Having covered the Middle East my entire adult life, I’m seeing some trends emerging there I’ve never seen before.
From the streets of Beirut to streets all across Iran, Middle Easterners are demanding to be treated as citizens with rights, and not just members of a sect or tribe. And they’re clamoring for noncorrupt institutions and the rule of law, not just the rule of militias or autocrats.
Right when Middle Easterners are demanding to be treated as citizens, Americans are devolving into Sunnis and Shiites or, as we call them, Democrats and Republicans, with the same tribal mentality: rule or die.
The GOP has elevated the same kind of autocrat that Middle Easterners are trying to get rid of. He shirks the rule of law, surrounds himself with sycophants and denounces our diplomats and military officers for trying to shackle him with our checks and balances. We’re becoming them right when they want to become us – or what used to be us.
The other trend I’m seeing is the contrast between what Middle East politics has long been about in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen and what average people in these countries now seek.
For years, Sunni and Shiite party bosses and militia leaders have manipulated sectarian and tribal identities to cement themselves in power and make themselves the brokers for jobs and contracts. But there’s been a stunning shift: It’s gone from Sunnis versus Shiites across the board to Sunnis and Shiites at the bottom locking arms together against all their leaders at the top.
Here’s Christine McCaffray van den Toorn, writing on Al-Monitor.com describing the scene in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the center of the demonstrations there for a civil state in Iraq:
“Protesters are seizing their country, which was wrenched from them by a corrupt government. ... Communities intermingle; different sectors of society stand side by side. ... Iraqi flags are everywhere. Women are highly visible. There is a clear rejection of sectarianism.”
Elsewhere, she adds, Iraqi resourcefulness is emerging from the bottom: “Startups, including Iraq’s version of Amazon, a grocery-delivery service, coworking spaces and culture cafes, have grown by being outside the purview of the government.”
And here’s a young Lebanese lawyer friend describing to me what’s been happening in Beirut:
“This is Lebanon’s ‘We the People’ moment. The demonstrations are massive, across all regions, across all sects, and against all political parties (no exceptions). They are also overwhelmingly spontaneous, and the protesters are opposed to the entirety of Lebanon’s sectarian political establishment, which gives the protests credibility in the eyes of the population.”
These movements are inspiring, but their chances of taking power remain remote, largely because their biggest opponent – the Islamic Republic of Iran – is ready to arrest and kill as many democracy demonstrators as needed to retain its grip on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, not to mention at home. Iran’s clerical regime has emerged as arguably the biggest enemy of pluralistic democracy in the region today. There are plenty of Arab dictators keeping their own people down, but Iran is doing it at home and in three other countries at once.
Iran has used its Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Syria and its Popular Mobilization Forces militia in Iraq to try to snuff out all their bottom-up secular democratic movements – while also crushing the biggest secular-democracy uprising in Iran itself in 40 years.
The Iranian ayatollahs even had to shut down their own internet to prevent the domestic rebellion from spreading. Ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002, Iran has never wanted to see a stable, multisectarian, secular democracy emerge in Baghdad, because then Iranian Shiites would be asking why Iraqi Shiites get to live freely and they don’t.
If President Donald Trump really wanted to use Twitter for impact, he’d be tweeting every morning at the supreme leader of Iran: “Hey, Supreme Leader of Iran, which nonsectarian Arab-Muslim democracy movement did you crush today? It’s Monday, so it must be Lebanon. It’s Tuesday, so Syria. It’s Wednesday, Iraq. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it must be your own people.”
There is no good time for a country like Iran to be suppressing popular movements for pluralistic democracy, but this is a uniquely bad time. We are in an age of acceleration. Technology, globalization and climate change are all accelerating at the same time. The Middle East has got to get its act together if it has any hope of thriving in the 21st century.
If these countries are not able to find a way to break the hold of sectarian misgovernance and find their way to political pluralism, religious pluralism, gender pluralism and education pluralism, their people stand no chance in the 21st century, especially once Mother Nature starts to really hammer them. The entire region could become one giant human development disaster area, with everyone trying to get to Europe.
America, for its part, has to keep looking for ways to collaborate with them on that pluralism project, to the extent that they want our help, with creative diplomacy, and not just wash our hands of the region.
But the bad guys at the top won’t go easily, quietly or bloodlessly. And since no outside power will be riding to the rescue, it will take sustained, organized, bottom-up mass movements – in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran in particular – to enable the future to bury the past and topple all those at the top who want to use the past to bury the future.
I’m rooting for their success.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.