One Year Later: The Failure of the Arab Spring

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TEL AVIV JOURNAL JANUARY 24, 2012

One Year Later: The Failure of the Arab Spring

I.

A year has passed since liberal America and the liberal opinion class, in particular, went ecstatic over the Arab debut into the modern world. I know that my standing in that class is suspect. So, being a bit flummoxed myself by the not altogether dissimilar developments in the vast expanse from the Maghreb to Mesopotamia, I conquered my doubts and made a slight stab for hope. But I quickly realized that I was wrong and left the celebration. The true-believers are still there, mesmerized by some ideological mirage or preferring to look on the brighter side of things. 

For example, Nicholas Kristof found some Muslim Brothers who promised that even Copts and the ancient Coptic Church, among the first of history’s Christian fellowships, have no reason to fear their party’s electoral strength. “Conservative Muslims insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood is non-discriminatory and the perfect home for pious Christians—and a terrific partner for the West.” Yes, he actually wrote this silliness. One 24-year old Salafist he cites went reassuringly specific: “...under Salafi rule, diplomatic relations with Israel would continue unchanged and ties with America would strengthen.” Alas, less than three weeks after Kristof published his daffy attestations, the Jerusalem Post reported on an Al-Hayat dispatch saying that the deputy head of the Brotherhood, Rashad Bayoumi, pledged that his movement would not, would never recognize Israel—“This is not an option, whatever the circumstances, we do not recognize Israel at all. It’s an occupying criminal enemy.” What this means is that, more than three decades after Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed a more-or-less successful peace treaty, the agreement negotiated by Jimmy Carter might just be submitted to a reckless electorate. At best! And at worst? You figure it out. 

Of course, there are some coyer journalists, commentators, and television personalities who have not dallied too long (and certainly not that long) over the democratic prospect in Arab Islam or, for that matter, in the world of Islam in general. The narrative is actually repetitive and, if not repetitive, simply too grim. And if it’s really grim, like in Syria, no reporters are allowed to or no reporters want to risk it. Which is why every story about Syria is datelined Beirut. 

A few years back there was a rush of programs by American colleges and universities to set up “international” outlets in Arab countries for their own students and for students from other institutions, both American and foreign. The most successful were situated in the emirates. But even these never reached their numerical goals. As for their intellectual aims, who really knows what they were? But even in the rich little kingdoms, soon to be marbled up with extensions of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, American educational establishments confronted serious practical and conceptual difficulties from the beginning. Already near the outset of these ventures Tamar Lewin wrote in the New York Times Feb 10, 2008 of the unavoidable (and unavoided) challenges they faced. The downward spiral of the regional economies exacerbated these problems. Syracuse, Cornell Medical College, New York University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Michigan, George Mason, and Carnegie Institute of Technology were among those exposed to questions about whether a degree from, for instance, N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi is a degree from N.Y.U. at all. The answer is obvious. Some five years ago, Yale University decided to avoid the problem altogether. It has cooperative research programs all over China and elsewhere. Otherwise, it is an institution in New Haven, Connecticut. Anyway, the Middle East neighborhood is now too agitated for schools to do long-term planning. Just a few Sundays past, an article in the New York Times reported that a host of such programs are canceling. Anyway, Cairo is not Florence. I don’t know which is more interesting. But you can get killed in Egypt—or, as three American college students from Georgetown, Indiana, and Drexel have already learned, at least get yourself arrested for doing nothing. Chalk up one success for American diplomacy: It was able to get the trio released. 

