Long, Hot Arab Summer
The Arab Spring, circa the end of August


With Qaddafi vowing a win or martyrdom and Assad being urged to step down by the West, what has happened to the Arab Spring this summer? Has it been a summer of progress . . . democracy . . . Western-media delusion? Where stands the Arab Spring as we prepare to mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks? We asked a group of Middle East experts.

Elliott Abrams
At summer’s end, the Arab Spring is getting a new pulse of energy from the fall of Qaddafi. If Assad falls this year, it will be nearly a clean sweep of the fake republics (Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia) with only Algeria left. And in Jordan and Morocco we see a reaction as well, as steps (weak or strong) toward constitutional monarchy are taken.

So the progress in Stage One — “Bring ’Em Down” — is considerable. Now Stage Two — building democratic institutions — begins. Here there is hardly any basis for conclusions. Elections are coming in Tunisia and Egypt, and we will see how the Islamist parties actually do and whether parties that back constitutional government and sober economic policies stand a decent chance of prevailing. There will be no velvet revolutions in the Arab world, and we should neither demand the instant creation of Western-style democracies nor see doom where this is not achieved. This will be a long struggle, and we should figure out ways to back moderate groups — and, perhaps more important, moderate ideas — effectively. One small example: Could a Middle East version of Milton Friedman’s old TV series Free to Choose be done in Arabic? That kind of educational effort must be a part of our approach, as should help to those building centrist, democratic political parties.

One might also ask where Obama foreign policy stands as the Arab Spring crosses with the anniversary of 9/11. It is pretty clear: Leading from behind is the approach, and will be for whatever time Obama remains president. He feels vindicated by the fall of Qaddafi (though we could have achieved in six weeks what took six months due to the president’s limitations on the American role in NATO air strikes in Libya). Leading from behind won’t help when it comes to the real problem in that region, Iran.

 — Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national security adviser handling the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.

Mustafa Akyol
As the fall of Colonel Qaddafi indicated once more, the Arab Spring is a real and transformative epoch in the history of the Middle East. To be sure, it will not bring democracy — let alone liberal democracy — overnight, yet it is still a crucial step forward. The democratic genie is out of the bottle, and it will influence all the countries in the region in various ways.

This does not seem to be good news to every democrat in the West, however, for some of them fear that the fall of Arab dictators — such as Mubarak, Qaddafi, and, one hopes, Assad — might be a midwife for something worse: Islamic dictators. Iran is the main reference in their mind: The fall of the shah — a secular dictator, they recall — led not to democracy but to theocracy.

But the Middle East does not have to oscillate forever between those two extremes — secular dictators versus Islamist dictators — and we might be at the dawn of a new era marked by a third way: the integration of Islamist parties into the democratic game. So far, messages from both the Islamist Renaissance party in Tunis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have sounded promising, as prominent names in both movements announced that they will join the democratic process, and take Turkey’s incumbent Justice and Development party (AKP) as their example.

In Syria, too, as reported in this very interesting article, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood seems to have been transformed from a militant and oppressive group to a moderate and relatively liberal one. “We do call for and encourage [women] to wear the hijab and to follow Islamic behavior and action,” one of its leaders has said, “but individuals must be free to choose what they want.”

To be sure, Islamism, as a totalitarian ideology, is still alive among some of the beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. But we should see that this ideology was partly a reaction to the secular Arab dictators who now are falling one by one. The democratic space that is being opened might be the best bet to nurture more democratic visions of Islam.

— Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist, and the author of the just-released Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

Jack David

While the uprisings of citizen-victims in Libya and Syria are a cause for hope, it is far too early for believers in individual liberties and popular elections to celebrate. The outcome in each country is far from clear, even assuming that the dictator in each and his apparatus of terror are removed. There is no assurance that new leaders will share Western definitions of individual liberty or be willing to submit to a truly popular will. On the contrary, there is reason for concern. 

For example, although the Draft Constitutional Charter of the Libyan opposition has some reassuring words along these lines, Article 1 of its General Provisions provides that “the principal legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).” This may well be intended to provide justification for some among the new Libyan leadership who may not share Western views of personal liberty and democracy to move in another direction. We will see.

Under the circumstances, it would be wise to carefully monitor the words and acts of the new leaders who are emerging and energetically support the moderate voices among them as best we can. We should not celebrate prematurely. We should celebrate an Arab Spring in Libya and Syria — and in Egypt as well for that matter — only when new voices of moderation who support freedom and democracy for their people have truly won the day.

— Jack David is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.