Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old street vendor, is given credit for touching off the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire to protest the arrogance and corruption of the Tunisian government, but in fact the massive changes associated with this movement had been brewing for some time, with US policy toward the region playing a major role in their development. 

Glad to continue to benefit from America’s political and economic largesse in the post–Cold War world, Arab regimes were also happy to see the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, which were at the heart of US Middle East policy, stall and used the process as a smokescreen to hide their states’ nepotism, failing policies, corruption, and lack of freedom.

Arab autocrats struck a deal with big segments of their middle class, which had slowly begun to expand in the post–Cold War era of liberal economics. Merchants were allowed to grow their businesses on the condition that they would not challenge the rule of their dictators and would share profits with them and their families. The West turned a blind eye to such despotism as long as the despots provided stability and kept the oil flowing. But the stability established by this mutual back scratching came at the price of popular frustration that found an anti-Western and anti-American channel that culminated in the 9/11 attack.

As America tried to understand the socioeconomic background that produced the 9/11 killers, one of the most carefully scrutinized documents was the 2002 United Nations Arab Human Development report, which found that “GDP in all Arab countries stood at $531.2 billion in 1999—less than that of a single European country, Spain,” at $595.5 billion. It also said that the Arab world “translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates,” and that “cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maamoun’s time (the ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.”

Such a gloomy picture led intellectuals to believe that improving the socioeconomic and political conditions was a prerequisite for any meaningful change in the terrorism-breeding Arab societies. Iraq was the starting point. But toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime did not gain America credit in the region because Middle Eastern autocratic regimes, some of them Washington’s allies, feared that any democratic success in Iraq might result in a domino effect that would end their own rules, and therefore worked to stop the democratic experiment in Iraq. Their intelligence groups facilitated arming and training Iraqi insurgents and suicide bombers, and their effective media outlets depicted America’s effort as an imperial quest for invading and occupying Arab lands indefinitely.

In 2006, as a result of the high casualty rates and domestic political turmoil provoked by the war, Washington began to abandon the nation-building and democracy-spreading that had briefly provided the rationale for its adventure in Iraq and focused instead on stabilizing security and handing over the country to a barely functional Iraqi state so that it could withdraw. By doing so, Washington abandoned its idealistic strategy and returned to its pre-9/11 foreign policy, focusing on national interests and realism instead of grandiose, long-term plans.

With the election of Barack Obama, what had been an active “spreading” of democracy under George W. Bush was downgraded, in his 2009 Cairo speech, to mere “supporting” of it. American policy toward Egypt became a case in point.

The Bush administration had increased the share of the $1.7 billion in aid given by the US to Egypt devoted to democracy and good governance from $37 million to $86.5 million—or about a fifth of its annual cash package to Cairo, a development that did not please President Hosni Mubarak. Under Obama, the annual sum dedicated for democracy promotion went back to its pre-9/11 levels, which caused a thaw in US-Egyptian tension and prompted Mubarak’s first visit to the White House in years. It was clear that America had given up on spreading democracy in the Arab world and had returned to business as usual in the Middle East, with overtures to Mubarak, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, and other Arab dictators who had found themselves on Washington’s bad side throughout most of the 9/11 decade.

Arab populations, however, had tasted something in the air as a result of Washington’s brief emphasis on democracy promotion in the region and were not ready to go back to that status quo that it had discredited.


The Arab Spring was not the first time that the Arabs have called for change in the face of doggedly stubborn autocrats, but rather the first time their calls seem to have paid off. When the European flames of national sovereignty started reaching the Arabs in the mid-nineteenth century, a debate broke out over the rule of the Istanbul-based Ottoman Muslim caliph. While opponents of the Turkish rule called for Arab independence, proponents of maintaining an Islamic sovereign argued in favor of keeping the “enlightened despot,” as long as he provided stability and maintained state benevolence. After 9/11, when America came to Arab autocrats with demands to either democratize or get toppled, the dictators revived the “enlightened despot” argument in their dialogue with their citizens. Using images of brutality from Iraq, the rulers of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and other Arab countries gave their constituents a clear choice: either stability under dictatorship or civil war if it were gone. The Egyptian people chose to throw caution to the wind.

Their uprising followed in the footsteps of Tunisia’s, in which there were a relatively small number of casualties and a relatively swift departure by the sovereign. Partly because of this transition, partly because of a more cosmopolitan social setting, democracy looks more promising in Tunisia, where free elections were held in October, than in Egypt, where the dominance of the ruling military council—coupled with endless squabbling—foretells the coming of turbulent political and economic times. 

According to one of the most important current Egyptian thinkers, Alaa al-Aswany, “When Mubarak was forced to step aside . . . millions of Egyptians celebrated victory and went home. [They] should have [instead] stayed in Tahrir Square and chosen people to speak in their name and negotiate with the military council until their demands were met in full.” But how could the millions of Egyptians in Tahrir Square choose their representatives? Who would have been eligible to run or vote? And why the assumption that all those who stood in Tahrir Square that night shared a similar set of “demands”? Should not those absent then also be represented in post-revolutionary Egypt?

When revolutionary leaders have made little improvement, they often seek to vilify old rulers—the easiest of populist tactics, but a waste of time that only helps to deepen cleavages among the population. This is what has happened in Egypt with the obsession with Mubarak and the way that the confused revolution has channeled its hatred against the 1979 Egyptian peace treaty with Israel. Later, the same hatred was directed against the presumably interim military council. Ideas on how to move on after Mubarak were either scarce or confused. At the state-run University of Cairo, professors went on strike to demand the election of college deans, accusing the incumbent leadership of being “remnants” of the deposed Mubarak regime. The concept of academic peer review and merit was displaced by populist slogans of democracy, a bad omen for an uprising that was in desperate need of some mature ideas.