(A side thought: Maybe this is my Zionist smugness. But there are no such problems with standards in ties between American institutions of higher education and Israeli ones. The ne plus ultra of this reality is the intimate connection cemented last month by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Haifa) and Cornell University (Ithaca, NY). The new institution to be created will be a school of engineering with a two million square foot campus at a $2 billion ultimate cost on Roosevelt Island in the East River of New York City. A very wealthy and imaginative American businessman and philanthropist put up $350 million for the project. He isn’t even Jewish but an Irish-Catholic alumnus of the Cornell School of Hotel Management, no more, no less. Betabeat explained why this development is the envy of many other American institutions. Mayor Bloomberg explained how the undertaking would transform New York and went on to say that he was negotiating with other academic enterprises to take on similar innovative responsibilities. And, yes, Max Blumenthal, self-described “cultural Marxist,” whatever that means, explained in Al-Akhbar how this venture will enhance Israeli imperialism over the Palestinians. The cornerstone for the Technion was laid in Haifa 100 years ago. It opened for classes a decade later. It has been ranked by the usually cited ratings authorities as 15th in the world in the category of computer sciences, 29th in engineering, and 38th among technological universities, more generally. Technion is not alone. The Hebrew University has been rated 57th in the general excellence category by the authoritative survey of Jlao Tong University in Shanghai. Just one more report: The Sciences, a notable scholarly publication, has for the third time rated the Weizmann Institute of Science “as the best place to work” outside a few institutions in the U.S. These are the latest results, and they help explain why no academic boycott of Israeli scholars and scholarship was ever really floated successfully. By the way, no university in an Arab land or in any Muslim country appears on any such list. In what is by now recognized as his simply silly but deeply sycophantic Cairo speech, President Obama saluted Al Azhar University for having “over a thousand years stood as a beacon of Islamic learning.” What it actually represents is spiritual benightedness and religious obscurantism.) 

II.

American expectations of the Arabs were always innocent. In the case of this administration, Obama’s delusion extends to non-Arab Muslims, that is, to the Iranians, the Pakistanis, the Afghanis. He cannot imagine that there are fundamental differences between states. But, as even he must have noticed, in many of these circumstances the very idea of compromise is blasphemous. And, given this, there may be temporary lulls between the really nasty confrontations. Basic differences—yes, of course, there are basic differences—persist and flare up unpredictably. Or, as I believe, predictably. Sometimes they call “time out” and simmer. 

Where one side governs, and governs cruelly, the other side resents. I suppose this is what we call simmering. Countries that have no satisfying process of systematic mediation turn out to be tyrannies. Despite their ethnic and ideological differences sometimes these regimes try to cover up their weaknesses by forming a union of oppressors with other regimes. One such union was the Baghdad Pact or the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), mobilized by Great Britain at the initiative of the United States. Its real rationale was the Soviet threat. But even such a threat could not bring Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey together or mobilize popular support. It crumbled slowly through two decades of bloodshed and revolution within the member countries. It seems like centuries ago but the Soviet Union had neutralized the pact. Iraq, a member of CENTO, was for decades an ally of Moscow. The Red Army had divisions all over the Arab world. Iran became the heart of militant Islam against the West but retained hunky-dory relations with Russia both before the fall of Communism and after. And Pakistan? Well, Pakistan does have an army. The question is: Is Pakistan a country? Iraq still has too many armies. Turkey is the only real state left standing. 

Another of those unifying fictions was the United Arab Republic or Al-Gumhuriyah al-Arabiyah al-Muttahidah, this one being a consolidation of Egypt and Syria with failed ambitions to consolidate Iraq within it. It did include North Yemen which no longer exists. The old question returns: Does Yemen itself exist? It may have a president…or it may not. He has resigned. Or has he? He has been given asylum in America. But he’s not taking it. He may not be the most brutal Arab leader of the age: That honor belongs to Bashar Assad. But, now that Qaddafi is dead, he is the nuttiest. If bombs go off in Yemen, someone does want it. Actually, too many forces want it. It is in a state of perpetual war but over no resources and a fractured population: Shia and Sunni and tribal loyalties that are dysfunctional and bloody. (It once had a Jewish king …15 centuries ago. There are no Jews now, all of them having immigrated to Israel.) 

Yet the U.A.E. was the real joke. United? The pretense of “union” intensified the cross-border hatreds while it did nothing to soften antagonisms that were always festering within the countries that had, so to speak, signed up. At its core the staging of a pan-national federation was incompatible with the deepest presence of the religion of Islam. In fact, whether it was civil Arab patriotism in the middle of the nineteenth century on the European model of 1848 or Arab chauvinism in the twentieth, there were always prominent Christians in the movement, many historians argue, to ward off Muslim fanaticism. In places like Baghdad, there were also Jews who added a certain cosmopolitanism to the idea of an Arab nation. In any case, the founder of the anti-religious Ba’ath movement, Michel Aflaq, was Greek Orthodox. The Christians of Syria are fundamentally aligned with the relatively secular Assad regime against the country’s Sunnis who are at the core of the revolt. 

