Making Sense Of The Arab Spring's Ugly Aftermath
Unable to live up to the first wave of optimism, the uprising in the Arab world is nonetheless destined to change history.
PARIS - The “Arab Spring” seems ill-named. Some have called it the “Arab Winter.” Hope, raised in Tunisia more than two years ago, now leaves us staring into the face of tragedy in Syria. Elsewhere, a revolt in the name of democracy handed power to the Muslim Brotherhood. Where the so-called Spring flourished, unemployment now explodes, urban violence surges, political freedom lags, the status of women declines, and Salafism, the most radical form of Islamism, progresses.
“So," we ask, "is that it?” Forgetting the two and a half centuries of troubled history, necessary to install the rule of law and political freedom, Europeans are quickly losing hope in their Arab neighbors. Syria haunts their conscience. Egypt and Tunisia, wrestling with abysmal hardships, make them anxious. In the Western media, the experts of “told-you-soism” thrive. The charge is naiveté, leveled against all those who had seen true hope in the “Arab Spring.”
They groan about the governments, in Paris or London, which gave support to the movement, abandoning local despots who, in the case of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, were allies. Worse, the Western critics suggest that the US and Europe could have saved the autocrats from Tunis, Cairo or elsewhere.
Nonsense. Egyptian and Tunisian regimes fell victims of their failures, not because of some sort of Western “betrayal.” The United States does not possess this Promethean power imagined in the Arab world. Moreover, if Americans, British and French had not intervened in Libya, the most likely scenario would have been a protracted civil war rather than some kind of swift, clean victory of the Guide and his followers.
The elections did not give power to those who took to the streets? But all observers have said that there was only one opposition force seriously organized in the region. Under different names, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood -- political Islam, in more or less radical versions -- were the only ones able to win votes. The “Arab Spring” illustrated this old truism of political science: the street is always more anti-establishment than the ballot.
“It is necessary to get through the experience of Islamism in power” explained the London-based Franco-Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar in Le Monde (February 23 2013). It will be an exercise of disillusion for a very simple reason, he adds: the governing capacities of the Brothers have been overestimated.
The intra-Islam conflict
In Egypt, like in Tunisia, they manifest an inept political sectarianism—the contrary of the much needed opening up. They were known to be without a real agenda, other than a slogan: “Islam is the solution.” They mistake charity with social policy. They have a vague liberal conception of economy, nothing else. They have studied the Koran, not public finance, the Prophet's writings, not Adam Smith's. While unemployment rates are surging, they are about to prove this other truth: when it comes to governing a country, Islam is not the solution.
The error has been to hope the Brotherhood would copy the Turkish Islamist Party, the AKP. In power for more than ten years in Ankara, the AKP has had the wisdom not to repeal the economic reforms of the end of the 1990s. It facilitated the emergence of a new generation of Turkish entrepreneurs, from the very heart of the country, who shared its conservatism. More importantly, AKP, favoring Turkish entry to the European Union, has achieved many of the democratic changes requested by Brussels. A real nuance, at last, AKP is an Islamic party, not an Islamist party. It never believed religion was the “solution.”
“Spreading Islam and governing are two different things,” Turkish Deputy-Prime Minister Bulent Ariç declared during an April visit to Paris.
If the Brotherhood's management skills have been overrated, the old fault line crossing the Muslim world and shaking the Middle East, has been underestimated. For fourteen centuries, the main river, Sunnism, has opposed the minor stream, Shiism. When it reached Syria, a multi-faith country, the “Arab Spring” exacerbated the antagonism. It put face-to-face, Bashar Al Assad's regime, dominated by a Shi’ite sect, (the Alawites), and a rebellion, coming mainly from the Sunni majority.
The Syrian tragedy does not belong to a “Spring” that would have turned particularly wrong. It oversteps intrinsic Syria. It is the expression of a regional confrontation on a vaster scale. The rebellion is indeed supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, funding godfathers of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni fundamentalism. It fights a regime defended by the Islamic Republic of Iran, leader of militant Shi'ism, sided with Arab Shi'ite allies—in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and in Iraq, the Prime Minister Nusri Al-Maliki's party.
It is not only a battle for Damascus. It is a merciless fight for regional dominance. Saudis, Qataris, or Turks want to break, in Syria, Teheran’s main supporting outpost for dominating the Near East. It recalls Europe's 16th-century religious wars, and it is probably far from over.
Hardly a friend of the Islamists, the writer Salman Rushdie commented on the recent events in December 2012 in Les Inrockuptibles: “History takes time. I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic, I just know the longing for freedom is still there, working.”