Arab Spring, My Foot

by Martin Peretz | October 6, 2011

Or, better yet, “my ass.” The Arab Spring has been with us for nearly three quarters of a year. This is not a long time as history goes. But the annual flowers of the spare land have long ago vanished into the crude, mostly gritty sand that is the Middle East. It’s not, though, as if it is at all back to “normal” in the Arab world. And, frankly, we haven’t the slightest about what normal in the Arab world is or will be. The Muslims and the Jews and the increasingly scarce but differentiated Christians who constituted the region lived (and live) recreant lives. For centuries it was the People of the Book who were put on edge or to death, mostly for what they believed and also for what crimes the authorities fantasized they had committed. (In this way the Jews of the Near East—near where, exactly?—lived lives on the edge much as they did in Christendom. Of course, if there are maybe 2,000 Jews now in all the Arab lands, it would stun me. The near-million there were are now mostly in Israel, God bless them, and in Western countries which, God bless them, welcomed them, even France, like brothers and sisters, a new enunciation of fraternité.) The Peoples of the Cross were likewise persecuted—but sometimes the powerful states of Europe, both Catholic and Protestant, were able to extend a cloak of protection around Christian communities of the Levant. Though not, of course, around the Armenians. Or, for that matter, not around the Kurds either, who, mostly Sunni, some Shia, were in the Islamic orbit but distanced from that orbit’s—let’s face it—zealotry.

No one is to blame, I suppose. In any case, I won’t blame anybody. But the facts are the facts. Still, the Arab Spring did persuade even the most insulated Arab rulers to do something. The last of these rulers to move was certainly the least vulnerable to crowds, if crowds there could be. And actually in the last months there were occasional street protests against the Saudi monarchy, although they were quiet and reserved. Many hundreds were arrested and lost in the empty infinity of process-less administration. The al Mabahith al-’Amma, the political police, were busy, as the religious police always seem to be, going around swatting the backsides of men on the street who are not praying with sufficient fervor. But they guard public security according to very vague standards and with no enumeration of liberties. Ah, what is liberty? It’s not either an Arab or Muslim idea. Anyway, when I was in Saudi Arabia some 15 years ago there was no, no public auditorium or theater; the only places of public assembly were the mosques. Maybe there is now a site where a non-praying crowd can gather. But I don’t know of one. I do know that many videos are smuggled into the country, especially porn. But that is by people who are allowed to travel and have enough cash to spend lavishly. I’m acquainted with some, cynics who represent their country in Washington and at the United Nations. Cynics and free spirits: During the last meeting of the General Assembly I met a friend from my visit to the peninsula many moons past. He lifted the lapel of his smartly tailored sport jacket, Brioni maybe, which I think was next door to his hotel. And there it was: an insignia of two flags crossing, one American, the other the flag of the State of Israel. Long ago, in Riyadh, he confessed that he longed to go to Israel. But by late September of this year he had not yet made it. I assured that I could arrange to get him in without difficulty and in complete secrecy. He said, “It is not the Israelis of whom I am frightened.”

Anyway, the someone who did something was the ailing 88-year-old King Abdullah, whose putative successor is the 87-year-old Crown Prince Sultan, apparently even nearer death in a New York hospital, presumably Memorial-Sloan Kettering, than his half-brother. And he, too, has a known successor, Prince Nayef, age 77, with no known serious illnesses. His liability is that he is a social and political reactionary. Anyway, what Abdullah has done is to vest women with the right to vote ... sometime in the next few years. This provoked many huzzahs from the royal bleachers and was widely seen as the monarch’s effort, such as it is, to join modernity. Ah, yes, but Nayef is opposed to women’s suffrage as he is opposed to other manifestations of the contemporary world. In any case, the suffrage won’t be extended until 2015—leaving much space for retreat. Still, the royal act was much welcomed as the first instance of Saudi participation in the Arab Spring.

But not by everyone and not by people who really knew. Even Neil MacFarquhar’s cool dispatch in The New York Times exactly a week ago as I write made clear that the monarch’s pronouncement is not a major step towards anything.