When the Palestinians were finally roused from their slumber it was Christians who did much of the rousing. Greek Orthodox George Antonius’s book, The Arab Awakening,was a harbinger of falsehoods to come, both unreliable and instructive for the survival of its unreliabilities. And it is on many college course reading lists nonetheless. Moreover, the literal founders of the Palestinian national movement and terrorists besides, were George Habash, another Greek Orthodox from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Najef Hawatmeh, a Catholic from the (Marxist) Democratic Front (also) for the Liberation of Palestine. Surely, you recall—or have been told about—the airplane hijackings, the car bombs, and the sheer slaughter carried out by these Christian idealists against the Jews, in some great measure to preserve their credibility as Arabs among the Muslims. There is a litany of these Christians: the Roman Catholic bishop Hilarion Cappuci, Leila Khalid, and then Hanan Ashrawi, inamorata of Peter Jennings who from his debut at the Munich Olympics as a television evangelist for the Palestinians, for the Palestinian terrorists, really, couldn’t say a neutral word about Israel. There are no more Christian headliners in the Palestinian movement because there are almost no Christians still in the land. No, that’s not right. Professor Ashrawi is trotted out in emergencies when smooth, heavily accented, English is required to disguise illogic and falsehood. Anyway, don’t be fooled: Most of the Christians at Christmas mass in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity were diplomats, NGO staffers and journalists, foreigners, of course. Mohammad Abbas also came to greet the almost unbelievably diminished number of those who worship at the Cross in the city where Jesus was born. 

III. 

It was always a fantasy that secular politics would triumph in the Arab world. Even in relatively secular Iraq under Saddam Hussein and in Syria under the Assad crime family the formula would not work. The designated victims of the regimes’ bloodshed were the most numerous of each country’s denominations, the Shia in Iraq (where their tribunes are now taking revenge on the Sunnis and the Sunnis fight back with their own unspeakable atrocities, most targeted at religious pilgrims) and, almost tit for tat, the Sunnis of Syria, who are fighting for their long suspended rights which, once won, they will mistake as a license for carnage. The B.B.C. reported on a slogan of the pious insurgents: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the wall.” Of course. But that is too simple. Western powers including the United States are taking credit, some of it actually due them, for the end of the dominion of the certifiable nutcase in Libya. How his surviving sons, including the oh-so-learned Saif, Ph.D. from the London School of Economics based on a dissertation written by someone else, and intellectual companion of at least two Harvard professors (who as far as I can tell were never asked about their activities: you know, academic freedom and all that), will explain their father’s longevity is a matter of great interest to many people, especially those diplomatic fixers in Washington and London who arranged the release from prison of the man responsible for the murder of 270 innocents in the Pan Am 103 bombing. Oil accounts for the tyrant’s longevity as it accounts finally for his undoing. Alas, there is little tangible interest by the same western powers in the release from captivity and servitude of the peoples who are now in struggle because those peoples will never have oil. Moreover, the choices for an interloper are not crystal clear. 

At least, these choices are certainly not clear in Egypt or, rather, not so clear that it’s evident why Washington should side with the Muslim fundamentalists and the Salafists. On the other hand, neither is it obvious that the military professionals should be the beneficiaries of American strategy. I do not envy the president his options, both of which make little sense normatively. Yes, the Islamists won the parliamentary elections hands down. Of course, the professional Arabists foretold a result that would have had the ultra-religious negotiating with the “moderates” for power. Here is another defeated fantasy. The Islamists, with two-thirds of the vote, will confab with each other over how draconian their rule will be. The military will try to restrain the parties of God and keep as many of the economic and social privileges they’ve accumulated since the socialist colonels overthrew poor King Farouk six decades ago. 

