Middle East June 2011

Danger: Falling Tyrants

As dictatorships crumble across the Middle East, what happens if Arab democracy means the rise of radical Islamism? Does promoting American values while protecting American interests—most notably, containing Iran and preserving our access to oil—require the Obama administration to call for more democracy in one country while propping up the monarch next door? In a word, yes.

Over the past several months, Obama administration officials have spoken more about the establishment of universal red lines (parties espousing violence, for instance, will meet with Obama’s disapproval), and about aiding all parties in their attempts to master the democratic process, than they have about the ideological dangers posed by the rise of Islamist-oriented parties. “Our interest in these transitions is to ensure that a broad, diverse set of parties are capable of organizing and mounting competent campaigns,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser, told me, adding that the Obama administration does not want anxiety about the rise of Muslim parties to unduly influence its policies. “The president’s view is that we can’t let ourselves be driven by fear of change, particularly because change is coming.” He went on, “This is not fatalism. You have to take a step back and acknowledge that it is a good thing when people are demanding the same rights that we ourselves believe in. Indigenous democratic movements are what the U.S. wants, even if they create short-term challenges and complexities.” Another administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, put it more bluntly: “Do you really think that if we announced ourselves as the enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood that this is going to do anything except help the Muslim Brotherhood?”

En route to Tunis, I had stopped off in Jordan, where I paid a visit to the royal palace. Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman had passed through a few weeks earlier, to see King Abdullah II. Their visit, I quickly learned, was simultaneously a source of bemusement and irritation for the Jordanian government. The two senators, of course, advocate an assertive foreign policy, and both are associated with neoconservative striving for robust and quick democratization of the Middle East. “They came in and said that Jordan should open up its political space for more parties, and be more aggressive about democratization within the parameters of a constitutional monarchy,” a senior Jordanian official told me. “And then they said, ‘But whatever you do, don’t allow the Muslim Brotherhood to gain more power.’ So they want us to be open and closed at the same time.”

King Abdullah is in a tough spot these days. His popularity is lower than at any other point in his 12-year reign, as discontent—mainly generated by allegations of corruption in his government—takes hold. Jordan, like most Middle East countries, has been a mukhabarat, or secret-police, state, but it has always created some space for politics and dissent. The sort of dissent I heard in Jordan on this last trip was unlike anything I had heard before. One Friday morning, I visited Zarqa, a city not far from the capital, Amman. It is a rough, poor place; its most famous son is the arch-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s local political party, was holding a rally after prayers. One of its leaders, Zaki Bani Rsheid, stood on the back of a flatbed truck parked on a narrow street as hundreds of men gathered to listen. All along the rooftops stood men from Jordanian intelligence, the Mukhabarat, ostentatiously filming the proceedings. “It is not your job to protect the corruption of the regime!,” Bani Rsheid said, looking to the roofs. “Remember, what is acceptable today will not be acceptable later! Today we are asking for the reform of the regime. Tomorrow we will be asking you for something else!” A threat like that, made aloud, in the face of the secret police, is a new and fraught development in Jordan. “An organization dedicating itself to gaining power through violence has to be stopped,” McCain told me. He noted that the Muslim Brothers in Jordan have publicly sworn off violence, but he said he doubts their sincerity. “Everybody says that the Muslim Brotherhood is being deceiving in adopting a much more moderate image.” The king, McCain said, had taken his point. “He got it. He’s smart.”

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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