A slightly more sassy commentary, “All the King’s Women,” by Simon Henderson, the distinguished commentator on Arab affairs at the Washington Institute, was published in Foreign Policy. Here’s an excerpt from Henderson’s piece:

Saudi watchers, certainly including yours truly, didn’t see this announcement coming. King Abdullah’s reputation as a reformer has dimmed in recent years. He doesn’t seem to have the energy to push for the needed consensus in the royal family and, more particularly, from the kingdom’s orthodox Sunni Islam clerical hierarchy. But the monarch did attempt to bridge these divides by painting the change as completely compatible with Islamic tradition. “All people know that Muslim women have had in the Islamic history, positions that cannot be marginalized,” he said, going on to note women’s contributions since the time of the Prophet Mohammed.
This reform, however, was the exception rather than the rule. In fact, King Abdullah hasn’t seemed to be making any decisions recently. A diplomatic friend recently described the monarch as “lucid for only a couple of hours a day.” And last week, there was what seemed to be the height of Saudi indecision: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was allowed to return home from a Saudi hospital after recovering from injuries sustained nearly four months ago—despite an apparent agreement between Riyadh and Washington that, for the future good of troubled Yemen, this shouldn’t happen.
Whoever made the decision to ship Saleh back to Yemen is as of yet unclear, but credit for women’s voting rights should probably be given to the king’s daughter, Adila, who has been a known advocate of her gender’s increased participation in public life, particularly driving, for several years. Adila was also seen as being the moving force in the 2009 appointment of Norah al-Faiz as a deputy minister of education—the first woman to achieve such prominence in government. But, apart from allowing Adila to speak out, King Abdullah himself has hardly been noted for behavior toward women that would pass for enlightened in most other parts of the world.
In my 1994 study of Saudi royals, “After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia,” I included a cheeky footnote pointing out that then Crown Prince Abdullah had the full Islamic complement of four wives, “two of whom were semi-permanent and the other two ‘rolled-over.’” Good taste inhibited me from including the same information in my updated 2009 study, “After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia.”
The king’s replenishment of wives, however, is having a notable effect on the House of Saud’s ever-growing family tree. The king’s youngest son, Badr, was fathered when the monarch must have been in his late 70s. And I have since discovered that Sahab, the daughter who married (or was married off to) a son of Bahrain’s King Hamad this summer, was only born in 1993, when King Abdullah would have been 70 years old.
How did King Abdullah manage to be so (pro)creative? No sniggering please but, via WikiLeaks, the State Department has provided us with a possible answer. A 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh reports that King Abdullah “remains a heavy smoker, regularly receives hormone injections and ‘uses Viagra excessively.’”

The most surprising editorializing came in the Financial Times on September 27. It said that this was “No Saudi spring.” Now the FT is a pro-Arab newspaper, no ifs or buts. It certainly is an anti-Israel newspaper. For example, it still calls Tel Aviv the capital of the Jewish State. Try to grasp from this alone its view of Israeli reality. Moreover, in parallel with its demonization of Israel, the FT often exaggerates the virtues of individual Arab states and the virtues of Arab society as a whole. But not here. In fact, its commentary is devastating. Here is the editorial in whole:

Even if the latest promise of granting marginal political rights to Saudi women could be believed, it would be too little, too late. King Abdullah has good intentions regarding their position, but any step forward on rights tends to be matched by two steps back—and not just for women.
The king consulted with clerics before announcing women could vote in the next municipal election—though not the one due this week—and join the royally-appointed Majlis ash-Shura, a consultative body with no real power. The clerics’ consent suggests they see the promise as sufficiently meaningless not to pose any threat to the Wahhabi establishment.
They are right. This promise has been made before—when municipal elections were first held in 2005, women were also told that next time they would be allowed to cast their ballots. Not only did it take six years for “next time” to arrive; women have now been sold that particular horse twice. No one knows how long it will take before the new promise is tested. In the meantime, the rules that make women the wards of male relatives in even the tiniest legal matter—and the no less offensive ban on driving—remain in place, threading women’s lives through endless humiliations and impracticalities.
Gentle pressure by Saudi women—especially in business, where they have made inroads—combined with a need to pay lip service to global standards and genuine interest in reform has occasionally prompted tiny steps forward. In 2009, a woman was appointed deputy minister for education, and some limits put on clerical control over syllabuses and television content. But when it counts, the forces of reaction have the upper hand. When the Arab spring swept over the region this year, the king sided unequivocally with the status quo. Instead of reform came a cash splurge to buy the people’s quietude, more power for the security forces and religious police, a law making it a crime to criticise clerics and tanks to suppress the uprising in neighbouring Bahrain.
Saudi policy is racked by rivalries within the House of Saud and the inherent uncertainties of gerontocracy. But the rulers seem united in defying the march of history by holding on to their form of government: absolute monarchy balanced only by fundamentalist theocracy. In particular, they show no sign of permitting any political participation that would permit minority Shia to press their claims. Not only women, but all disenfranchised Saudis will have to bide their time a while longer.

Of course, I don’t judge the progress of the Arab Spring by what happens in Saudi Arabia. This is, after all, the last monarchy governing a meaningful Arab state and it is protected by its own cash which it distributes, as it did this year, whenever economic stringency invades the fantasy polity of kings and princes and their bankers who are very much welcomed in the financial centrals of the world: New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, etc. The other royal statelets also are capital rich but they are penny ante polities. The Saudis rushed to rescue Bahrain from its Shia majority. I don’t blame them, by the way. But is this a safe and honorable diplomatic position for America? My guess is that nobody is thinking about this. Normative, shmormative.

A footnote: Wikipedia has a hilarious entry about the “Line of Succession to the Saudi Arabian Crown.” You’ll either laugh at its details or admire its intricacies. Maybe both. This is not modernity. And it certainly isn’t Arab Spring. My guess is that the royals will reign for many years to come.

Nor, frankly, is it Arab Spring in Libya either. There was hope early on that the civil war conducted between a certified madman and his troops on one side and a normal opposition would sort itself out, well, normally. As late as three weeks ago, in fact, almost everybody had Qaddafi on his way to one or another African strongman he had patronized and subsidized over the years, and there is no shortage of them. The one who takes him will suffer no opprobrium either, at least not in Africa. After all, there is no especial African Spring on the horizon, none at all. Qaddafi or Mugabe, what’s the difference? He could also end up in Saudi Arabia just like Idi Amin Dada who lived out his years on the hospitality of the Al Saud. Still, there is something of a new regime in Libya and we should be cautiously cheering for it. It does rule here and there. But it does not quite govern, although it has billions of dollars which Washington, the U.N., and the E.U. have finally liberated for the liberators. It is not easy to throw off a tyrant for a people that is not united, that is riven by different inheritances, that speak different languages, that has different approaches to God, very different, for a people that is actually many peoples.

In any case, the Libyan transition is now burdened with charges of human rights violations by Human Rights Watch, the bona fides of which I don’t especially trust. Still, on these present matters I have no evidence—only hunches. HRW is especially harsh, has an especial tick for blasting the good guys who aren’t perfect or who can’t impose the discipline of tolerance on angry young men in the midst of a revolution. And then there are the internecine quarrels of tribes and religious groups. I do not pretend that these are inventions. The central HRW figure in the Middle East is one Sarah Leah Whitson. She is a mendacious lady in a post that requires judgment, balance, and an allergy to bullshit. As a New Republic article by Ben Birnbaum proved, Whitson has led a jaundiced crusade against Israel with the kind of laughable indiscretion that in better days would have put her on the margins of public debate. But she has an obsession with an evil Israel that faces no enemies but itself. For example, in these days when any left-wing crackpot with a doctorate can get a job at some respectable institution, Norman G. Finkelstein, with a bibliography of anti-Semitic tracts, was denied tenure at DePaul University in Chicago.* He is actually laughable—if he weren’t so skillfully deceitful. Whitson calls his work “thankless but courageous.” I suppose she also thinks of her own libels of Israel as thankless but courageous.

