Surveying the Muslim World
The curse of living in interesting times


Conrad Black

Most observers seem to be wearying of the Arab Spring, just as it is becoming interesting. The idea of a democratic contagion that would suddenly sweep away centuries of autocratic misrule and replace it with Tocquevillean civic-mindedness was too far-fetched for all but the most robustly wishful. But the notion that Mubarak in Egypt and Saleh in Yemen would be replaced almost magically by preferable people did enjoy wider currency than it deserved. Stretching the canvas across the Western and Near Eastern Muslim lands, more than a dozen countries can be seen, in snapshots, at widely differing stages of fermentation.


Morocco, always one of the most successful Arab countries, remains so. It was independent for many centuries prior to the French protectorate of 1912–56, and even signed Most Favored Nation trade agreements with Jefferson and Madison’s America. With a significant and influential Jewish population, it treats them quite well. King Mohammed, in response to rather gentle protestations, has just produced a new constitution that doesn’t give away much of his own prerogatives, but establishes a freely elected parliament and a range of civil rights, and the constitution was approved — without transports of popular enthusiasm, but without protest also — by 98.5 percent of the country. The Spring is not high summer in Morocco, but there are some green shoots.


In Algeria, where the constitution establishes the army as the guarantor of democracy — to prevent the triumph of the Islamist, anti-democratic parties required the imposition of a military dictatorship and the conduct of a long civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died violently — the durable President Bouteflika has prevailed. There is the traditional Arab version of forcibly guided government festooned with a few trappings of popular influence, but it is progress from the long war of insurrection that preceded it.


Tunisia and its self-immolating protester had their 15 minutes of the world’s attention, and a somewhat similar regime to that which was ousted is in place. In Libya, NATO redefined a no-fly zone, the French and British revived Lend-Lease to borrow air-to-ground missiles from the U.S. and plastered the loyalists with them, and the French reinterpreted the U.N. Charter to allow arming the insurgents. Qaddafi is checking the air routes to the few places that would have him. If Milosevic couldn’t take the unfriendly skies of NATO, there was never any chance that Qaddafi could.


Egypt is a shambles. Hillary Clinton is trying to open up relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, as if there were any possible rapport between those two sides, or as if the U.S. brought anything to the party anyway (a party it should be grateful not to have been asked to attend). It ditched Mubarak, and is anathema to the Brotherhood (which is still unrepentant about murdering Anwar Sadat); and its financial assistance, though significant, could be replaced by one or more of the Arab OPEC countries. Egypt is not ready for the September elections, and the army, trying to maintain order, is losing its popularity. The traditional Arab choice impends, between reasonable (in policy terms) armed force, with no aptitude for government, and Islamist lunacy, with an aptitude only for chaos.


More interesting is Syria, where the withdrawal of the government from Hama, though it may be a ruse preparatory to a massacre replicating the piping days of Papa Assad, indicates that the Alawite terror is weakening. They passed the litmus tests of ordering the massacre of civilians and having the orders carried out, and they still can’t stop the demonstrations and heavily armed attacks on the police and army. The Alawite regime, with Mrs. Clinton’s commendation of it as a vehicle for reform ringing in its ears, is now in a race with Qaddafi to see who goes first, and young Assad will be packing up his implements and returning to his optometrist’s practice in Ealing (East London).


The Palestinians are waiting to see who governs in neighboring countries before confirming the bomb-throwing incompatibility of Hamas and Fatah; Hamas and Hezbollah are wondering how they are going to be supplied after Assad is swept out in Damascus; Lebanon is on hold waiting for Hezbollah, and in Iran the unspeakable Ahmadinejad, having just had his entire presidential staff arrested and been booed in the Majlis, mother of Islamist parliaments, is reduced exclusively to the patronage of the Grand Ayatollah. Iraq is a dodgy post-American proposition and its appeasement of Iran is tempered only by acute uncertainty about who will hold the reins, if there are any, in Tehran in three months.


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