Jon Alterman has a really interesting piece in the FT arguing that democratic reform in the Arab world will be meaningless without the strengthening of centrist forces. I'm going to reprint a big chunk of it since it's hidden behind the FT subscriber wall:
What is important is that every Arab government genuinely believes it is locked in an existential struggle with a religiously inspired radical movement within its borders. Consequently, governments use the radicalism of the religious few to delegitimise religious political opposition as part of a radical fringe. Simultaneously, these governments seek to co-opt what they consider to be moderate religious forces, giving themselves the imprimatur of religious legitimacy and pushing their opponents farther to the fringe.
On the other side of the ledger, governments use liberals' fear of religious radicals to bring would-be secular opposition activists under their wing, offering them protection in return for loyalty. A few of the most liberal voices seek their protection from western governments or groups, but these rarely bother Middle Eastern governments. Their values are often so out of touch with those of their populations that they are scarcely a political threat.
This tendency of many Middle Eastern governments to polarise their opponents produces a political landscape devoid of real choices. Governments relentlessly monopolise the vast ground between the liberal left and religious right, leaving only the most radical fringes on each side out of their grasp. This phenomenon covers up the true threat to these governments, which comes not from the fringes on either side but from the middle ground they so relentlessly dominate. The governments can rest confident that their citizens will not flock to follow the ideals either of a radical Islamist such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda kingpin, or an urbane former World Bank official such as Ismail Serageldin. The danger, instead, lurks in the possibility that a moderate figure might emerge who could articulate a broadly palatable alternative to the status quo.
Some observers of the Arab world overestimate the importance of evident discontent. Arab television talk shows are full of lively debates, and recent novels such as The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswani contain scathing indictments of the status quo. Change must be on the way, they judge. But change toward what? Arab talk shows are often about extremes of opinion, not broad centrist views, and the political opposition figures who appear are frequently almost cartoon-like in their hatred for the current regime in their country. Books and films that talk of discontent are careful not to talk of alternatives. Governments allow them as opportunities for their citizens to vent their frustration. Calls to action are viciously suppressed.
The implication of all this is that the growing chorus of westerners who seek greater democratisation in the Arab world have their strategy wrong. Lavishing resources on supporting fringe liberal voices in their struggle against conservative radicals perpetuates the polarisation of Arab politics and the monopolising role that governments play mediating between those extremes. It has the effect of strengthening the governments' central role, because it underlines the fundamental "foreignness" of liberal ideals.
I think this is all very incisive, thoughtful, and challenging. I don't agree with all of it, but it's the kind of argument that is very much worth engaging with. If I had time, I would do so, but I don't.
I do just want to throw one objection out, one which Alterman has heard from me before: I think that he's mischaracterizing the Arab talk shows a bit, by relying on what I have taken to calling a "Faisal al Qassem-Centric Worldview." Qassem's show does indeed emphasize polarization and disappear the middle, and that's a problem - which Alterman articulates as well as anyone I've yet seen. But Qassem's show is only one type, and it isn't the only type. There are a lot of popular and important Arab talk shows which don't do this kind of sensationalist, provocation-oriented, polarizing thing. Ghassan bin Jidu's show on al Jazeera, for example, usually brings in thoughtful guests, and his style is pretty non-sensational. Many shows on other networks, from al Arabiya to Abu Dhabi TV to LBC and beyond, feature more sedate and consensus-seeking debates. It's true that Qassem's show remains the most popular, which may say something about what audiences want to see... but the other shows matter too.
Perhaps more later. Good piece.