Even if it is not quite Arab Spring in Libya now, Whitson had already detected substantial evidence of “Tripoli Spring,” way back when, on May 27, 2009, she published her “findings” in Foreign Policy magazine. Forgive me. But this reads like nothing less than a blow job. A blow job to Saif Qaddafi who also cast a spell on Harvard professors Joseph Nye and Stephen Walt, the second of whom is to Arab extremism as Lillian Hellman was to Soviet Communism and Stalin. Let us call it “craven”:

The brittle atmosphere of repression has started to fracture, giving way to expanded space for discussion and debate, proposals for legislative reform, and even financial compensation for families of the hundreds of men killed in a prison riot a decade ago. And while the reform initiatives, if we dare call them that, are fragile and tenuous (skirmishes are common between the would-be reformers and a security establishment quite comfortable using its untrammeled authority), political dynamism and vibrancy are appearing in a country that was closed in every way for decades.
I first visited Libya four years ago, just as it was gearing up for its self-rehabilitation in the international community, and I returned the following year, working on Human Rights Watch’s first official investigation in the country. The government was making all the right foreign-policy moves—agreeing to give up its weapons of mass destruction program and to compensate victims of the 1988 Libyan-backed bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Soon after, Libya even settled the case of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were imprisoned for eight years, accused of infecting Libyan children with HIV. They had remained in detention despite overwhelming evidence that the infections were caused by the poor hygiene that characterizes Libya’s public hospitals.
But internally, the repression of Libyan citizens was as suffocating as ever. President Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Green Book, analogous in state-sponsored hallowedness to Mao’s red one, was repeated and rephrased in every meeting—by officials and citizens alike. Libya was a state of perfect direct democracy, I was told. Every citizen participated in making the country’s decisions—so no need for a private press. Vague promises for reform were uttered here or there, but during our visit, we heard no critical voices inside the country, public or private.
When I visited that same Libya this April, I was unprepared for the change. I left more than one meeting stunned at the sudden openness of ordinary citizens, who criticized the government and challenged the status quo with newfound frankness. A group of journalists we met with in Tripoli complained about censorship and the ease with which public officials could sue them for slander. But that hadn’t stopped their newspapers from exposing unsanitary hospitals or contaminated food supplies. One journalist said that, while he was wary of being prosecuted, he found delight in testing the boundaries. Quryna, one of two new semi private newspapers in Tripoli, features page after page of editorials criticizing bureaucratic misconduct and corruption, despite countless pending lawsuits against it.
Even more boldly, families of victims of the Abu Sleem prison killings, in which an estimated 1,200 inmates died on June 28 and 29, 1998, at the hands of state security forces, are organizing—forming their own association—after a decade of relative silence. Back in 2004, the government said it had established a commission to investigate the episode; no one is sure if such an investigation took place or what it may have found. Instead, the state has started to issue death certificates and offered up to 120,000 dinars (approximately $88,000) in compensation. Refusing the money, some victims’ families are instead demanding a real public accounting and justice for their relatives’ killers. The association has held a number of demonstrations despite threats of arrest and ostracism. And while members of the group spoke to us with great apprehension, the very presence of a public debate on abuses by the government’s internal police is breathtaking for Libya.
The spirit of reform, however slowly, has spread to the bureaucracy as well. A new draft penal code restricts the death penalty to murder convictions (previously, being convicted of a whole host of crimes could get one killed), even as it continues broad restrictions on speech and organizations. The critically important separation of the Justice and Internal Security ministries in 2004 is producing results. The Justice Ministry is now playing more of an oversight role, calling on Internal Security to obey court decisions and pursue cases involving alleged abuse by police officers. Judges are traveling abroad for training. International groups are working to improve prison conditions (the admission that Libyans might have something to learn from the rest of the world is a breakthrough in and of itself). Even the Interior Ministry is now headed by a more modern minister, Gen. Abdelfattah al-Obeidi, who has reportedly been tasked with overhauling Libya’s sclerotic police, who had grown accustomed to operating with impunity.
It all sounds tentative yet promising—and indeed, a group of about 20 lawyers to whom we spoke were debating that very question: Was Libya’s expansion of freedom just temporary, or the start of something permanent?
Many Libyans say the changes were unavoidable in the face of the open satellite and Internet access of the past decade, revealing to Libyans just how poorly their Great Jamahiriyaa, the formal name for their government, compares with the rest of the world.
But the real impetus for the transformation rests squarely with a quasi-governmental organization, the Qaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development. With Saif al-Islam, one of Qaddafi’s sons, as its chairman, and university professor Yousef Sawani as its director, the organization has been outspoken on the need to improve the country’s human rights record. It has had a number of showdowns with the Internal Security Ministry, with whom relations remain frosty. Saif al-Islam is also responsible for the establishment of the country’s two semi private newspapers, Oea and Quryna.
Some say that Saif al-Islam’s efforts are nothing more than a bid to enhance his popularity before moving to inherit rule from his father. No surprise then, that he is pushing a softer image of Libya on the international stage. Even if that’s the case, it is impossible to underestimate the importance of the efforts made so far. Let’s hope this spring will last.

