Politics & Policy

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.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Commentary on the Arab Spring is much like the famous parable of the blind men learning about an elephant by touching it: Most observers glimpse limited aspects of a complex phenomenon, but have trouble comprehending the whole. It is difficult not to sympathize with those who have joined the uprisings, as they stand against despotic regimes that have deprived them of so much. But we shouldn’t let our sympathies interfere with our ability to understand how our enemies — al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups — understand the Arab Spring, and how they hope to capitalize on the changes it brings.

From al-Qaeda’s perspective, waiting out the Arab Spring and exploiting popular discontent may well be a winning strategy. Many commentators think the Arab Spring was devastating to al-Qaeda because jihadism was marginal to these protests. As the journalist Peter Bergen put it in an interview I conducted with him for my forthcoming book: “Have you seen a single person carrying a placard with Osama bin Laden’s face on it? Has anybody been mouthing al-Qaeda’s talking points? Have you seen a single American flag burning? It’s an ideological catastrophe for them.” But this seems to misconceptualize the nature of al-Qaeda, which is a vanguard movement rather than a mass movement. This is not to say that al-Qaeda doesn’t want to be a mass movement, but the fact that it hasn’t become one over the past decade does not demonstrate that the group is dead.

To al-Qaeda, one lesson of the Arab Spring is the limitations of U.S. power. As American allies in the region fell, the U.S. was relegated to the sidelines, wringing its hands about whether to throw in its lot with the people on the street.

In the short term, these events have created a more permissive operating environment for jihadis. Violent Islamists were released from prison in Egypt and Libya without al-Qaeda lifting a finger. A senior U.S. military intelligence analyst who has followed regional developments told me, “A significant talent pool that was previously incarcerated is now back on the streets.” Jailbreaks equaling the magnitude of these releases would have been near-impossible during the Mubarak years. Meanwhile al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, smuggled weapons out of Libya during the chaos. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch, captured territory in Abyan province while the government was preoccupied with the spread of protests to its territory.

We haven’t seen Islamic law implemented or a caliphate established as a result of the Arab Spring, of course, but al-Qaeda probably foresees a more fertile recruiting environment. The Arab Spring is not just about the desire for democracy. It is also about unemployment and skyrocketing food prices. Will material needs be met? Unemployment in Egypt has increased rather than decreased since Mubarak was overthrown. Historically when sky-high expectations (as you’ve had with the Arab Spring) go unfulfilled, extreme ideologies can take hold.

This is not to deny any of the positive developments that have come of the Arab Spring. But the violent non-state actors we have been fighting for the past decade almost certainly do not view the regional unrest as devastating to their cause; and they will be keenly watching how they might capitalize.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011), and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Caroline Glick

For generations the Arab world was governed by autocrats. Some have been more violent, repressive, anti-Western, and radical than others. So, too, the majority of citizens in the Arab world have for generations harbored opinions that are anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, and anti-American.

In the last eight months, the U.S. has supported populist overthrows of the autocrats of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, all of whom were relatively less violent, less repressive, and less anti-American, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian. At the same time, the U.S. has failed to support populist protesters seeking to overthrow the relatively more violent, repressive, anti-American, and anti-Jewish regime in Syria. President Obama’s recent call for Assad to be deposed has not been matched by a policy with a chance of accomplishing this goal. The administration’s decision to place additional sanctions on Syria has no chance of toppling the regime, just as similar sanctions have failed to displace or destabilize the regime in Iran.

It is too early to know the shape of things to come in Libya. It is true that Qaddafi is a madman with a history of supporting terror. But it is also true that for the past seven years Qaddafi was essentially neutered and posed no threat to the U.S. or its allies. The fact that the U.S. is concerned about the fate of Libya’s non-conventional weapons is a clear indicator that a post-Qaddafi Libya will present dangers to the U.S. and its allies. Another cause for worry is the presence of al-Qaeda among the still largely unidentified rebel militias.

As for Egypt, even before last Thursday’s terror attack against Israel it had become clear that the warnings against overthrowing Mubarak issued by myself and others were well-founded, and that the American commentators, administration officials, and reporters who foresaw a burgeoning liberal democracy were engaged in wishful thinking. As we warned would happen, over the past several months the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the strongest political force in Egypt. The ruling military junta has built close ties to the group. Supposedly liberal political parties have joined a political coalition with the Brotherhood. And there is little distinction between so-called liberals and Islamists when it comes to wishing to abrogate Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

On Wednesday, it was reported that several of the terrorists who participated in the murderous cross-border attack on Israel from Egypt last Thursday were Egyptians. At a minimum, these terrorists benefited from gross laxness on the part of Egyptian forces along the border. In all likelihood, those forces participated in the attacks.

