There cannot possibly be anyone left of sound mind who imagines that the Arab Spring was anything more than seismic shifts in various countries to remove unpopular despots; have tribal, sectarian, or ideological bloodletting of different levels of ferocity, according to the temper of the countries; and then observe the reassumption of authority by whatever new despotism emerged at the end of strenuous Darwinian internecine struggle. The Egyptian army acquiesced in the departure of its champion, President Mubarak, when his position became unsustainable and, after more than 30 years, he no longer possessed the popularity or determination to retain his authority.
The whole idea of free elections was always a confidence trick, a stall, in which the Muslim Brotherhood — which brought down Mubarak, and had, 31 years before, assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat — showed some restraint in not taunting the army, promised not to run a presidential candidate, and envisioned a regime in which the legislature would dominate and the army would be well paid. As the constitutional council failed to produce even an indicative constitution, a game of chicken ensued, in which the army stated that it would not hand over power until there was a constitution, i.e., one in which they could either retain power or take it back at any time. The Brotherhood then said they would run a presidential candidate after all. Army-dominated agencies disqualified most candidates, and finally gutted the powers of both the congress and the president, and delayed at their convenience the confirmation of the universally assumed fact that the Brotherhood candidate (though not its first candidate) had won the election.
It all somewhat resembles the recent history of Algeria, whose constitution empowered and instructed the army to be the guarantor of democracy. This led in 1992 to the interruption of a two-stage election that was going to elevate an anti-democratic Islamist party, and also to a prolonged civil war, in which 300,000 Algerians died. Egyptians are less violent than Algerians, and despite the Ruritanian over-costuming and parading of the Egyptian army, and all the pompous pronunciamentos of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of that country, the Egyptian army has never been overly frightening, even when it did briefly pierce the Israeli Bar Lev Line in 1973. The Algerian army, however, which fought through the war of independence with France (1954–62), in which perhaps 500,000 people died, is a serious and an unambiguously victorious force and has reimposed secular order.
Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, is unstable, and Libya, Yemen, and, of course, Syria, are virtually in chaos. Egypt will go on floundering, as neither the army nor the Brotherhood has the slightest ability to pull Egypt out of its economic dyspepsia, aggravated by an unsustainably high birthrate. There is, unfortunately, no reason to be confident that Iraq will make the cut either: There is still no real progress toward federalism in the sharing of oil revenues, and Baghdad’s writ does not run in Kurdistan. Maliki may hang on to power, but he cannot be said to have been reelected. In the broad arc of the Islamic world, from the Atlantic to the gates of India, only Turkey, Morocco, and Jordan have shown the slightest aptitude for self-government. Turkey has been a Great or at least significant Power for 600 years. Morocco was an independent country for centuries before the French occupied it shortly before World War I. And Jordan — “invented” as he wrote, by Winston Churchill, “on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem” in 1921 — has a crafty Hashemite dynasty in which a Bedouin minority carefully rules a Palestinian majority.
The potential for most Islamic countries to become completely dysfunctional and erupt in atrocities and disintegrate into terrorist breeding grounds is now too familiar to merit much elaboration. The George W. Bush crusade for democracy — and, to be fair to him, it was the policy of Jimmy Carter also — now appears to be a product of the same painfully naïve school that held in 1964 and 1965 that we could defeat the Communists in South Vietnam by building schools, bridges, and clinics, as if the opposition response would be anything except to blow them up and kill anyone who collaborated. Despite the vast experience accumulated in America’s unexampled rise from colonial obscurity to unprecedented paramountcy in the world in less than three long lifetimes from Yorktown to the fall of the Berlin Wall, there seems to be some hobgoblin that washes and hijacks the brains of American policy planners from time to time and propels them like Gadarene robots toward an ahistorical fantasy that altruism alone will make the world right.