Feature

The Arab Spasm

In the Middle East, all bets are off when deluded Westerners spring into action.

By From the September 2013 issue

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IT IS BECAUSE we no longer understand our own societies that we cannot understand other countries. We learn little from their problems and crises because we have stopped thinking about our own constitutions, laws, and liberties. The disappointment of the supposed Arab Spring—better described as an Arab Spasm—follows only a few years after the similar broken hopes that attended the fall of communism. Also cast aside are the brief delusion that China would become free once its people owned automobiles, and the theory that countries that hosted McDonald’s burger bars would never go to war with each other. The last of these optimistic fancies was blown to pieces when Russia and Georgia, both thoroughly colonized by the Big Mac empire, fought their savage little conflict in 2008.

The abiding belief that we can plant democracy anywhere, and that it will then flourish in harmony and love thereafter, is never cured by facts or upset by anomalies. It is immune to warnings. And whenever intelligent people ignore facts and defy reason, something interesting is happening. What is it this time? 

When George W. Bush first suggested that democracy might be brought to the Middle East—the last wretched excuse for his Iraq adventure—a few haggard skeptics wearily pointed out that there might be a problem with this scheme. Put simply, majority rule in these countries would inevitably mean Islamist rule. In several of them, divided between Sunni and Shia, it would also mean sectarian rule and a choice between cruel repression and civil war. Enthusiasts for liberal intervention dismissed these doubts as “simplistic,” one of those words always used by people who want to appear cleverer than they are. But for some years the question was not tested. Now it has been, and the simplistic skeptics have been shown to be right in every particular, most especially in Egypt, where nice liberal-minded ACLU types are currently excusing a classic army putsch. Yet for some reason it is still considered impolite for those of us who were right to laugh and jeer at those who were wrong. I am not sure why. Mockery is a good teacher, and leaves a lasting mark on the sort of mind that is untouched by ordinary criticism or mere facts.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spasm began, fell swiftly under the domination of an Islamist movement, “Ennahda,” and of its armed militia, the League for the Protection of the Revolution. Of course, gullible commentators have continued to refer to this party as “Moderately Islamist” or “Mildly Islamist,” dishonest expressions designed to comfort their deflated optimism rather than to tell the truth. They had simperingly entitled Tunisia’s revolt “The Jasmine Revolution.” But it smelled rather less sweet when the main secular opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, was murdered (as I write this, news arrives of the similar murder of the prominent Tunisian left-wing figure Mohammed Brahmi). It grew still more bitter when Salafist militants, who often work alongside Ennahda’s militia, attacked the U.S. embassy and an American school in Tunis in September 2012. The response of those media and politicians who had rejoiced over the change was to look the other way. These reversals, though mentioned, did not receive anything like the interest and coverage that the initial protests had been given.

Much the same thing happened when the Libyan revolution ended in the grisly mob-murder of Muammar Gaddafi, and many other massacres and crimes of the sort that happens when order collapses and there is no law. That revolution, too, was followed by many signs that we had helped enthrone our enemies, and that Libya is in grave danger of becoming a failed state, if it does not break apart or fall under Islamist domination. These portents have included the virtual kidnapping of Melinda Taylor, an officer of the International Criminal Court, and the desecration (proudly filmed by the perpetrators) of a British war cemetery in Benghazi dating from the 1940s. These iconoclasts took special care to smash the gravestones of Jewish soldiers. The most obvious sign that things had gone severely wrong was of course the mob murder of the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens. This crime was not unpredictable, coming as it did three months after a failed attempt to murder the British ambassador, Sir Dominic Asquith, with a rocket-propelled grenade. The outrage against Sir Dominic was barely mentioned by Western media who had blithely urged on the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi and given unstinting sympathetic coverage to the rebels. The killing of Ambassador Stevens at least attracted some notice. But it did not compel a re-evaluation of our Pollyanna approach to the Arab Spasm, in Foggy Bottom, in the White House, or in Downing Street.

AGAIN AND AGAIN, the facts made no impression on the theory. Nor did the internal contradictions of the West’s own actions. The enthusiasm of Western governments for democracy and street protest faded and faltered in Bahrain, where a nascent uprising was crushed with cruelty and torture. This behavior went largely unreproved by Washington, Paris, and London, and by the BBC, which had given uncritical, even encouraging, coverage to the Arab Spasm elsewhere.  

