Skim through old editorials that were published in the Soviet Communist Party’s Pravda newspaper during the Cold War and you’ll have a lot of fun, laughing out loud when reading about all those loopy notions that the people in Moscow held about the upheaval taking place in the Middle East at the time. Historians of the Middle East explain that the region was then going through major structural, political and economic changes resulting from, among other things, the collapse of the British and French empires, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the impact of secular Arab nationalism and socialism, the rise of military elites, and various religious, ethnic and tribal conflicts.
But according to the old Pravda and the Soviet officials who published it, things were actually very simple. Whether it was the military coup in Egypt (1952), the periodic unrest in Syria and Iraq in the 1950s, the civil war in Yemen in the 1960s, the Communist narrative of the day saw these and the other crises taking place in the region as the outcome of the grand struggle between the ruling ‘feudal elites’ backed by ‘international capitalism’ and the freedom-loving representatives of ‘the proletariat’.
And it was not surprising, of course, that the Soviets were supposed to be on the side of the courageous members of the working class while the Americans were supporting the corrupt Arab monarchs and sheiks.
One wonders if 50 years from now, when researchers scan through old issues of The Washington Post and analyse its coverage of the current upheaval in the Arab Middle East they are going to chuckle as they try to figure out what those American pundits were smoking when they kept insisting that this year’s military coup in Egypt, the political unrest in Syria and Iraq, and the civil war in Yemen (and in Libya and Bahrain) were all a manifestation of an inexorable drive toward freedom and liberal democracy, including freedom of religion and women’s rights. These events are a replay of sorts of the kind of changes that took place in Eastern Europe in 1989.
In reality, the so-called Arab Spring consists of a mishmash of anti-government demonstrations triggered in most cases by police over-reaction and fuelled by economic hard times (Tunisia and Egypt), ethnic and religious tensions (Syria and Bahrain) and tribal rivalries (Libya and Yemen) as well as by growing public perception that the global hegemon – the United States – that was helping keep ruling regimes in place is losing its power.
So, while no one denies that Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia were ruthless autocrats engaged in human rights violations, the two were also responsible for liberalising their socialist economies and opening their countries to western investment while resisting the Islamist push to restrict the rights of women and religious minorities.
And there is no doubt that even under the best case scenario, the elections scheduled to take place in Egypt and Tunisia are going to strengthen the power of the Islamist parties. This, in turn, is bound to exacerbate tensions between Muslims and Christian-Copts in Egypt and increase the influence of religion in these two countries and pose a risk to secular women and men.
In addition, the economic liberalisation that has taken place in Egypt and Tunisia in recent years is being threatened by demands, supported by some of the new political forces, to increase government control of parts of the economy. They want this done to improve the condition of the economically distressed middle class and poor.
At the same time, the tribal warfare in Yemen and Libya and the sectarian tensions in Syria (between the ruling minority Alawites and the Sunni majority) and in Bahrain (between the ruling minority Sunnis and the Shiite majority) have less to do with promoting the cause of liberal democracy and more with the struggle for power between identity groups, not unlike what is taking place in Iraq (between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds).
The Sunnis in Bahrain (backed by the Saudi theocracy) discriminate against the Shiite majority (supported by the Iranian theocracy) as they maintain what is the freest economy in the region, while the ruling Alawites in Syria are strongly committed to secular principles as they repress the Sunni majority and enjoy close ties to the Iranian theocracy. And so it goes.
In short, what is happening in the Middle East does not fit into the simplistic liberal democratic narrative aka Arab Spring, in the same way that events in the region during the Cold War could not be explained based on the old Communist storyline. And like the case of Moscow at the time, the ability of the US to shape the events in the Middle East is limited. Perhaps the time has come for the people of the region to start writing their own narratives. It might get ugly and end up being not the kind of narrative that Americans like. But it will still be their own narrative.