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Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

The phrase “Arab Spring” is a misnomer. The political upheavals sweeping Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are concurrent yet different phenomena, and it’s premature to assume that any of them, let alone all of them, will bring their respective countries out of the long Arab winter of authoritarian rule. In the medium term, the number of genuinely liberal democracies to emerge in the Arab world is likely to be one or zero.

I’ve been to all three countries that overthrew tyrants last year—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—and I rented an apartment in Lebanon while the government of Syria, which may well become fourth on the list, waged a murder and intimidation campaign against Lebanese journalists and elected officials. The only things these countries have in common with each other is that they’re in turmoil and that they are Arab.

Large parts of Tunisia appear so “Westernized,” at least on the surface, that visitors might think they’re in Greece or even in France if they didn’t know better. Egypt is an ancient and crushingly poor nation ruled, as it has been more often than not, by a military dictatorship. Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi was an oil-rich dungeon state that had more in common with North Korea and the former Soviet Union than with its neighbors. Syria, meanwhile, unlike any place in North Africa, is a sectarian tinderbox with the potential to Lebanonize or to Iraqify almost immediately upon the overthrow of the state. 

These nations differed dramatically from each other before the region-wide upheaval began, so it logically follows that the revolutions themselves, not to mention their conclusions and aftermaths, should also differ dramatically. The Arab Spring isn’t one thing, as the post-Communist revolutions in 1989 more or less were, with local variations in only a couple of places like Romania and Yugoslavia. Here each country and revolution is its own Romania or Yugoslavia, differing significantly from each of the others.

 

Tunisia might be okay. I am too young to have visited Spain in the waning days of General Franco’s regime, but Tunisia looked and felt as I imagine Spain did in the early 1970s, when, along with Portugal, it was primed to tardily join the Western democratic mainstream. It felt pre-democratic in ways that no other Arab country does, aside from Lebanon. (Yet even Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution didn’t pan out. The country was slowly but inexorably reconquered by Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian allies.)

Most Tunisian women in the cities eschew the headscarf and dress like Europeans. Alcohol is widely available and consumed more by locals than tourists. The economy is almost as advanced as those of southern Europe, and large parts of the cities actually look like southern Europe. The Mediterranean is a recognizable place despite the civilizational boundary that separates its northern and southern shores. Tunis, on the coast, has more in common with Provence than with its own Saharan interior. And its vineyards produce wine that is almost as fine.

Imperial France left a powerful imprint on Tunisia’s cultural DNA, as did Rome long ago. “The explanation for Tunisia’s success,” Robert Kaplan wrote in the Atlantic in 2001, “begins with the fact that modern Tunisia corresponds roughly to the borders of ancient Carthage and of the Roman province that replaced it in 146 B.C., after a third and final war between the two powers. ‘Africa,’ originally a Roman term, meant Tunisia long before it meant anything else.” This little wedge of a country in central North Africa has been at least partially oriented northward for most of its history ever since.

Tunisia signed an association agreement with the European Union seventeen years ago, the first in the region ever to do so. It is an Arab country, but it is just as much, and perhaps more importantly, a Mediterranean country, in look, feel, and to some extent in cultural values. Women’s rights are far more advanced there than they are anywhere else in the Arab world. The capital Tunis is visibly less Islamicized—and by an enormous margin—than any Arab city in the world aside from Beirut, which is almost half Christian.

Yet the Islamist Party, Ennahda, did very well in recent elections, winning forty-three percent of the vote. Some of its supporters at the polls could be fairly described as Islamic moderates or mainstream religious conservatives, but the party’s leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, cannot be. He praises suicide bombers who murder Israeli civilians and the terrorist insurgency that ripped the guts out of Iraq. “Gaza,” he said of the territory ruled by totalitarian Hamas, “like Hanoi in the sixties and Cuba and Algeria, is the model of freedom today.”

This doesn’t mean that Tunisia is an Islamist state all of a sudden. It isn’t. Precious few of its citizens wish to see their little jewel of a country degenerate into warlordism and terror. Ennahda is not armed as Hamas and Hezbollah are, nor does it control the army. Even though Ghannouchi and his so-called “moderates” won, a majority of Tunisians voted against them. Tunisia’s urban liberalism is alive and well even if the countryside and the desert interior are more conservative and Islamist.