But other Arab revolts could go worse. Because the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh was never in charge of most parts of the country, Yemen’s revolution took the shape of a tribal feud. While it is clear that after thirty-three years as “president,” Saleh should make way for someone else, Yemen stands at a great disadvantage compared to other Arab countries that succeeded in toppling their dictators. With or without Saleh, Yemen lags behind on all indicators of governance, freedom, human rights, women’s rights, and the rule of law. The country also suffers from deep fractures with autonomous northern and southern regions and from the spread of terrorist al-Qaeda cells. After Saleh, Yemen will have a long way to go to find its way to normalcy, if it ever does. In the meantime, it might linger between civil war and lawlessness.

In oil-rich Libya, a well-resourced Qaddafi would have smashed his opponents with military force, had it not been for NATO’s intervention that eventually tipped the balance against one of the world’s longest ruling dictators.

The uprisings in Bahrain and Syria took yet a different path. The heterogeneity of the populations in these two countries meant that the ruling minority could count on the support of some army divisions and a considerable number of coreligionists who clearly feared a repeat of the Iraqi scenario where the minority Sunnis were trounced, and later punished by the Shiite majority, until America redressed the balance.

Bahrain is the host of the US Fifth Fleet, and in his May 2011 speech on the Arab Spring, President Obama said: “Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security.” He added: “We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.” Not surprisingly, the Bahraini monarch got away with the least international reprimand, thus making it possible for him to smash demands for democracy on the part of his majority Shiite subjects by importing non-Arabic-speaking Sunni loyalists from Pakistan to beef up units of his loyal security personnel. To justify his brutality, King Hamad al-Khalifa depicted his crackdown as a Sunni effort to contain Iran’s expanding Shiite influence in the region, a narrative Obama supported when he described the uprising as “turmoil” and implicated Iran as having played a central role in fomenting it. 

“The only way forward [in Bahrain] is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue,” said Obama, giving the Bahraini despot an option he did not offer to Mubarak, Qaddafi, or Syria’s Assad, even though both Mubarak and Assad had clearly articulated their intentions to talk to their opponents to defuse the uprisings against their rules. No one ever believed Mubarak’s or Assad’s promises of dialogue, just like no one bought that Khalifa was sincere in his overtures to democracy seekers in Bahrain, but by taking the side of the Bahraini despot against his people, the United States delivered a setback to democracy in the region.

Even more disappointing was the Obama administration’s failure in Syria, Iran’s chief client since Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic was established in 1979, and a place where Washington’s interests and principles would seem to converge. The fall of Assad would sever one of the main links of the alliance between Iran and its proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. But incomprehensibly, Washington did nothing as, for the first time in a generation, peaceful Syrian protesters succeeded in mounting serious challenge to Assad’s rule and he responded by killing, so far, more than five thousand of them. 

Obama’s hands-off tactics, also known as “leading from behind,” let Moscow and Beijing veto a Security Council resolution against Assad’s massacres, and put Turkey, which calls itself a regional power despite its lack of achievement, in charge of dealing with Syria. Even though Turkey depends heavily on intelligence pictures from US drones to locate Kurdish fighters of the PKK and combat them in its southeast, Washington failed to convince Ankara—Syria’s biggest trade partner—to return the favor by imposing economic sanctions on Assad.


The comprehensive change Arabs have sought over the past several months has altered many of the old perceptions about what Arabs think. First and foremost, the Arab Spring showed that the region was not as focused on Palestine as it has been always depicted to be. Save for some mob assault on the building of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, Arab protesters have yet to raise slogans that show serious antagonism toward outside powers, as did Iranian revolutionaries in 1979. It seems that the rebelling Arabs now understand that their rulers have been using Palestine as a diversion for the past six decades, during which the cumulative number of casualties in the Arab-Israeli conflict pales beside the number of Arabs killed by their rulers.

Arab courage and defiance of brutal security forces, despite the improving economies of Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria and the relative affluence of Libya and Bahrain, has debunked thoughts that the Arabs were not ready for democracy and that they preferred stability over freedom. But it is also true that change does not come through courage alone. Decades of autocracy have substantially undermined the two groups on which successful change most depends: the middle class and the intellectuals.

During the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, the prowar Arab and Western intelligentsia suggested that post–Saddam Hussein Iraq would be influenced by the “one million engineers” that lived in the country. In April, one million Iraqi looters and saboteurs showed up in the streets instead. Their vandalism later metamorphosed into organized crime and terrorism directed at Iraqi government and US troops that neither the Iraqi politicians nor the American military could stop. It is likely that the governments of the post-dictator era in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya—and probably Syria and Yemen—will resemble that of Iraq, tainted by endless bickering, nepotism, corruption, and occasional flares of inter-communal violence. Success and failure will vary among these different countries depending on their natural wealth, the size and homogeneity of the population, past political experience, and the stance of world powers.

The transformation from autocracy to democracy has never been smooth. The success of the next phase of the Arab Spring will be determined to some extent by the amount of international support it receives. Part of that support must be the recognition that there will be setbacks, but that, patiently overcome, they will strengthen the development of democratic institutions in the region. For the first time in their history, the Arab people are experimenting with democracy. They cannot succeed if the world is too scared that they will make mistakes.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief for the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai and has contributed commentary to many American and Mideast media outlets.


Photo Credit: Bahrain in pictures

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