These, so to speak, socialist colonels in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria became heroes to western progressives. After all, they were “non-aligned,” non-aligned between Stalinism and democracy. With the cruel African kleptocracy giving a rhetorically anti-racist patina to the whole Third World phantasm, with the Indian aristocrats Jawaharlal Nehru and G.K. Krishna Menon giving an Oxbridge polish to the neutralist phenomenon, these Arabs and their comrades convinced themselves that they were about to conquer the universe. How triumphant they all seemed at the podium of the General Assembly. But, if one reflects back, the regicide colonels and their successors were far more monstrous than the monarchs themselves. OK, you don’t believe me. Choose now between those who run republics in the Arab world and the two Abdullahs—one the king of Saudi Arabia from a family of brigands, the other the king of Jordan and descendant of the Prophet, complicated figures, each governing intricate societies, not democrats at all but also not killers, not killers by choice. 

IV.

President Obama marked the first birthday of the Arab revolutions by announcing America’s farewell to the struggle. He could have done it honestly if he had been willing to admit, at least to himself, that he’d had an infatuation with the Arab world and that this infatuation rested on two woefully mistaken assumptions. His first delusion was that their political systems operated by rational calculation and expectation instead of on coercive force, corrupt habits, and a routine of cringing by the citizenry, a citizenry that was guaranteed none of the ordinary rights of ordinary citizens. The second delusion was that “Palestine” is at the core of the entire Arab grievance and that Israel had to be brought to heel—whatever “heel” may mean in the president’s head. But what if, mirabili dictu, Palestine would suddenly be Palestine with all the Palestinians “ingathered” from their “diaspora,” even their lingo inauthentic and poached from the Zionists? What would be solved in any other Arab jurisdiction? At best, this is another distraction from the realities of domestic Arab life. And it is cynical towards the Palestinian Arabs besides. Still, we are witnessing before our eyes the invention of a new political phenomenon which professes to believe that extremism is a form of kindness. It is “moderate Islamists,” and the phrase will soon issue from the president’s lips…and, of course, from the lips of his secretary of state. Barry Rubin has posed the democratic pickle thus: “If Tourists Can Wear Bikinis But Local Women Must Wear Chadors Does That Prove The Muslim Brotherhood Is Moderate?” After all, the Islamists and Salafists won the Egyptian elections by a huge margin. Rubin had made his own earlier projection of the Brotherhood’s emerging power in the Arab world as a whole which, sad to say, seems to be right on target. 

To be sure, the chador is neither the least or the most of the impositions. But it is certainly the most symbolic. The western press and the entire media has gone bananas over the depredations imposed on ultra-religious women in Israel and the attempt to widen their scope. It is understandable why they have done so. This is a battle that the haredim are losing, one they must regret initiating. By way of contrast, the campaign in Egypt which came in the wake of a liberalizing moment will suffocate not only the power of women but their quotidian rights. Under the rule of the ayatollahs for more than three decades already, however, Iran will still appear and also be more modern, even futuristic than the society emerging out of Cairo. Tunisia, which seemed relatively free of the ugly shadows of Islamic rule, is already experiencing a dusk. 

In fact, there is barely a bright light in the Arab Middle East. Face it: The glee which affected—or rather infected—the establishment opinion makers in the U.S. and in Europe was utterly misplaced, wrong, false. Now, it is true that the administration was not quite certain how to respond to the superficially generative spirit of the streets. Nothing in its memo books had warned of the coming. So we, who had chastised it for going slow in supporting the people from the Tahrir Squares of the region, were ourselves living in a fantasy that did not materialize. Indeed, the opposite of what we imagined was the ultimate result. Of course, neither Obama nor Clinton had the courage of their ignorance. They were trapped into doing “something,” and anything they did would have been wrong. This is the destiny of the powerful in hard times. Forgive the analogy: Their fate with economic policy has been similar—though no one has been murdered as a consequence. 

V.

