Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 June - 4 July 2012
Issue No. 1104
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'There is a need for a Middle Eastern Ataturk'

US statesman and national security advisor to the Carter administrator Zbigniew K. Brzezinski explains his views on Egypt's political transition

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Zbigniew K. Brzezinski

In your opinion how could the results of presidential elections change the Middle East?

I think it depends a great deal not only on the character of the regime, but it also depends on the degree of internal stability within Egypt as a whole. The absence of "systemic stability" -- that is to say the absence of an "accepted constitutional order" -- is likely to produce a considerable degree of uncertainty not only about Egypt's external orientation, but about its own internal condition as well.

Some analysts say that Egypt is heading towards the Turkish model of 1994-2002, of a military controlled democracy led by Islamists. As an expert on the rise of the Islamists in the East since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, what is your vision for the future?

I think it is important to appreciate the unique role that Ataturk played in the events which transpired -- more specifically the ones you mentioned, some 60-70 years later. Ataturk set Turkey, very deliberately, on a course of political and social modernisation, designed to create, in Turkey, a modern European-type state, even if not European itself, in which religion would be practised by the citizens as they individually feel appropriate, but in which religion would not be a dominant "political" force. The military became, then, the enforcers and guarantors of that truly ambitious programme of modernisation, and eventually not only "secularisation" but also of "democratisation". So far, the Egyptian military has not given evidence of having a clearly thought through, ambitious and determined programme. They give the impression, so far, of being more concerned with immediate political stability, which they define as involving, ultimately, military control, and less with a grand concept of political and social and even cultural change. This is why the Turkish model is so admirable, but also much more difficult to emulate.

"It is a reconfiguration, but it may not be quite what people here expect. I'm not all that confident the net result is going to be the surfacing and then the flowering of this series of democratic states. I draw a very clear distinction between populism and democracy." You said this during the 18 days of the uprising against the Mubarak regime. Do you still hold the same conviction?

Absolutely, I have been saying that now for almost a year. I believe that the Western press dramatised and glorified the upheaval in very simplistic terminology, combining populism with democracy. Populism is an aspect of democracy, but it is not itself, in every case, the point of departure for creating a democracy. Populism can be very intolerant. It can also be violent. It can be extremist in its views. Populism, in order to become democracy, requires "enlightened leadership" and at the same time some shared notions of what a democracy really involves and what a real constitutional order is like. I fear, and I have said this repeatedly, that the Arab Spring may well be followed by the Arab Winter.

If we see an unfinished revolution, and the struggle continues between the military establishment, the civic forces and Islamists in a pivotal country like Egypt, how far could such a situation affect US interests in the Middle East?

It will affect the US interests in the sense that it will contribute to increased unrest in the Middle East, and continued unrest in the Middle East is likely to create increasingly less propitious circumstances for a constructive American role in the Middle East. There is no doubt that American influence is declining, but before anyone begins to applaud the emerging decline of America's presence in the Middle East, they better ask themselves what are the likely wider consequences of such decline. The probability could become quite high that the region will become increasingly volatile, turbulent, and violent.

If the region continues to be more volatile, is there a possibility of an Iran-type post-revolutionary scenario?

I would not exclude it.

In what way?

Well, I would not exclude it. I do not know in what way. I am not a prophet.

From a strategic point of view, what is the Arab world's place in the current American grand strategy and to what extent can US policymakers deal with new democratic governments, or semi-democracies, in North Africa while at the same time staying close to the Gulf monarchies?

Well it's even more complicated than that. America obviously has an automatic national sympathy for political systems that are democratic. America also has had, for a number of years, a mutually beneficial socio-economic, as well as security, relationship with the more conservative monarchical regimes because that was especially relevant to access to energy from the Middle East. And third, America has had a close socio-political relationship with Israel. The problem is that these three interests are not always compatible and are sometimes even in direct conflict with one another.

What lies ahead in the Arab Middle East regarding the way the monarchial regimes should deal with an Egyptian president from the Muslim Brotherhood?

It depends on the intelligence of these regimes. So far, both the Saudis and the Jordanians have been prudent, but at the same time there is growing evidence that the pace of change and the increasing politicisation of the masses are going to make the existing status quo increasingly vulnerable.

Since US interests are at stake. Could these interests be compromised by a president from within the ranks of the Islamists?

I do not think that one has to assume, necessarily, an automatic necessity of conflict between America and a "Chief Executive" from a religiously-oriented party. Islam is a very wide-ranging reality, with various degrees of moderation and accommodation, but also extremism and fanaticism. So, I would not make any generalisation along those lines. Moreover, one has to bear in mind that Egypt itself is a country with an enormously impressive history, with a sense of its own identity, and with a realisation of the importance of its role in the region. All of that, I think, has to be factored into any predictions regarding the orientation of an Islamist-Egyptian regime -- if there is one.

What should the Islamists' priorities be in the short-term?

Well I think there obviously are a lot of differences, let's say, between the international posture of Iran and the international posture of Morocco, or lately Tunisia. And, for more general reasons, there is something that you and I have discussed already, namely the impressive Turkish example. There is a need for a Middle Eastern Ataturk.

What is your expectation for the peace process?

I still feel, as I have felt for more than 30 years, that peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians requires intelligent external assistance, particularly from the democratic countries, led by the United States. Without such external assistance, as I have said many times and so this is a quotation from myself, the Israelis are too strong and the Palestinians are too weak for either one of them to make the necessary concessions.

Finally, Egyptian-Israeli relations are passing through a tough conjuncture. If you had one piece of advice for both countries, what would you say?

That depends a great deal not only on what happens in Egypt, which we have already discussed, but also a great deal on how the Israelis conduct themselves in their relationships with Egypt, and also with the Palestinians and the Jordanians. The relationship should be based on the recognition of mutual interest, and also on mutual respect for each other's sensitivities. The Egyptians, obviously, have sensitivities which go beyond purely Egyptian borders.

Interview by Ezzat Ibrahim

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