The Arab Winter and its lessons for the world
Was it just a case of entrenched interests prevailing? Could it be that not every culture is suited for democracy? Is ANY culture suited? Look around.
I remember the tension in Cairo, about a decade ago, with my colleagues and friends essentially on a vigil, waiting for the Egyptian military to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. So soon after the so-called Arab Spring, it was obvious to everyone with acumen that this was coming.
But here’s the odd thing: many of the more educated, wealthy, and sophisticated among the locals were eager for it. The basic assumption that is so widely held in the West—that people want freedom and democracy—did not hold. Many wanted something else.
The reason for this was as simple as it was dispiriting: they did not trust their fellow Egyptians to make wise choices on leadership and policy, not least because more than a quarter of the population is illiterate. Many of those who were better off believed their fellow citizens were ignorant and susceptible to manipulation.
And manipulation by the Muslim Brotherhood meant exposure to the well-funded skullduggery of a global Islamist spin machine which masks—but only barely—a desire to install an Iran-like theocracy wherever possible. When such are the fruits of majority rule, you will find “elites” looking for other systems of government.
In Egypt’s case, in its year or so in power, the Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi proved rather mild, compared to expectations. I recall fevered talk of how “bikinis and booze” would soon be outlawed after Morsi was declared the winner of the first presidential election of the post Hosni Mubarak era. In June 2012 he was declared (at the end of an hourlong speech by a military officer) the recipient of 51 percent of 26 million valid votes.
No such thing happened, and we may never know if it was part of the Brotherhood plan because Morsi was ousted by the military on July 3, 2013. It had the odd sense of an appointment kept on time in a country better known for procrastination.
Foreign journalists faced absurd pressures not to label what took place a “military coup,” based on the irrefutable but irrelevant fact that Morsi’s ouster coincided with large protests against him. Either way, despite several highly stage-managed elections since then, only the very naïve would claim Egypt today is a democracy. Not only Muslim brothers but many other regime opponents languish in jail—where Morsi himself died—and freedom of speech, despite a certain new flourishing of civil society NGO activity, is for the brave.
At a wild rooftop party I met Bassem Youssef, a surgeon who in the early excitement over democracy became host of a TV show where he sat at a desk and ranted against Morsi (at one point calling him “crazy,” which is no small thing to call any president in Egypt). He gained enormous popularity via his flair for comedic mockery and megatons of charisma, and I told him that if he ran for president he would actually stand a chance. Youssef said he had no such illusions. Within months, finding the new regime less tolerant of ridicule, he fled the country, finding his way to the United States where he has appeared on the Daily Show and worked as a stand-up comic.
Despite such clear evidence of a problem, many in the Egyptian elite are happy enough that “stability” has been restored and that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a clear enemy of Islamist extremism and terror groups like the once-fearsome Islamic State. I agree with them that this is not nothing. But democracy, at least in the way that we define it in the West, clearly did not take hold in Egypt.
Much of the rest of the region did even worse:
Syria has been ripped to pieces by an endless civil war—yet the forces arrayed against Bashar Assad have not toppled him from his perch in Damascus. This man, despised for his use of poison gas on his own people, held responsible for at least a half million deaths (the U.N. gave up counting), and cause of the internal displacement of a third of the nation’s population of 21 million (among other crimes), is slowly being welcomed back into the bosom of nations.
In Libya, Moammar Ghadafi was killed in a heinous televised lynching after a brief uprising in which insurgents were aided by the West. But instead of stability, the end of the dictatorship has brought almost a decade of further war in which many thousands died while the country endured rule by militias and militants. It has also become an abusive conduit for African migrants to Europe. A tense quiet has prevailed since 2020.
In Yemen, hundreds of thousands have died in a war featuring Iran-backed Houthi rebels and forces backed by the Saudis. Despite truce efforts in 2022 fighting grinds on and the country features the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet.
Lebanon has been rendered almost ungovernable by a huge influx of refugees from neighboring (and once dominating) Syria, and the country is still effectively under the boot of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia (which at any time could trigger another ruinous war with Israel). Its economy, too, is in free fall.
And monarchies throughout the region—from Jordan to Saudi Arabia to the Gulf—have weathered the storm and conceded very little to the Lockean theory of the consent of the governed. They are, basically, what they were.
About the closest thing to a democracy in the region (outside of Israel, which is itself troubled) is Iraq—and it’s actually not that close. Twenty years ago, the United States blundered in to remove Saddam Hussein under false pretenses. For much of the time since, the country has been beset by wild militias and terrorists of every kind, resulting in hundreds of thousands of additional deaths. At present, elections are basically a census of its various ethnic and religious groups, and the country is distressingly under the sway of neighboring theocracy Iran. As if that isn’t enough, a more mild instability remains. Considerably less than a year ago parliament was stormed twice—not least because of raging corruption.
The bright spot—for a little while longer—is probably Tunisia. Though in 2021 the president seized broad powers, Freedom House judges it to be “free,” which is no small thing. Maybe that’s because leader Kais Saied held a retroactive low-turnout referendum. That is some small consolation, considering that it was in Tunisia that the so-called Arab Spring was sparked by the December 2010 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a desperate fruit and vegetable vendor who seemed to offer a sacrifice on behalf of all Arabs humiliated by their horrible governments.
Is this dismal landscape the sum of the Arab Spring’s ambition? Can it possibly be the sole fruit of Bouazizi’s sacrifice? Is the emergence of what is clearly an Arab Winter a case of the forces of evil prevailing—or human nature revealed?
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