Three months after the publication of Whitson’s paean, the governments of Scotland, Great Britain, and the United States collaborated—or, rather, conspired—in the release of one of the organizers of the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie airplane massacre, Abdelbaset Ali Al Megrahi, whose innocence is being protested by Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu. Much honored by the worthies of the English speaking world, Tutu himself is a crackpot. In any case, Megrahi is responsible for the deaths of 270 innocents. But, in Qaddafi’s Libya, he was welcomed home as a hero. In October’s Vanity Fair, Philippe Sands reports that Saif was central in the talks leading to the murderer’s release. Saif also flew Megrahi home from prison in Scotland to freedom at the Tripoli military airport in his private jet. I’ve searched high and low: I cannot find a single statement of regret by Whitson about her adoring praise of the tyrant’s filial “accomplice.”

We are far from the end of the Libyan story. It is not Arab Spring there and it is not Tripoli Spring, proclaimed more than two years ago by the Human Rights staffer, either. Much blood will yet flow before another dictatorship, milder maybe than the colonel’s, rules in the Libyan Maghreb. Please do not fantasize that we are waiting for a republic, let alone a democratic republic. It is not in the cards. It is not in the culture. It is not in anything.

Nor should we expect anyone other than another pharaoh as a successor to Mubarak. He will not be a liberal or tolerant democrat. Of course, the pharaoh might be a star in the firmament of the Muslim Brotherhood. Or he may be (yes, among the Arabs, it will always be a “he”) one of the faceless bureaucrats who were dispatched from Cairo to be a plenipotentiary at the Arab League or even someone who has “diplomatic experience” at the U.N. If he comes from either of these establishments he will be a superlative liar, a liar even to himself. My guess is that, whoever he is, he will have to have made his peace with the generals. In the meantime, although having to make compromises with others, and especially the religious fanatics, it is the military that runs the show. But this military is a more civil (not more civilian) military, more civil certainly than the Iraqi military, which was really a Hitlerian military in its eagerness to carry out the macabre disciplines of murdering civilians. And more civil than the present Syrian military.

Whose brutality since the Ba’ath revolution has been legend, true and curdling legend. Yet please note that, despite the horrifying routines of the Syrian army towards civilians, the American government with its western European allies have vested action against Damascus in the Security Council where the last words are the words of those who veto. This is a predictable process, really a routine—except against Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya when France, the United Kingdom, plus Italy made it a NATO action and dragged America along (to be sure, with decisive technology) so that our country could claim to have led from behind. Apparently, Assad’s offenses are far less heinous than Qaddafi’s. At least that’s what we’d surely have to conclude from the differences in the way the western powers have treated their crimes: war against Qaddafi, diplomatic and financial sanctions against Assad.