It is quickly becoming apparent that the misnamed Arab Spring has been a boon for Israel’s enemies, has wrecked U.S. credibility as an ally in the Arab world, and likely will not lead to the establishment of liberal democracies anywhere in the Arab world for the foreseeable future.

Caroline Glick is author of Shackled Warrior: Israel and the Global Jihad

Victor Davis Hanson

Everyone sympathizes with the popular outrage against the kleptocratic Arab strongmen, who finally looted too much even for the Middle East. No one knows what follows their removal. Some worry that those reformers — Westernized and apparently moderate — whom we naturally wish to see at the forefront of forming constitutional societies, and who seem disproportionately to appear on CNN and the BBC to reassure us, are in reality in a minority, given the better-connected and organized Islamists movements. And while it is true that there are vast regional differences in the Arab Spring, there are depressing commonalities (absence of popular commitment to human rights and minority protections, gender apartheid, tribalism, religious intolerance, statist and redistributive economies, anti-Semitism, etc.) that make democratization in the region hard without the humiliation of military defeat followed by costly occupation and reconstruction by American troops — something that is now politically impossible and impracticable after Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Why have we not invested the same sort of effort in wishing the Iranian theocracy and Assad gone, as we have with Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi — given that these deposed or nearly deposed kleptocrats did not pose the same present dangers to U.S. and Western interests as do Iran and Syria? We announced that we would not “meddle” when a million protesters hit the streets of Tehran, and in Syria we restored diplomatic relations, sought “outreach” to that criminal regime, and dubbed Assad a reformer. 

If the belated campaign to pile on in support of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya was a precursor of more to come against our two real enemies, Syria and Iran, then bravo. But if we focus only on either pro-American dictators or unhinged dictators of small countries of 7 million, while the two real problems in the region remain immune, then we may end up with a Syrian-Iranian-dominated region, or a Mogadishu-style chaos that will be fertile ground for Islamization rather than pro-Western constitutional states as we would hope.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

Michael Ledeen

Nobody knows how the “Spring” will turn out (it’s not just “Arab,” since the initial insurrection — which inspired the others — was in Iran, which is not very Arab). On the one hand, Americans should cheer whenever a tyrant falls. On the other hand, most revolutions fail, and sometimes things get even worse than they were before. Time will tell. I’d be more optimistic if our leaders supported democratic revolutionaries, but no president since Reagan has seriously attempted that.

NRO contributing editor Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West.

Clifford D. May

Here’s what we know: The Muslim world is in the throes of a major transformation. Here’s what we don’t know: whether it will end in cheers or tears.

Whenever a despot falls, especially one with American blood on his hands, I raise a glass and offer a toast. I do not, however, hang out a banner saying “Mission Accomplished” — not because that would be untrue, but because it’s wise to remember that the most challenging missions lie ahead. 

Qaddafi was a tin-pot dictator, but he had oil wells. He was a buffoon, but he provided no amusement to those — such as Libyan freedom-fighter Fathi Eljahmi — who suffered in his torture chambers and died in his dungeons.

Qaddafi’s fall will provide an opportunity for freedom’s advance — but no guarantee. Indeed, history teaches that most revolutions fail. The shah of Iran was followed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Russia went from the Tsars to the commissars. And now there is Putin and Medvedev. I’m reminded of the old saying that sometimes progress means teaching a cannibal to eat with a knife and fork.

American intervention in Libya was primarily humanitarian in intent. Qaddafi threatened to turn Benghazi into a slaughterhouse. To stand silently by while that happened, as we did when genocide was carried out in Rwanda, seemed like the worst of a number of bad choices.

Libya’s rebels should be grateful for American and European assistance but we know — not least from our experience in Afghanistan, where we supported indigenous efforts to oust Soviet oppressors — that gratitude is not an emotion jihadis experience. 

There are Libyans who do not want Taliban types telling them how to live and what it means to be a Muslim. There are many who would be very pleased to see Libya’s oil wealth shared with them — not spent by others for causes far from Libya’s shores. The trick is to strengthen these people and to weaken their enemies who also are our enemies.

