Politics & Policy

Making Sense of the Arab Spring

It is extremely hard to do.

Now that we are a couple of months into the Arab Spring, it is timely to reflect that no one seems to have the faintest idea what, if anything, is the importance of it. Mubarak has gone as president of Egypt, but it is not clear which of the military, the Muslim Brotherhood (the wolf in sheep’s clothing that assassinated Anwar Sadat and is an association of Islamic extremists, as can be assumed from the New York Times’ credulous whitewashing of it), or the democratic protesters will emerge as Egypt’s leading political force. What is clear is that no one has yet emerged to agitate for economic-growth policies that alone could mitigate the poverty and hidebound primitiveness of Egypt’s ancient dependence on the verdant ribbon on both sides of the Nile to sustain an ever-growing population, now over 80 million.

Nor is there much evidence of substantive change in Tunisia, or any reason to believe that more democracy in either country, if it occurs at all, will actually lead to any accelerated economic progress, which is all that can ultimately sustain democracy. In the other Arab countries that have been shaken by protests, the litmus test is: Will the authorities order the firing of live ammunition at protesters; will the orders be carried out; and will force prevail? Even when well intentioned, mobs are cowardly and easy to crush if the security forces have the stomach for it; the whole playbook was written by Napoleon at St. Cloud in 1799, with a whiff of grapeshot from his artillery. The Arab Street is a fraud and where the security forces take orders, they are as quiet, if not as hygienic and fragrant, as a sheep fold.

The Algerians have no problem shooting demonstrators in adequate numbers; neither do the Syrians, but it is hard to see how the capricious tyranny of 11 percent of Syrians, the Alawis, can go on dominating the whole country, at gun and bayonet point, in the name of a 45-year-old ophthalmologist from Ealing (London), Basher Assad. His father was a surpassing despot, who had a sure sense of when to pat his countrymen on the head and when to crush them under the treads of his tanks. Qaddafi is trying to kill all his enemies, and will almost certainly lose. Yemen is essentially a tribal and sectarian struggle, and democracy has almost nothing to do with it. The West will not soon get a more suitable leader than the long-serving incumbent, President Saleh, devious and brutal though he is, and he hasn’t left yet, and is firing live ammunition at the protesters. The Saudis appear to have bought off everyone, once again. The Egyptians didn’t dare to be great trigger-pullers. Jordan’s problems seem to be abating, and were essentially squabbles between the Bedouin founders and inheritors of the Kingdom, and the Palestinian majority. The present king’s father, Hussein, resolved the problem when he smashed Black September in 1971, and there is no reason to doubt that King Abdullah could do the same if put to the test.

Bahrain is rich and equitable; the problem is between the governing Sunni Khalifa dynasty and the adequately wealthy and free Shiite majority (the average per capita income is $27,000). The Saudis have made it clear they will not stand for the overthrow of the Bahraini rulers, and that should be the end of it, after more or less rigorous crowd control. It is essentially a contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis have been invited in and are the adjoining power, and they, at least, have a vivid sense of their national interest, unholy confection of a petro-regime though Saudi Arabia is. Saudi Arabia is an implausible joint venture between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi establishment, and it finances 95 percent of the world’s inflammatory Islamic institutions, but it is the best option on the menu for the world’s greatest oil importer. And of the Arab powers, only Morocco, and the relatively rich and efficient Qatar, Oman, and the Emirates, have been as quiet. (Morocco has an extensive history of self-government and a relatively legitimate monarchy, and was one of the few countries that had free-trade arrangements, albeit governing small amounts of goods, with the United States, in the 19th century.) The West Bank is calm.

Iraq emerges as one of the stablest countries in the Arab world, ruffled occasionally by relapse into the well-established local penchant for suicide bombings. Throughout the Arab world, few Israeli flags have been burned, few Palestinian flags are being waved about, and the ancient preoccupation with the red herring of Israel — which was always just a useful goad and sideshow for the Arab leadership and some other Muslims, while they oppressed their people and stole and squandered their money — has been absent. So it is not clear that the Arab Spring is going to accomplish anything except a shuffling of the face cards in the official deck in a few countries, or, at worst, radicalization of some countries.

The unspoken truths are that the Arabs have been in retreat for 1,300 years, since they were flung out of France by Charles Martel, and would be a flea-bitten mass of camel-drivers and casbah-dwellers — apart from the more astute groups, such as the Bedouins, Palestinians, and Christian Lebanese — if the British, French, and Americans had not discovered oil in some of the countries. There is no evidence that most Arabs are much interested in civil liberties, though they are dissatisfied with wasteful and inept government, spreading the poverty downward and without a clue how to generate real economic growth. In their frustration, many Muslim Arabs have been transported by extreme versions of Islam as a substitute for a serious plan of action for greater liberty and economic growth.

Eastern Muslim countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, are relative success stories, as they are not afflicted by the Arab heritage of retreat and humiliation at the hands of the French, Spanish, British, Turks, and Persians. The Pakistanis blame their problems on the Indians; and India, the second-largest Muslim country, though there is a huge Hindu majority, enforces a rough, democratic pluralism. The Iranians have moved to exploit Arab sensibilities by going to the front of the line in Islamic militancy and Israelophobic bellicosity. The Iranians and the Turks are the bookends of Araby, though both are ancient and condescending overlords of the Arabs, and the Iranian game is obvious and only American lassitude can allow it to succeed.

The Turks, our gallant allies since World War II, irritated by clumsy Euro-rejection, are recoiling in unspontaneously rediscovered enthusiasm for a new role of friend to the Arabs: less extreme and theocratic than the Iranians, but also pandering shamelessly to anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, the West has been hobbled by American political correctness and the ultimately self-destructive European practice of, in the words of the present pope, replacing the unborn with hostile (Muslim) immigration. In this vortex, there is a reluctance among non-Muslim leaders to call things and people by their rightful names. This may be as much courtesy as cowardice, though it combines elements of both, and the worst of it has been the Obama appeasement of the evil regime in Tehran.

The West’s failure to promote democracy seriously, to assist its friends in need, to impose a rigorous policy of atrocity-avoidance, or to distinguish between friends, pseudo-friends, and enemies, has created a vacuum in which blood-stained poltroons have some stature. Even Qaddafi is on the edge of his ejector seat because Bernard-Henri Lévy, grandfather of the stepson of the French president, set himself up as the liberator of Benghazi, and is already writing a book about his successful propulsion of his country into war. He is reducing the Libyan crisis to a Ruritanian slapstick farce, a sequel to a pandemic of Paris-boudoir peccadilloes. Anyone who can discern anything pan-Arab, profoundly transformative, or even coherent in these eructations is either a visionary or delusional. Interfaith prayers for the former option are justified, and could yet be answered.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


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