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With Egypt back to 'temporary' martial law and turmoil riling the Middle East, the Arab Spring may appear to have failed. But the revolutionary story in the region is far from over.
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So much for the Arab Spring. In Cairo, Egyptian history appears to have completed a bloody full circle. First the crowds filled Tahrir Square to demand the end of a military-backed dictatorship. Then, just two years later, the crowds filled Tahrir Square again to demand the restoration of a military-backed dictatorship.
Now, within weeks of the coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi, massacre has become the new normal in Cairo.
In 2011, Egypt seemed to have reached a turning point – but it ended up turning 360 degrees. We are back to a “temporary” martial law that will probably last for years.
However, in the Middle East as a whole – and probably in Egypt, too – the revolutionary story is far from over. In Syria, a civil war rages that is increasingly sectarian in character. In Tunisia, protests against the Islamist government are growing in the wake of yet another assassination of a secularist politician. In Libya, violence between rival militias is on the increase. There, as well as in Iraq, we are seeing car bombs and mass jailbreaks.
Jihadist violence is spreading like an epidemic as far afield as Mali and Niger. Yemen has become so dangerous that two weeks ago Britain and the United States had to evacuate their embassies in the capital, Sana’a.
Only in the wealthy monarchies of the Gulf does an uneasy stability persist. But it depends heavily on the high price of oil, which allows the various royal dynasties to bribe their peoples into docility. Less wealthy monarchs, such as the king of Jordan, fear for their thrones.
The Arab Spring was supposed to usher in a more democratic political order in the Middle East. In the US, conservatives and liberals alike rejoiced in early 2011 at the prospect of a new Egypt run by cool young Google executives. This was to be a Twitter-feed revolution.
Instead, the immediate beneficiaries were bearded Islamists committed to the imposition of sharia. One Islamist faction – the Muslim Brotherhood – may have bungled its chance to rule in Egypt. But others are still riding high.
The chance for an effective Western intervention to help topple the Syrian dictator has been more or less blown precisely because extreme jihadist groups have taken over the war against President Bashar al-Assad.
Osama bin Laden may be dead, but Al Qaeda is very much alive. It was the interception of a secret message between Ayman al-Zawahiri, its chief, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that earlier this month prompted America to shut down 19 diplomatic posts throughout the region – a humiliating illustration of weakness by the superpower that once dominated the Middle East.
What has gone wrong?
The protests that were misleadingly labeled “the Arab Spring” exposed multiple conflicts between different and sometimes overlapping groups. At first it was conflicts around economic issues and political freedoms that came to the fore. Youth unemployment, high food prices, and rampant corruption: These were the grievances that led to the overthrow of the despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. They still matter.
In Cairo, many of the same arguments were used against Mr. Morsi as had previously been used against Hosni Mubarak. But we now see just how complex and intricately layered these youthful societies are. For three other forms of conflict are now clearly visible.
The first revolves around identity: Who are we, and how do we organize our society? Here the cleavage is between those who would emphasize an Arab national identity and those who see an Islamic religious identity as more important. This division dates back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Note that even within these groups there are subdivisions. Some pan-Arabists are liberals, others are socialists, and still others are unabashed militarists. Some are in favor of the strict separation of church and state; others would allow religious leaders and institutions some control. The pan-Islamists are united in their endeavor to apply sharia but disagree about how soon and how literally that should be done.
The second divide is urban versus rural. People in the region’s cities tend to be less religious and more Western-oriented. The country dwellers are more conservative and deeply suspicious of the West. This picture is further complicated by those trapped in a no man’s land between the rural and urban areas, in the sprawling shantytowns where millions live in squalor with little prospect of employment, reliant on government-subsidized fuel and bread.
The third cleavage that predates these new troubles is sectarianism, above all the region-wide rivalry between the Sunni and Shiite brands of Islam.
Given the breadth and depth of these fissures that run through Middle Eastern society, it is tempting to conclude that democracy is bound to fail there. Sooner or later, the pessimists now argue, the countries of the Arab Spring will revert to the old kind of harsh rule by “strongmen.”
To remain in power in these shame-and-honor cultures, as British author David Pryce-Jones described more than 20 years ago in “The Closed Circle,” it seems a leader has to combine most if not all of the following strategies: generating an aura of fear, ruthlessly eliminating rivals, appointing trusted friends to run the army and security services, using foreign alliances to his advantage, and – of course – placing busts, portraits, and statues of himself in every public space. Some observers are already wondering how long it will be before the de facto ruler of Egypt, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ticks all of these boxes.
Yet I am not quite so pessimistic as to expect a complete restoration of the old order. The Arab Spring may appear to have failed, but in many important respects the Arab world has been changed irrevocably.
First, the institution of tribalism is not as strong and cohesive as it used to be. Individuals within a tribe or clan have developed other loyalties and can defy traditional forms of authority in ways that were unthinkable a generation ago. The combined factors of urbanization, young demographics, displaced peoples, and emigration will further erode tribal and clan loyalties.
Second, the appeal of radical Islam is beginning to wane. This trend is paradoxical because Islamists continue to enjoy considerable grassroots loyalty. However, after what people have experienced in countries where Islamists have come to power – notably in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran and the Taliban’s Afghanistan – it is no longer self-evident that sharia is the answer to all the problems of modernity. This is the key to the backlash against the Islamists that we have seen in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. Islamists thrive in opposition and in chaos but fail miserably in government.
Third, the effects of globalization have changed attitudes toward the West. Thanks to migration and telecommunications, Arabs in particular and Muslims in general are now physically and virtually connected to Europe and the US as never before. They may not approve of everything they see in the West, but they nevertheless are seeing how Western political institutions of freedom actually work.
Fourth, the emergence of hitherto oppressed interest groups cannot be reversed. Women, religious minorities, and even homosexuals remain highly vulnerable in the Middle East and North Africa. But such groups are gaining strength through organization. If you are a woman who has been raped, you are better off going to a women’s group than to your local despot. Feminism, in particular, has been one of the surprise winners of the past three years in Egypt.
Finally, the attitudes of Americans and Europeans have changed. In the past, any despot in the region worth his salt understood how to present himself as strategically vital to Western interests. For better or for worse, that game is now almost over. Rulers who cannot credibly claim to have popular legitimacy can no longer count on being propped up by Washington, London, or Paris.
Significantly, the restored military regime in Egypt is counting on the Gulf states, not the US, to bankroll it. Last Thursday, President Obama interrupted his holiday to give a speech canceling joint US-Egyptian military maneuvers. The minority of Americans who still care about the Arab Spring are urging him to go further. But even if he further cuts US aid to Egypt, it won’t make much difference. Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates can more than compensate.
Do all these profound changes mean the Middle East is on the brink of a glorious new era of peace, democracy, freedom, and prosperity?
On the contrary. The collision between the region’s traditional divisions and these new and disruptive trends will be anything but peaceful. I look ahead with trepidation and pity toward a prolonged period of conflict as revolutionary and religious wars coincide and interact. All we can say with any certainty is that there can be no return to the old days.
This was indeed a turning point – even if the Arab world has turned in a direction that few Western commentators expected two years ago.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of “Infidel” and “Nomad.”
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