Syria is a different situation. It is a major strategic concern. As scholar Michael Doran recently wrote, what is at stake in Syria today“is nothing less than the future of the Iranian regional security system.”

We don’t know who or what will follow Assad. We do know that the geo-political map will look different and that Iran and Hezbollah are unlikely to be pleased with what they see. We need to do what we can to speed Assad’s fall (some suggestions are here) and help shape the events and institutions that follow.

 — Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam.

Emanuele Ottolenghi

The Arab Spring’s provisional score card is not encouraging. It has only gathered pace in five countries out of the Arab League’s 22 members. In Syria, the tyrant stands and so does his machine of repression. Elsewhere, the tyrant was toppled, but what comes next is another story. 

A tyrant’s fall is no guarantee that democracy follows — Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad overthrew dictators; and the delirious crowds who literally ripped the late Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Said apart on the streets of Baghdad in 1958 did not get rid of a Hashemite king to install democracy. Neither was that Nasser’s goal when he ousted King Farouk. The fall of a tyrant does not translate into “Spring,” if by spring we wish to evoke a parallel with Prague in 1968 or Central and Eastern Europe in 1989.

Another word of caution — in the history of revolutions, those who initiate the convulsed journey of radical and sometimes violent change are not necessarily the ones who lead by the time the revolution is over. The Bastille begat terror — and then Napoleon; the Mensheviks were swept away by Lenin; Iran’s rainbow opposition took down the shah — then, Khomeini took them apart.

Even in the best-case scenario — something rare in the region’s history — it is not clear that citizens of Arab countries, once they are given the chance to choose their leaders, will embrace democracy and support democrats. There are alluring alternatives on offer.

In 1989, Eastern European nations sought to free themselves from the yoke of Soviet and Communist oppression and looked to democracy as the only viable political alternative to their predicament. The ideology behind the regimes they sought to topple was a spent force and had lost any of the appeal it may have had in the past. Transition to democracy was never in question, and the switch from the Warsaw Pact to NATO, from Communist dictatorships to liberal democracies, did not encounter robust domestic opposition, save maybe from the old Communists, whose views were largely discredited. 

In 1989, democracy had no serious alternative in Eastern Europe. In 2011, democracy finds in Islamism — the ideology of the opposition in much of the Arab world — a fierce competitor. 

2011 may thus turn out to be a big disappointment for democracy promoters in the Arab world and their Western supporters.

— Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

James Phillips

The promise of the so-called “Arab Spring,” which dislodged autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, has melted down in a violent summer of struggle, after Arab dictatorships cracked down on popular protests in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, among other places. The outcome of the popular yearning for freedom is likely to be different in each country, depending on the strength of pro-reform forces, the willingness of ruling regimes to accommodate popular demands for change, the capacity of regimes to resist change, and the balance of power between rival political factions that seek to fill the political vacuums created by sudden political upheavals.

The countries burdened with the worst dictatorships — Libya, Syria, and Yemen — have been plunged into violent civil wars that will make successful transitions to stable democracies very difficult. In Tunisia and Egypt, where autocrats were toppled but substantial portions of the regimes remain in power, the transition has been incomplete and increasingly threatened by growing political polarization. Tunisia probably has the best chance of becoming a stable democracy, given its relatively large middle class, well-educated population, and relatively secular political culture. In Egypt, the army, Muslim Brotherhood, and liberal reformers are locked in an uncomfortable triangular relationship as they push rival political agendas.

The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to come to power through elections in Egypt and through violent revolution in Syria and possibly Libya. This will greatly complicate U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. In addition, Islamist extremists such as al-Qaeda, which took a back seat during the initial phase of the popular revolts, are likely to grow stronger after the downfall of the old regimes creates power vacuums, political disarray, and economic collapses that they can exploit. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has already benefited from the turmoil in Yemen, and Palestinian and Egyptian Islamists have cooperated with Bedouin smugglers to carve out a staging area in the Sinai Peninsula for attacks on Israel. Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups are likely to take advantage of the political anarchy that has developed in Libya today and is likely to develop in Syria tomorrow.

The bottom line is that the initial democratic impetus that infused many of the disparate groups that forged the “Arab Spring” is not likely to last through the course of the unpredictable political revolutions that have been launched. When the revolutions start eating their children, idealistic democrats are likely to be swallowed up by better organized, better funded, highly motivated Islamist movements, or by military leaders who seek to restore order in societies wracked by political infighting.

