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"Arabellion" In Ruins - The Wishful Thinking That Undermined The Arab Spring

Egypt and Syria are edging toward failed state status, while the West asks how all the hope has faded so fast.

Syria, a nation in rubble
Syria, a nation in rubble
Richard Herzinger


BERLIN - Of all days, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi chose Jan. 30 for a state visit to Berlin – the 80th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. It was also the day that the German federal parliament held its commemoration ceremony for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

We know that Morsi has called Jews the “descendants of apes and pigs” and “bloodsuckers.” In the speech he gave in Berlin on the evening of Jan. 30, he verbally attacked Israel and called for the end of "every occupation of Arab territories" by which we can be pretty sure he wasn’t only referring to the West Bank.

The bitter truth is this: in Egypt, anti-Semitism constitutes a common ground that binds both religious and secular groups across their differences. That Morsi was received in Berlin as the representative of a new Arabic democracy while in Egypt a state of emergency has been imposed to stop those protesting the hijacking of the Egyptian revolution by the Islamists shows just how helpless the West now is after the euphorically celebrated "Arab Spring."

Two years after the spectacular start of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, theocratic-tinted dictatorships are now in the process of emerging. Not only Syria, but Egypt – on the threshold of bankruptcy and economic collapse – also threatens to become a failed state, as well as a shelter and hub for Jihadist terrorists from North and West Africa. And instead of seeing an end to the tragic Syrian bloodbath we are seeing, how it may well throw the whole region into an even greater state of conflict.

The murderous civil war in Syria has by now come to stand for war between the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran and its “advance troops,” the Lebanese Hezbollah –and the Sunni hegemony of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The big fear is that Syrian government weapons will fall into the hands of the Hezbollah, and ultimately end up with Iranian jihadists.

This is the very fear that apparently led Israel to bomb a Syrian military research facility and an arms transport heading from Syria towards Lebanon – attacks that have yet to be officially confirmed. Israel has to consider the possibility that Hezbollah could use Syrian weapons – including deadly chemical weapons – against the Jewish state.

A spring that never came

In Syria, the West acted differently than it did in Libya, and let slip by the chance to help what began as peaceful demonstrations by a democratic opposition against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The result is not only a humanitarian catastrophe, it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the reason the West did not intervene was that it feared that doing so might benefit Islamists and other religious-sectarian forces.

And it is just such forces that are gaining ever greater influence in the uprising – precisely because those Syrians who revolted feel they were let down by the West and left to the murderers. Violence, chaos and oppression are the hallmarks of the "Arabellion" that the West had initially placed such hopes in by making a false analogy with the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990.

The largely non-violent upheavals in the crumbling Communist bloc had a very clear goal – Eastern European satellite states wanted to achieve the standards of living of democratic Western Europe as quickly as possible. In the Arab world on the other hand, the historical and conflict-saturated context is completely different.

Country borders in the Middle East are still those set after World War I by the Treaty of Versailles. The mostly military despots that came after the decolonization of Arabia didn’t leave the Arabs any real political or cultural legacy. Sometimes though, they left remnants of nationalist and socialist ideologies inherited from Western totalitarianism.

Now that the tyrannical regimes are crumbling, long dormant ethnic and religious-sectarian issues are coming to the fore. And it is in the midst of this minefield that the Arab world faces the task of building a new social contract from the ground up that will enable it to join the modern world.

But there is no common ground as to what the focal points of such a social contract should be. Meanwhile, a brand of fundamentalist, radical anti-West Islam is serving as a kind of identity crutch. That the Arab uprisings were a democratic movement in the sense of a liberal, open society was in large part an optical illusion born of Western wishful thinking.

The secular forces of freedom we like to romanticize as the "Twitter and Facebook Generation" are – in the new game of Middle Eastern power poker – just another powerless bunch of outsiders. Before anything resembling civilian democratic structures can take roots, we are looking at years if not decades of violent ethnic and religious conflict that have the potential to bring entire states crashing down.

The West is thus ill advised to bank on supposed guarantors of stability like Morsi. It would also be shortsighted – not to say racist – to draw the conclusion from the present destructive upheaval in the Arab world that Arabs are not meant for democracy. Rather, the West must far more energetically than it has until to now make its economic and military help contingent on the observance of basic human rights and democratic values.

And it should help shape those who can lead future generations towards a humane society. In the middle-term, it has to give up its illusions about the "Arabellion" without abandoning the hope of a better future for the Arab world down the line. Our own future depends on it.

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