We have stopped counting the dead in Syria. Six thousand, 7,000, who knows? (Still far, far less than Papa Assad murdered in the one-town Sunni genocide at Hama during a few days in 1982. Here’s how the Economist depicted that mass murder: “Assad sent in the air force to bomb the rebels into oblivion, heedless of the tens of thousands of civilians he killed in the process.” In his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Tom Friedman depicted all fighting in the Middle East as going by “Hama rules.” No party to any conflict in the region has yet approached Assadian habits. This was perhaps the first of the Timesman’s distorting shorthands.) And who knows how many rabid insurgents and also various innocents remain fettered and gagged in the far-flung dungeons of the Assad regime? The Obama administration was intent on not being stuck sticking Bashar with the crimes of Hafez. This was very bad judgment on the part of Washington, horrible judgment. Actually criminal judgment because the appraisal was based on no hard evidence or even inferential leaks. The Saudis had long gotten over their infatuation with the Syrian republic when the American president was still sending missions and missives to Damascus. Of course, the real tease was that Israel would abandon the Golan Heights. But Jerusalem did not play…and thank God it didn’t. 

Syria is an embarrassment to the Arabs but not because it kills and often kills without target or clear objective. It is an embarrassment because its killing has not worked. To be sure, the Arab League, being otherwise mostly made up of Sunni governments, would prefer the Sunnis to govern in Damascus. After all, there is the fact of the tyrant’s (now slippery) relationship with Iran. Yes, the League sent a huge mission of inquiry to Syria with the supposed goal of stopping the murder. But its chief had been the godfather of the Sudanese genocide, the patron of the Janjaweed with hundreds of thousands of dead to its credit. Why this organization of Arab states would delegate this job to this man is not hard to grasp. It’s doubtful that any other government would have agreed to install one of its men into the bloody morass. Anyway, Lieut. General Mustafa al-Dabi is adept at keeping non-Arab authority away from criminal Arab states. Sudan, for example, his own country. He also couldn’t refuse the post: Khartoum was indebted to the other Arabs. They had insulated the Sudanese regime from the costs of their own murders. The Syrians’ killings have not run their course. Indeed, it is just possible that the revolution will die before its suppression. 

Obama’s attempted seduction of Assad has bought or brought him no sway with the Syrian president. Every week or so Washington releases some lame statement imploring or demanding that Damascus stop the killing. It should be by now an embarrassment, and maybe it is. The truth is that the Obama administration came into power haughtily reproving President Bush for distancing America from the Syrian Ba’ath. With himself as president, the United States would curb Assad’s relentless mischief in Lebanon and embark on a peace mission between Damascus and Jerusalem. Since, moreover, Obama was about to end the civil strife in Iraq (I wonder if he really believed this nonsense) by ending the American presence in the country, Syria would also liquidate its own mischievous intervention in its eastern neighbor. Is Obama an innocent or a cynic? A naif or a deceiver? I will give him the benefit of the doubt. He believes what he believes. Of course, Obama wants Assad out, and so does Hillary. He is an embarrassment to them, their old pal. This morning as I write, the insurgents are fighting in the suburbs of Damascus. Oops, they have just departed. There is nothing inevitable about Assad’s departure, not even the half-hearted wishes that he retire issued by his fellow tyrants and autocrats in other Arab lands. The Saudis have just pulled out of the Arab League’s mission in Syria, an admission that Assad is winning his battle. Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia disagree. They want the League to bring its complaint against Assad to the Security Council where there is a structural preference to do nothing, what with Assad’s allies, Russia and China, possessing the power of the veto. Al-Arabiya reports in the meantime that Hezbollah, whose ass the Council saved from Israel with Resolution 1701 in the summer of 2006, is now supplying arms and material to its Syrian consort; meanwhile, Iran has sold 36 fighter planes to Syria, according to the Russian daily Kommersant.  

VI.

