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Middle East changes may defy history

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
An anti-government protester celebrates in Cairo's Tahrir square on the day after Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
An anti-government protester celebrates in Cairo's Tahrir square on the day after Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
  • Since 9/11, American officials have focused on fundamentalist threats in Middle East
  • Julian Zelizer says there's a danger of viewing democratic reform through outdated lens
  • He says in 1979, Iranian revolution was underestimated, seen in Cold War terms
  • Zelizer: Don't dismiss the potential for transformation in the Middle East

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Even the most hardened realist couldn't help but shed a tear when the news broke that pro-democracy protesters succeeded in ousting the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

For the moment, a peaceful revolution has shaken the status quo in the Middle East. A corrupt government has been brought down by citizens, united by social media, who refused to be intimidated by violence and who insisted on the right to participate in their own political future.

Some skeptics have warned that fundamentalism, not democracy, comes next. They fear that Islamic militants will control the new regime, producing something even worse for Egyptians, and the world. The example they point to is the Iranian revolution in 1979.

To be sure, we don't know what comes next. The dangers posed by certain organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are potentially serious, as is the possibility of permanent military rule.

But policymakers should not be blinded by pre-existing assumptions about international relations. For over a decade, American policymakers have been focused on the threat posed by terrorist organizations that are tied to Islamic fundamentalism.

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Yet it is important to be careful in how we approach the changes in the Middle East. After all, another lesson of the 1970s is that sometimes U.S. officials are so driven by a certain set of foreign policy ideas that they miss fundamental changes that are occurring in a region.

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On November 4, 1979, students and workers stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage. Although Americans had seen a series of major terrorist incidents in the 1970s, none had hit so close to home and none demanded attention like the hostage crisis. The television networks devoted unprecedented attention to it. ABC launched "The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage," a show every weeknight after the local news devoted exclusively to the crisis and which later became "Nightline."

The Iranian situation was one of two crises that confronted the United States that year. Another unfolded on December 27, 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Soviets had close ties to the Marxist government of Afghanistan, but Islamic fundamentalists had allied with various tribal leaders to fight against the government. The rebellion caused tremendous difficulty for the Soviets, who invaded to re-establish control in this troublesome country on its border.

As the historian David Farber explained in his book, "Taken Hostage," the Carter administration could only see the Iranian crisis through the lens of the Cold War.

In Iran, the United States was thrown off guard by the nature of the regime that replaced the Shah. American policymakers kept expecting the Iranian people to come to the side of the United States because of fear about the Soviet Union. They were confident that the Iranians would not be willing to support someone like Ayatollah Khomeini for very long; in fact the Islamic regime founded by Khomeini is still in control of Iran.

In Afghanistan, the United States viewed the resistance to the Soviet invasion as purely nationalistic, rather than seeing it as at least partly a fundamentalist-driven movement.

President Jimmy Carter was not the only one who misinterpreted this crisis by viewing it in the framework of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan revealed the same limitation of vision when he proclaimed, "Let's not delude ourselves, the Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on." Indeed, when Reagan was president, the United States provided arms and military training to rebels in Afghanistan who would later become central to providing a base and support to al Qaeda.

At the same time, many foreign policy experts doubted that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed in 1979, would last. Most people were so familiar with the wars that dominated this region that they could not imagine the Israelis and an Arab country could peacefully coexist. They greeted the moment when President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the treaties with suspicion rather than joy.

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Many Arab countries opposed the deal. Damascus radio called it a "traitor's treaty." Edward Sanders, Carter's liaison with Jewish organizations in the United States, told the president the community "recognizes the historic significance of the peace treaty and is appreciative of your personal contribution. However, support for the administration is tentative and wary." More than 30 years later, the treaty remains in place.

One of the dangers today is that policymakers will be so blinded by the challenge of the post-9/11 world that they miss the undercurrent of democratic reform that seems to be taking place in the Middle East. It could be that both Democrats and Republicans have been so focused on the dangers of militant fundamentalism, and so eager to avoid the mistakes of 1979, that they have overlooked positive trends in the region.

Many of the Egyptians on the ground have noted the importance of the internet and social network sites in allowing younger Egyptians to send videos and information -- counteracting the tightly controlled media of the Egyptian government and matching the tight organization of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The internet has offered a forum for spreading ideas other than the information promoted by the Egyptian government and other than the precepts of fundamentalism. As Yale Professor Stephen Carter wrote in "The Daily Beast," in an article crediting President George W. Bush for insisting on the appeal of democracy throughout the globe: "The map of Northern Africa and the Middle East is changing. You can easily trace the curve of freedom as the surge moves eastward."

A recent telephone survey conducted by Pechter Middle East Polls found that the Muslim Brotherhood was trusted by just 12% to 15% of those interviewed. Only 12% picked the achievement of Sharia law as a priority over national power, democracy and development.

None of this is proof that democracy is on the way in Egypt. We will have to see what unfolds over the next year. The dangers are great. But it is crucial that U.S. policymakers are not so focused on the threat of militant fundamentalism -- just as policymakers in 1979 were totally focused on threats from the Cold War -- that they miss the potential for a transformation in one of the most vital and perplexing regions of the world.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.

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