FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Obama reaps whirlwind in the Middle East
, March 5, 2011
For years, American policy in the Middle East has pursued two contradictory objectives: maintaining in power authoritarian pro-American governments to counter Islamist extremism, and espousing the rhetoric of democracy.
Barack Obama reinforced this in June 2009 in his famous Cairo speech in which he sought a new relationship with the Islamic world. The US regarded the speech as of such importance that the White House had it translated into 14 languages.
President Obama said, in part, "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles - principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."
He added that no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other, but that America was committed to advancing governments that reflect the democratic will of the people. He committed the US to support human rights everywhere: the ability of people to speak their mind and to have a say in how they are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; and the freedom to live as people choose.
Apart from the divisions between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims - divisions which have ripped apart Lebanon, Iraq and Pakistan - almost every nation in the Middle East is run by an authoritarian government.
In order to protect global oil supplies, the vital Suez Canal link and Israel, and to counter Islamic extremism, the United States has allied itself with a number of states which have eschewed elections and democracy.
Among these are Bahrain, currently a centre of political protests, Kuwait (which America liberated in the first Gulf War), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
In the current turmoil in the Middle East, the two objectives of democracy and human rights have collided, with consequences which could undermine America's position in the region where the world's largest oil-producers are located.
The change of government in Egypt is particularly important.
Egypt is the largest nation in the Arab world and has long been one of the centres of influence in the Middle East. Since it gained independence from Britain in the 1950s, Egypt has been a battleground for three groups: the military, politicians committed to a state independent of Islam, and the Islamist forces which have been long suppressed.
The Islamists are centred on the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organisation founded in Egypt in 1928. The Muslim Brotherhood's aim is to establish the Koran as the "sole reference point" for ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community and state. It supports the imposition of Sharia law and has been involved in many attempts to win power in Egypt by force, including the assassination of Egyptian leaders.
It has been banned in Egypt, and many of its leaders were imprisoned. In the last elections, its members stood as independents, and won 20 per cent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament, providing a parliamentary opposition to the now deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
With an extremely effective organisation and the backing of many Islamic religious leaders in a country which is overwhelmingly Muslim, it is well placed to win power in future elections - however much Western liberals may attach themselves to Mohamed elBaradei, the Egyptian former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has not lived in Egypt for about 30 years.
The forthcoming elections in Egypt will have an important bearing on the future of the Middle East, and on future relations between Egypt and Israel, which share a common border.
The Muslim Brotherhood has branches throughout the Middle East, including in Bahrain, Syria, Kuwait, Libya and Saudi Arabia.
Religious divisions between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims are behind the current conflicts in Bahrain and Yemen, where Sunnis rule Shia majorities. But elsewhere in the Middle East, authoritarian regimes are under pressure as a result of their corruption, economic and political failures, and lack of transparency.
The outcome of the civil unrest in different countries is impossible to predict. But to the extent that authoritarian pro-Western governments are replaced by Islamist regimes, the Western position in the Middle East will be eroded, and massive uncertainty could emerge in relation to the provision of oil.
With global demand for oil growing rapidly, and the fine balance between demand and supply constantly threatened by interruptions to supply, any such development will make alternative sources of oil and gas even more important.
As a supplier of coal and natural gas, Australia is becoming increasingly important in securing world energy supplies.