The great victims of Arab nationalism are the Kurds who, after all, are mostly Sunni Muslims. Sunni shmunni, no mercy, little remorse: They are not Arabs. Kurds are the largest intact people, mostly on what is historically their own land, without a recognized geographical polity. They were not invented in 1947 or 1967, God bless them, having shown up in history more than a millennium ago. The Kurdish population of Syria, Michael Weiss wrote in the January 20 Atlantic Online, is estimated to be between 3.5 and 4.6 million, which is from 15% to 20% of the gross estimate of Turks in Turkey. As in other Arab countries, there has been no recent census. In fact, the Syrian count goes back a half century. The Turkish interest in Syria is mainly in the country’s Kurds. Hatred of the Kurds is what ties divergent countries together on Israel’s northern salient. (That…and hatred of the Jews, of course.) The Kurds have long been (one of) Iran’s designated enemies, too. The poor Kurdish nation, and it is (in contrast with the Palestinians, pell-mell), a real nation: but they only have circumstantial friends. When Turkey was allied with Israel, the Jewish state somehow lost its interest in Kurdistan. Now that the Turks have made Israel an antagonist, not simply of the Arabs but of themselves, we will see whether Jerusalem rekindles its concern for the Kurds who are spread from Turkey to Iran, north into the former Soviet Union and south into Zion itself, these last being 150,000 Kurdish Jews who have fine fraternal memories of their Muslim neighbors. (See my Spine, “The Kurdish Example for Palestine,” May 1, 2007.) But there is now an actual Kurdistan, and it is located in Iraq from which its notional independence will develop into a real state while the dominant Shia and Sunni sectarians murder each other at prayer. 

This has nearly panicked Erdoganian Turkey which fears the specter and growing reality of Kurdish nationalism. Of course, Erdogan has one real American asset. It is the president of the United States who trusts him, another Obama infatuation based on almost zero. It is clear that Obama doesn’t worry much about freedom in countries he embraces. After all, Turkey has had so many judgments against it handed down by the European Court of Human Rights that it is hard to count and more difficult to keep track. OK, it’s Wikipedia: But Wikipedia says that the most endangered human rights in Turkey are “particularly the right to life and freedom from torture.” No matter. To be sure, the country would be no picnic to govern in the best of times. His predecessors were certainly no angels. But Erdogan has taken the route of many besieged despots. (Note: I have not called him a tyrant … yet.) Of course, he has the advantage of a fairly prosperous economy which, nonetheless, will not project Turkey into Europe. The Europeans do not want 70 million more Muslims. Anyway, Erdogan has now seen the handwriting on the wall. He will neither push nor cavil. 

Still, he has brash aspirations in the Islamic orbit. The easiest foray for him was to line up against Israel, and he did so last spring with his preposterous intervention against its blockade of Hamas. Even the United Nations inquiry on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, while criticizing the Netanyahu government for particulars of the ferry interdict, came down squarely on the side of Israel in the encounter. Take a look at Steven A. Cook’s scrupulous Council on Foreign Relations analysis of the incident. So there is just so much mileage Erdogan can get from his quarrel with Israel. (Israel’s nutsy foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has ambitions to make troubles for the Turks with vague designs about stirring up the Armenians. If the Israelis have any luck, Lieberman will soon be indicted for all kinds of serious mischief and mayhem which will end his political career.) 

So the Israelis are no longer visiting Turkey in the summertime, and soon Americans of all sorts will forego Turkey and find other places to visit on vacation. How about Uruguay, a perfect locale? Turkey’s historic stake is among the Muslims and among the Arabs especially. There is where the empire of influence can be improvised or so Erdogan thought. He already made his triumphal tour in mid-September. Adulation was his reward and his inspiration to go forward. But the Arab world is in so much trouble and travail that the designs of Turkey are hardly germane even in Syria where the khedive’s troops hover. 

VII.

I am not made happy by the lapse of Arab spring. For a moment, the moment to which I alluded in my first paragraph, I experienced the shock of recognition, to use Edmund Wilson’s pregnant phrase. That moment has passed and apparently it is the Arabs who want it that way. At least, that is the case in Egypt where the ultra-pious have triumphed in the elections. We shall see what actually occurs in Tunisia and Libya where for a moment tolerant Islam seemed also to have a slight chance. 

Human Rights Watch is already fronting for the triumphant Muslim ultras, especially in Egypt. These ultras are a majority, after all, a huge majority, says its executive director. H.R.W. has a point. This is Egypt’s first free election. Conducted by the military, if I’m not mistaken. There won’t be a second free one if the religious permit any at all. 

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.

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