Yet the Islamists are still more popular than any other one party. They may never take over the country, but we should take a wait-and-see approach before declaring definitively that it’s springtime in Tunis.

 

Egypt’s future looks considerably darker. At least initially after the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the country was still ruled by the same calcified Arab nationalist military dictatorship Gamal Abdel Nasser and his “Free Officers” brought to power when they revolted against King Farouk in 1952. The revolution against Mubarak was hardly a revolution at all. It was a military coup d’etat against the palace. Though it had the support of the people, that’s still what it was.

The new and improved Egypt is hardly improved. The economy—an emergency-room case to begin with—is spiraling downward. The sort-of liberal activists in Tahrir Square are as disgruntled as ever. The Muslim Brotherhood won forty percent in the first round of parliamentary elections, and the totalitarian Salafists won a shocking twenty-five percent. So not only did fifty percent more Egyptians vote for Islamists than Tunisians, but bin Ladenists won a third of that vote.

“The moment of liberal change hasn’t come yet,” liberal intellectual and Democracy magazine editor Hala Mustafa told me in her Cairo office at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “I was hoping this revolution would bring something different, that we could return to the liberal tradition that existed before Nasser destroyed it. Egypt had a historic opportunity to revive its liberal past, but the moment has passed. The military didn’t encourage that path, the Muslim Brotherhood jumped over everybody to manipulate the process, and the liberal secular forces retreated.”

Egypt is, in so many ways, the anti-Tunisia. Almost every woman who goes out in public wears a headscarf. I see more men in just one single day with bruised foreheads—acquired by hitting their heads on the floor during prayer—than I have seen in all other Muslim-majority countries combined in almost a decade. The country is, as far as I can tell, the most Islamicized place in the world after Saudi Arabia. It used to be oriented more toward the Mediterranean, as Tunisia still is, but that was more than a half century ago.

Cairo was once a must-see city like Paris and Rome and Vienna, but today it’s a crowded, polluted, and grinding third-world megacity animated by reactionary and authoritarian politics. Its liberal epoch is over.

Egypt does have some things going for it, however. The army, illiberal as it is, provides some measure of stability and is unlikely to lead the country over the edge into full-blown despotism again or another doomed-to-lose war against Israel. It’s still the most powerful force in the country and may only let the elected Islamists have nominal power. At least during the interim phase when I visited over the summer, Egyptians could speak more or less freely and were rarely arrested for it. They could take to the streets and expect to be tear-gassed rather than shot (though being shot isn’t entirely out of the question). They can read opinions across the political spectrum in the country’s newspapers. It’s a libertarian paradise compared with the terrifying police state Muammar Qaddafi ran.

 

I’ve never seen such a gruesomely oppressive place as Libya under the mad rule of Qaddafi, and I might not ever again. His was the kind of regime that scarcely even exists anymore, and as a buffoonish yet sinister Islamic-Stalinist hybrid it was in some ways unique unto itself. Everyone I met there said wonderful things about Qaddafi in public, yet no one I met had anything but loathing and hatred for him in private. They were terrified of the man and urged me not to repeat what they told me to anyone lest they be taken from their house in the night and buried in prison. I have heard, but cannot confirm, that one in six residents of Tripoli worked for or with the secret police. The only reason anyone in Libya told me anything whatsoever in confidence is because they knew I could not be with the mukhabarat—state intelligence.

Libya underwent a total regime change. There is little left of Qaddafi’s state. There isn’t even much left of his family. The army has been completely replaced by the rebels, although some of them are former army officers. Institutions and courts have to be built up from scratch by people with hardly any experience in modern politics.