Those who had applauded calls for “liberation” in Tunis, Benghazi, Tripoli, Cairo, and Damascus somehow managed to remain silent and incurious about the strange absence of any sort of Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia, the most important Muslim country of all. They also refused to take sides in the extraordinary events in Turkey, a major Middle Eastern Muslim nation that, though not itself Arab, remains highly influential among Arabs. Turkey’s undoubtedly democratic government, repeatedly confirmed in office by free votes, lacks some other features of civilization. It locks up astonishing numbers of journalists, railroads opponents into prison after suspicious show trials remarkably free of evidence, and, in the jargon of the era, “kills its own people” with violent police suppression of peaceful protest. Had there been any real principle involved in the West’s support of Muslim protests, then the repression imposed by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would surely have engaged the wrath and scorn of Mrs. Hillary Clinton, Mr. John Kerry, Mr. David Cameron, and the BBC. Somehow it didn’t, and it doesn’t. They reserve their lectures on democracy and freedom for Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia, which is strikingly similar to that in Turkey, if slightly less inclined to lock up journalists. They make it clear that they would be quite pleased by a Moscow Spring. And rather than supporting peaceful, secular protesters against Mr. Erdogan’s club-wielding, gas-squirting police, they give their backing to violent, intolerant militias in Syria.

If you are not puzzled by now, you should be. None of this makes sense if it is taken at face value. If there is a thing called “the West” that is in favor of “Democracy,” then why does it not favor “Democracy” in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or Turkey? As this “West” has cast aside many of its own liberties in the supposedly desperate war against Islamic fanaticism, why does it help Islamic fanaticism into power in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, while continuing to be militantly opposed to the same fanaticism in Iraq and Iran? Why does it noisily support such fanaticism in Syria? Why is Islamism described as “moderate” or “mild” only when we have helped to put it in power? Why is it then forgiven, or excused, actions that would otherwise have inflamed us with righteous wrath? And, if we are so attached to democracy, why is it that we have, in the end, connived at a military coup against “Democracy” in Cairo? Though of course we cannot possibly call it a military coup, or U.S. aid to Egypt would have to cease under American law, and the whole military balance of the Middle East would wobble and stagger.  

There are many theories about how the Arab Spring began, and how it came to be sustained. No doubt there are plenty of reasons why the people of these poor, ill-governed, and repressive societies might wish to get rid of their governments, simply because they hate those governments, and they are unjust, corrupt, and incompetent. But this only answers a small part of the question. The world is full of such governments, which come and go, and are often replaced by others not very different from those they supplanted. Mostly, nobody cares. Who, in the “West” for instance, even knows that Vietnam stages public executions, often for “economic crimes,” during which the condemned have whole lemons placed in their mouths to prevent them from protesting or screaming at their fate?

I have no explanation for events in Tunisia, but I was struck by the very strange behavior of the authorities when unrest first erupted in Cairo. A word instantly understood in the Arab Muslim world is Mukhabarat, the universal name of the violent and stupid security apparatus that sustains all these governments. I have met these people myself in Egypt, when they first ruthlessly suppressed and dispersed a small, peaceful protest against the Iraq War. Later, tipped off by an informant, they descended on a café where I was interviewing some of the demonstrators, and arrested them all for the crime of talking to me. These musclemen contemptuously ignored me, but the photographer who was accompanying me was given a nasty taste of totalitarian power in action. They lifted him bodily from the ground, stripped him of about $10,000 worth of equipment, and dropped him in the dust. They were terrifying, and wholly in control. To defy them probably meant death, and certainly a severe beating.

So when I watched the initial demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, I was amazed at the feebleness of the state response. I have assumed ever since that an order had gone out from somewhere to let this particular protest succeed. It is well-known that the high command of the Egyptian Army were angry that President Mubarak was planning to install his unloved son Gamal as his successor. Unable to persuade the doddering, willful president to drop this dynastic, North Korean plan, they had to find a way of ejecting the Mubaraks while keeping control themselves. Since U.S. aid to Egypt, which keeps the army alive, cannot legally be paid if there is an open military putsch (see above), it is easy to see why it might have been thought best to let the crowds overthrow Mr. Mubarak in the name of democracy.  