James Phillips is senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

Daniel Pipes

Round one of the Middle Eastern upheavals consisted of uncannily parallel coups d’état in Tunisia and Egypt. In both countries, street demonstrations prompted the security/military establishment to rid itself of a rapacious, unpopular president. Events moved so quickly because, faced with rejection by their own institutional power bases, Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak had little choice but to resign. Each was rapidly replaced by another security/military leader who kept most of the governing institutions, practices, and policies in place. Neither liberals nor Islamists made much of a difference over the subsequent half year.

Round two consists of the near-certain overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya and the likely overthrow of the Assad dynasty in Syria, as well as the Saleh regime in Yemen. In all three cases, revolution is under way. Should these leaders fall, so will the institutions of their rule, leading to chaos and the eventual founding of entirely new governments. In the Syrian and Yemeni cases, there could well be no effective central government but instead the devolution of power to regions, ethnicities, ideological groups, or tribes.

In other words, the second round is more consequential than the first. Further, the five aforementioned states may not be the only ones in play. Algeria and Jordan could undergo similar processes of upheaval and revolution. Plus, picking up from the repressed riots of 2009, some small spark could set off a conflagration in Iran, the Middle East’s most disruptive state.

Round three could even follow, consisting of regional breakups. Prime candidates here include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Turkey.

In brief, we could be just at the start of a wild ride in the world’s most volatile region.

— Daniel Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

Claudia Rosett

Where stands the Arab Spring? It may be more illuminating to regard it as the Arab Eruption, ripping fissures in the tyrannical bedrock of the Middle East and North Africa and releasing pressures that are right now enormously volatile. Nor is it strictly the Arabs who are involved. Uprisings have rocked the region, from the city streets of Iran to the tribal areas of North Africa. It is hugely compelling to sympathize with oppressed people risking their lives to dethrone their despots. It is also deeply dangerous, because the region is rife with terror-linked Islamist forces seeking to co-opt these uprisings — from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Iranian-backed terrorists of Hezbollah who have already hijacked Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution.

In landscapes such as this, what usually matters is the man with a plan and the resources to back him — whether a Vladimir Lenin, Ayatollah Khomeini, or George Washington. There are Islamists with plans galore, from the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, to the mullahs of Iran, to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and its terrorist brethren, such as Hamas. The democratic forces are unentrenched and far less well-organized. This is where American policy matters. So far, it has been volatile, with the U.S. abandoning Iran’s protesters in 2009; leading from behind to provide genocide-prevention services in Libya; and taking much longer to call for the resignation of Syria’s terror-sponsoring, bloody-handed Bashar al-Assad than that of Egypt’s now-deposed and relatively pro-U.S. Hosni Mubarak. Much now depends on whether the U.S. provides leadership in the Middle East — by promoting the interests of the free world, including those of its beleaguered democratic ally, Israel — or alternately stands by watching and following the crowd.

— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

Amir Taheri

This summer, the Arab Spring is doing well — in fact, better than I had expected. Even if Qaddafi manages to do some more mischief, Libya is set to move on. As for Assad, he seems determined to implement his father’s policy of rule by mass killing. However, he, too, is sure to run out of options. The model of the Arab state based on the military-security axis has failed.

As far as democratization is concerned, the situation varies from country to country. Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria have the potential needed for such a shift. Libya does not. However, NATO’s deep involvement in Libya gives the Western powers a big say, which they could use in support of pluralist forces. Yemen has been a semi-democracy, in Arab terms, at least since the late 1990s and would also be able to move further in that direction. Ali Abdullah Saleh is unlikely to return from Saudi Arabia, at least not as president. The West should treat what is happening in the Arab world as something on par with what led to the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. This requires genuine commitment and a strategy to support democratic change.

I don’t expect the Western powers to mobilize the kind of resources they provided in support of Central and Eastern European nations throwing off the Soviet yoke. However, I think a similar effort, though on a more modest scale, could help Arabs emerge from their dark night of despotism and terror.

Of course, history is not written in advance, and the current Arab revolt may produce as disappointing a result as the first Arab revolt almost a century ago. Nevertheless, keeping my fingers crossed, I remain optimistic and expect other Arab despots to be toppled. We are witnessing a change of context as Arabs look for a new model of government to realize their hopes and aspirations.

Amir Taheri’s forthcoming book is The Kingdom of Allah: The Struggle for Saudi Arabia.

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