Yet sanctions are routinely taken to the Security Council where they are bottled up in dishonest verbiage and in the guiles of not-so-delicate bluff. That’s about all diplomacy is these days. And let’s face it: It is not just Russia and China that are sheltering tyrannous Syria under cover of Security Council oratory. It’s also Brazil, India, and South Africa—which makes one ponder how committed these three governments really are to democracy, to constitutionalism, to humanism. OK, Brazil is not Venezuela; India is not Pakistan; South Africa is not its apartheid predecessor or, for that matter, Zimbabwe. But still... Along with the two gargantuan states across the Eurasian landmass, the trio finds common cause with the single most brutal Arab dictator and dictatorial system of the whole bunch. A big bunch. As I write, news comes from the East River that China and Russia have vetoed a much watered down condemnation of Syria. This article is also by Neil MacFarquhar, also in the Times. When will people realize that the U.N. is more than worthless? Or is it less than worthless?

Turkey, which nurses imperial memories and imperial ambitions in Syria, has put both rhetoric and gesture to work against the Damascene dictatorship. Not so long ago, Prime Minister Erdogan was an ally of the eye doctor. No longer. If he goes way out in front of the U.S. and its European allies in his belligerence against his southern neighbor, whether it be grudge or real enmity, he will be laying the groundwork of a cogent imperium in the eastern Mediterranean, threatening Greece and Cyprus, jeopardizing Israel, imperiling separately and all at once the old Ottoman antagonists: Persia, Iraq, Armenia. And, of course, the jumbled cartography of Syria, the old satrap of the sultan, the caliph. You may recall that I suggested Obama’s role in enticing Erdogan into lordly ambitions around the Mediterranean. But notice that in all of Turkey’s agitation against Assad he has neither pleaded not clamored for U.S. help. The Turkish prime minister believes that Assad is so weak that this is a one man job, palpably a one man job, his.

A Syria in disarray would be very much to his liking. And even were the country to be run by the Muslim Brothers it would be more congenial as a neighborly Sunni dominion than if run by the same theologically perturbing Alawites with their awkward alliances with the Shia and business-minded Christians.

I don’t know whether the latest news from Damascus suggests that the Syrian regime is truly desperate or not. But the dictatorship has pulled out its Israeli card. Ha’aretz reports from FARS, the Iranian News Agency, that Assad warned that “Syria will shower Tel Aviv with rockets if attacked by foreign powers.” And he said more to the Turkish foreign minister: “If a crazy measure is taken against Damascus, I will need not more than 6 hours to transfer hundreds of rockets and missiles to the Golan Heights to fire them at Tel Aviv.”

In addition, FARS reported that the Syrian president told the Turkish FM that he would call on Hezbollah in Lebanon to launch a rocket attack on Israel, adding: ‘All these events will happen in three hours, but in the second three hours, Iran will attack the U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and the U.S. and European interests will be targeted simultaneously.”

Is Assad nuts? No doubt. This is the man with whom Barack Obama urgently pushed Israel to parley. In fact, this is the man on whom Obama pivoted much of his Middle Eastern policy. My, my: what this president doesn’t know about this region.

The fact is that Israel has stayed out of the ups and downs (and ins and outs) of the Arab Spring. But Assad’s menacing of the Jewish State in this circumstance is evidence of how hazardous any Israeli-Arab frontier line is. If I were an Israeli strategist I wouldn’t give up the Golan Heights for anything. And I surely wouldn’t go back to the 1949 lines either. Nor, for that matter, would I surrender the Jordan River (which is not “deep and wide,” despite what the folk song says, though it may be “chilly and cold”) either to the Hashemite kingdom or to the Palestinian rump.

The failure of the Arab Spring is only the last chapter in the long-time failure of Arabs to tolerate, to make peace among themselves, to learn from others, to accept that a belief is not always or even usually a fact, to recognize that a mirage is a mirage.

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

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure by De Pauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Instead, the university was DePaul in Chicago. We regret the error.

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