are looking for openness and better governance and economic opportunity.
Those protesters are part of what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the "perfect storm," determined to break the stagnation in their vast, energy-rich strategic region.
Sidelining The Extremists
But their nascent movements could be vulnerable to being hijacked by Al-Qaeda fringe groups who may see a golden opportunity to inflict debilitating blows to the regional interests of their "far enemy." After all, the senseless violence they've been inflicting on Muslims has been partly aimed at prompting armed action against tyrants.
To stop such scenarios from being realized, the West must engage in fresh thinking and work on a long-term future vision for the region instead of merely engaging in endless crisis management.
U.S. President Barak Obama said the right thing in his famous June 2009 speech to the Muslim world before Cairo students: "So let me be clear," he declared. "No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other. You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise.
"You must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party," he added in a message likely to echo in the emerging order in the Arab world. "Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy."
The challenge for his administration and its trans-Atlantic allies will be to translate such pronouncements into workable policies that could help deliver a peaceful and democratic Middle East. Fortunately, the Arab world can now look to a reform model in its neighborhood: Turkey.
Looking To Istanbul
The Arab views of modern Turkey are a far cry from the memories of the Ottoman Empire, whose decline and dissolution led to the formation of most modern Arab states. According to a 2009 survey by the Istanbul-based Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), two-thirds of the population in seven major Arab countries had positive views of Turkey.
While Western commentators and even more secularly minded Turks have skeptical views of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ankara's domestic and foreign policies under its stewardship have been a boon to its own people and the country's regional standing.
Many on the streets in Cairo, Amman, and Sanaa want their future leaders to emulate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been able to reconcile modernity, democracy, Islam, and economic liberalization -- issues most Muslim leaders grapple with today. Most Arabs would love to see their incomes tripled in a decade -- a feat the AKP has pulled off since taking power in 2002.
But the Turkish model can't be emulated in vacuum. The Middle East must learn from Europe, and the trans-Atlantic community needs to send a unified message. A Middle Eastern economic and political bloc would offer an unprecedented peace dividend for the region and the world at large. And regional cooperation would outline a clear reform path for the region's strongmen and monarchs. It would establish a gradual, but clear path of reform for countries suffering from uneven economic and political development.
Regional cooperation and democratization in the Middle East will also lead to progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Popular Arab governments would be better able to revive something similar to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, restrain and control extremists at home, and offer genuine security guarantees to Tel Aviv.
Such a way forward in the Middle East would put Al-Qaeda's vision of an apocalyptic, unending war between civilizations to rest forever.
Abubakar Siddique is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL