A few days after the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in early 2011, I published in TAC a somewhat bearish analysis of the prospects for liberal democracy in the Arab world with the headline, “Don’t Party Like It’s 1989“.
In particular, I dismissed the popular western narrative that attempted to draw a historical analogy between the Arab Spring and the collapse of Communism and rise of elected governments committed to political and economic freedom in Poland, Hungary, and the former Czechoslovakia.
I applied a different historical analogy. The 1848 revolts led by liberal movements in Europe had produced a political backlash from conservative forces and ignited a wave of nationalism. My point was that we should be ready for a long period of political upheaval that may not necessarily end with a clear victory for the “good guys” in the emerging narrative. This was a work in progress.
At a time when the major media celebrated the fall of Mubarak as a “revolution,” this sense of skepticism was rejected both by neoconservatives on the right, who argued that pro-democracy protests in Egypt and elsewhere represented a triumph of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, and by liberal democracy promoters on the left, who explained that the problem with Bush’s strategy was its reliance on American military power. The left assumed that the end of military regimes in the Middle East would be followed by similar challenges to authoritarian monarchies in the region, and demands for free elections, individual liberty, free press, religious freedom, women’s rights, free markets, international peace, and, well, you name it.
That many young students and professionals who text, use Skype, and have Facebook accounts were among the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and in fluent and idiomatic English expressed what sounded like liberal principles on CNN and Al Jazeera, only raised the expectations among members of the elite in the West that these were the intellectual and political descendants of Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. Spring was indeed in the air, and anyone who doubted it was out of step with the reigning Come-the-Revolution Zeitgeist.
But two years after the Arab Spring began with the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, it seems that the Zeitgeist has changed dramatically. In November, TheThis Is Not a Revolution“. Not to mention the numerous op-ed, magazine commentaries, and books that have played around ad nauseam with the notion that the “spring” has turned into “winter.” That’s what happens when you rely on the wrong political weather forecaster.New York Review of Books, an unofficial organ of American liberal intellectuals, ran a cover story with the headline, “
If anything, I am coming to the conclusion that my initial interpretation was a bit too bullish, as it equated the protesters in Cairo, Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli, and Amman with the demonstrators in the streets of Vienna, Paris, Milan, Prague, and Munich in 1848. But while the young students and professionals who revolted in the streets of Europe in 1848 were driven by Enlightenment ideals and a broadly liberal agenda, much of the forces that are driving change in the Arab world are reactionary, if not medieval and atavistic. That is, not idealistic but power-hungry and authoritarian.
In fact, as much as liberals in the West have been critical of autocrats like Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, it should be noted that the dictators resisted the Islamist push to restrict the rights of women and religious minorities and were responsible for the liberalization of socialist economies, opening their countries to foreign investment.
The Islamist parties that replace them have extended the influence of religion in these two countries while posing a risk to secular women and men. And while the Muslim Brotherhood does not subscribe to socialist economic ideas, it does not support free market principles and has no interest in strengthening the spirit of business entrepreneurship or enabling new sources of power that would challenge the leadership of the “revolution.”
Hence, much of what is going on in the Arab world today has nothing to do with the spread of liberal democracy. A political culture grounded in the values of Islam, which are in many cases incompatible with a commitment to individual rights, religious freedom, and women’s rights, cannot be transformed by free elections.
That Turkey’s political Islamist movement led to a relatively successful democratic system and free markets should not delude us into thinking that there is some sort of a Turkish model that can be applied to Egypt or other Arab countries. What evolved for close to a century in the unique historical and cultural setting of Turkey cannot necessarily be replicated in other Islamic societies with different civilizational characteristics, in the same way that the American model is not necessarily relevant to Mexico simply because the two countries have Christian majorities.
Similarly, there is no reason to believe that these Arab countries will embrace the theocratic Iranian model grounded in the more Shiite tradition. The rise of political Islam in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere is certainly not good news to those who have fantasized about the region engaging in the process of globalization, like authoritarian China, for example.
With Christian communities in the Arab world now feeling besieged, and tens of thousands of their members fleeing to the West, these societies are being deprived of their most Westernized communities. As a consequence, they are regressing in terms of social-economic development (in the same way that the expulsion of Jews from European countries signified the beginning of that region’s decline).
Another almost inevitable consequence of the Middle East’s political transformation is the continuing decline of U.S. influence in the region as a result of the fall of the pro-American regimes and the emergence of new regional centers of power in Ankara, Tehran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. These new strong houses have an interest in preventing the disintegration of multiethnic states like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya, and in maintaing some measure of stability in the Middle East without heavy American involvement.
Even if the United States were not constrained by diminishing economic and military power, it has become more difficult for its policymakers to define what exactly are U.S. interests as the national, ethnic, and religious interests of the regional players are constantly shifting and lack any coherent ideological agenda.
Hence those who call on Washington to “do something” to help the rebels in Syria have yet to explain why it is in U.S. interests to do so. The rebels are supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf while the Assad regime is assisted by Iran and Hezbollah. But the collapse of the secular regime in Damascus will likely bring into power an Islamist Sunni government, igniting a war between Sunnis and Shiites that would draw the U.S. even deeper into the conflict there.
So in a way, at a time when the American economy is becoming less dependent on energy resources in the Middle East, Washington should allow the current upheaval in the Middle East to run its course and encourage the leading regional players to secure the balance of power in the region. Spring or winter, the U.S. can do very little at this point to determine the political weather in the region.