Like most such plans, it went further than intended, and turned into a genuine popular revolution. And, like all genuine popular revolutions, it was not very nice.

Western observers were quickly seduced, as they tend to be by other people’s uprisings. Their main contact with the demonstrations was with the civilized, English-speaking Cairo elite, educated at the American University and living Westernized lives. Perhaps that is why they failed to give proper attention to the crudely anti-Jewish aspect of the Cairo crowds, the Stars of David scrawled on trampled pictures of Mubarak, the scribbles on the walls snarling “Mubarak is a traitor for keeping links with Israel,” or the repeated mob attacks on the fortified Israeli embassy in the Egyptian capital. Those who reported the obscene attack on the CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square also mostly failed to mention that her assailants yelled “Jew! Jew! Jew!” at her. In fact it was the suggestion (taken up by the crowd) she might be an Israeli that turned the already frightening incident into a nearly fatal one. 

Anyone who spends any time talking to members of the Egyptian elite, or indeed the elite of any Arab or Muslim country, rapidly encounters such attitudes even among the educated, unmoderated by political correctness or post-Holocaust sensitivity. These views (which can charitably be explained as an expression of discontents that have no other permitted outlet) are usually accompanied by wild conspiracy theories of the sort that abound in immature societies, rendered infantile by censorship and despotism. The most bizarre fantasies of this kind were once confided to me in all seriousness by a respected and experienced general in his Cairo apartment.

WE CAN BE grateful, I think, that the Egyptian spasm went no further than it did, and that the Muslim Brotherhood, an old and experienced movement under the control of graybeards, was there to contain it. The Brotherhood’s rather old-fashioned ideas of Islamic governance will soon be superseded by the far more sectarian ideas of the Salafists. They have grown in influence thanks to Saudi money, which pours into those mosques and schools that adopt Riyadh’s fierce Sunni puritanism. Their power also increases daily because so many young men from all over the poor oil-free parts of the Arab world go to Saudi Arabia to find work, and return home full of Salafist zeal.

It is in Saudi Arabia that I think we may look for one of the keys to explaining the selective enthusiasms of the “West.” Saudi Arabia is closely linked to Washington and London by oil, money, and weapons. In most of the Arab revolutions, the rulers who fell were enemies of Saudi Arabia, whereas Bahrain’s Sunni government is a close ally. Syria is especially loathed in Riyadh because its heretical Alawite rulers are friends of Shia Iran and of Shia Hezbollah. Increasingly, the Sunni-Shia divide is becoming more important in the Middle East than the Israeli-Arab conflict.

That might all be perfectly normal cynical foreign policy, of the sort that all major nations selfishly pursue. We need secure oil supplies and markets for our weapons. We rightly fear chaos in Saudi Arabia. 

The troubling thing is that that this is dressed up as idealism, and that supposedly intelligent journalists and politicians seem to believe their own propaganda. And here we come to the worst element of all, the trumpeted pursuit of “Democracy.”

Democracy is not what made the Anglosphere nations great. In fact they greatly distrusted it—or else why was Washington D.C. built miles from anywhere, and provided by Pierre L’Enfant with wide avenues, which could easily be swept clear of mobs with a whiff of grapeshot? I might add that the U.S. Senate itself was originally protected from what Edmund Randolph called “the fury of democracy” and until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 (opposed by several honorable people including Elihu Root) was not elected by popular vote. 

The real heritage of liberty comes from other sources—the rule of law over power that began with Magna Carta, habeas corpus, separation of powers, jury trial, freedom of the press, and the independent judiciary. These safeguards, as it happens, have been weakened or belittled just as the powers of the West have conducted their noisy love affair with democracy at home and abroad. It is democracy, egged on by a gullible fourth estate, that has given us Homeland Security and its arbitrary powers, and liberal interventionism. It is the same democracy, aided by atrocity propaganda, that has been used to override old concerns for national sovereignty. Yet it is only in sovereign nations, which make their own laws, that liberty can be successfully sustained. 

It is easy to see why revolutionaries and world government enthusiasts might be keen on this new age of idealistic wars and mob rule dressed up as “people power.” It is harder to understand why any sort of conservative would fall for it. 

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