If the traumatized people of this brutalized nation can’t agree on how to proceed—watch out. The country is awash with guns and battle-hardened militiamen. Every conceivable political faction—from liberals and moderates to tribal leaders and radical Islamists—has supporters willing to pull the trigger for what they believe in. Even al-Qaeda has a presence in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Genuine pro-Western sentiment exists in Libya today thanks to the NATO campaign, which is excellent, but everything from this point forward must go exactly right for Libya to emerge as anything like a stable democracy. It could happen. It isn’t impossible. Every possibility is wide open. But democracy is only one possible outcome among many.

 

Lastly, there’s Syria. Its tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, is still the strong horse. The mostly peaceful uprising against him has now lasted the better part of a year, but he and his loyalists are willing to kill as many people as they think they have to to maintain control. For them, ruling Syria isn’t just about power. It’s an existential fight for their very survival.

The Assad family and most of its Syrian allies are Alawites, a heterodox religious minority that branched off from Twelver Shia Islam almost a thousand years ago. Today they have as much in common with Christians and Gnostics as they do with Muslims, who consider them infidels. They believe human beings were once stars. They worship the moon and the sun. They drink wine in some of their rituals. The core of their religion is secret and forever closed to those not born into it. 

“If you’re looking for a pleasant religion that harmonizes with the natural elements,” Theo Padnos recently wrote in the New Republic, “this is the faith for you.” Yet Alawite leaders managed, through the Arab Socialist Baath Party, to transform Syria into a totalitarian prison state with their own elite as its wardens. 

When France ruled Syria after World War I, the Alawites petitioned the imperial authorities for a state of their own on the shores of the Mediterranean. “The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria,” Suleiman al-Assad, grandfather of Syria’s current president, wrote in a petition to France in 1943. “In Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels. . . . The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.”

They did have their own semi-autonomous region for a while, and they called it the Alawite State. They even had their own flag. You can see it on Wikipedia. But the French Mandate authorities later submerged them into Syria again, and rather than suffer as second-class minorities in a realm dominated by Sunni Muslims, they conquered the country and made everyone but themselves second-class citizens. 

If and when the Assad regime falls, the Alawites, who make up only about twelve percent of the population, will again be exposed to death and annihilation, not only for being “infidels,” but in revenge for constructing and supporting a monstrous political system. God only knows what will happen to the nation’s Christian, Kurdish, and Druze minorities.

The Alawites, not to mention Syrians in general, could get lucky. Syria isn’t destined to go the way of Lebanon, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia and suffer sectarian communal warfare. There are real signs of restraint and maturity in the land. So far only a few from the Sunni majority have picked up rifles and attacked the regime as the rebels of Libya did. There have been no pogroms against Alawites, and I’m not aware of any intention to start them if the regime goes the way of Qaddafi’s. Syrian politics below the level of the state resisted militarization during a time of mass violence for an admirable length of time. That isn’t nothing. But the sectarian monster nevertheless stalks the country again. The future will be a grim one if that monster isn’t locked up and quickly, if and whenever the government finally meets its demise.

 

Even if the Arab Spring ends badly everywhere—though I’m not saying it will—there’s still an upside for those who take the long view. The Middle East desperately needs shaking up. The status quo is miserable for the millions who suffocate beneath it and dangerous for those abroad wounded and killed by what it exports. 

Almost all secular Arab governments have failed spectacularly in the modern era. Radical Islam, as a consequence, looks good on paper to millions. It’s entirely possible that a large portion of the Middle East will have to suffer under the boot heel of Islamist regimes before a critical mass of citizens get it out of their system, as the Iranians largely have. If that is the case, the next region-wide earthquake may look a little more genuinely spring-like than the current one does.

But it would be rash to suggest that a Middle East dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood is the only possible outcome. It is only one possible outcome. The Muslim Brotherhood has controlled a grand total of zero Arab countries in its entire existence, and it was founded in 1928. Yet even this grimmest of grim viewpoints is more reality-based than that of the starry-eyed in the West who liken the current turmoil to Europe’s anti-Communist revolutions in 1989. Cairo is not Warsaw, and Tripoli is not Prague.

Either way, and for better or for worse, the current upheaval and its aftermath is a gate through which the Arabs must pass.

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at City Journal and author of In the Wake of the Surge and The Road to Fatima Gate.

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