Honest reflection on the past twelve months of discontent, as manifested in various forms of revolutionary zeal, rhetoric, and violence, exposes a solitary thread weaving through all the demonstrations and “rebel” and “opposition” movements that cycloned through the Middle East and North Africa: In each case, local issues were the engines of public mobilization. Whether discussing Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, the tribal swaggering in Yemen, or demonstrators’ exploitation of opportunity (and Iranian money) in Bahrain, it is clear that the “Arab Spring” is a haphazard series of disconnected local events, united in time but varying greatly in motivation.
This idea contrasts with the all-too-frequent invocation of a loose web of universal values to explain these political outbursts. The Arab Spring is a set of rebellions against current rulers, but it has never been about a regional application of new systems of governance, mechanisms of accountability, or even sources of legitimacy. While some of the more thoughtful political movements have heralded democratization as a rallying siren, their sentiments were neither widely endorsed nor convincingly pursued.
Instead, democracy is rhetorically invoked to reinforce anti-democratic ideologies. Libya’s National Transitional Council has, according to Amnesty International, committed terrible atrocities against civilians. Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) pledges to construct and maintain Egyptian democracy while referring to women as “wives, mothers, and makers of men” and promising to help women in those roles. Similarly, the Al-Wefaq party in Bahrain demands democracy and, upon attaining that goal, boycotts elections while physically intimidating candidates, particularly women.
However loud the rhythmic chant of democracy may be, the transformation of any society cannot be achieved through balloting alone. Such political renovations require long and arduous processes to build public trust, institutionalize legal arbitration, and stabilize the national economy. While regular elections may be an important yardstick of a country’s democratic credentials, they are not infallible and, as events in the Middle East suggest, are likely to lead to a “tyranny of the majority” where the winner takes all.
The danger lies in the way some Westerners view the Middle East through the lens of their own values to describe the region of their imagination. Religion, in the sense of seeking to impose forms of worship on others, and tribal loyalties are political forces quite alien to the West’s recent experience. Yet looking back through the centuries, the West’s own history shows that no society can become a stable democracy, in which the rights of ethnic and religious minorities are protected, until religion and tribal loyalties have left the political stage.
This short-sightedness explains why the New York Times (among many others) was completely blind to the strength of the Islamist parties in Egypt’s elections. The cost of the rise of Islamism is now being paid in the persecution of Egypt’s minority Christian Copt community and, as U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton noted, in the mistreatment of Egypt’s women. Similarly, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, on a recent trip to Bahrain, almost in the same breath as describing the small and quite liberal (by Arab standards) island state as his favorite country in the region, went on to denounce it as a brutal, family-run dictatorship. Perhaps Mr. Kristof should first try North Korea. However, Kristof’s call for democracy is dangerous. If achieved, democracy would be a transitory way station on the road to Bahrain’s becoming a theocratic satellite of Tehran. Such peripatetic visitors and commentators are all too reminiscent of the fellow travelers of the 1920s and 1930s who visited the Soviet Union and returned to tell the world that they’d seen the future.
There is an international love affair with dysfunctional states that hold the occasional election, while those that respond to domestic pressures not through the ballot box, but rather by embarking on paths towards national reconciliation and constructive dialogue, have found themselves ignored or criticized as oppressors clinging to power.
Such neglect has only redoubled the efforts of the disgruntled, who take each reconciliatory move as part of some clandestine plot to humble dissent. This creates worries that the prevailing calm will be shattered by a tremendous convulsion, as legions of the ideologically indoctrinated, uninterested in constructing consensus, resort to senseless violence in the twisted hope that their martyrdom — and the forced martyrdom of others — will be justified by the ends. “Omelettes,” they reason, “cannot be made without breaking a few eggs.” But people are not eggs, and political violence must never be condoned.
Violence has turned the Arab Spring into an “Arab Winter,” a bleak period defined by mass migrations of Egyptians, Libyans, and Tunisians to Europe; by sporadic violence-as-temper-tantrum by the leaders and followers of a dozen anti-establishment groups in Bahrain; and by low-intensity tribal warfare in Yemen and high-intensity civil war in Syria, all as silence falls over the international community.
The cynicism brought by such seasonal change is made more acute by events in Iran, which is reaching for regional hegemony through internal repression and external doublespeak. Iran supports Syria’s crackdown against demonstrators; it raves for democracy abroad while executing some 500 people — mostly political prisoners — per year; it supports the Arab Spring but crushed the “Persian Summer” in 2009; and, most recently, it facilitated the storming of the U.K. embassy as revenge for Britain’s criticism of the Iranian regime.
The melancholic mood of the season must, however, be measured against a Winter Bloom that, with little fanfare, is setting a new standard of governance in the region. Morocco, Tunisia, and Bahrain, instead of deploying wanton violence in a “fire-and-forget” manner, have opened up channels of public discourse and are seeking to heal political fractures. Certainly, force has been used to break up — usually violent — protests. However, such force was not policy, but rather the excesses of individual officers.
Morocco’s King Mohammed has ceded powers, paving the way for a national dialogue to reform the kingdom’s parliamentary system. In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, upon election, took steps to reinforce the nation’s democratic transition through the opening of new institutional channels to fortify civil society. And in Bahrain, the al-Khalifas formed an independent inquiry (BICI) to examine the February–March 2011 unrest and pledged to adopt the inquiry’s recommendations, opening Bahrain up to a degree of internal and external scrutiny unheard of in any other Arab state.
These countries responded to reasonable demands in a reasonable manner. This is not to say they are ideal states that have produced flawless political systems; rather, they are attempting, earnestly, to construct a polity in sync with the demands of all their citizens.
Elsewhere, the Arab Spring is turning into an Arab Winter because of the dysfunctional, but common, use of democracy-as-rhetoric instead of constructing useful avenues of public discourse to boost civil society. Those states that do provide such spaces for conciliation, adjustment, and transition are routinely ostracized for not jumping — blindly — into an elections-based democracy before their body politic has been healed.
This reinforces the truth that there is no homogeneous region called the Arab world, filled with homogeneous Arab people making homogeneous demands on homogeneous governments. Instead, each country carries its own cultural baggage, historical experience, political approach, strategic orientation, and local perspective. Only by understanding and accepting the unique conditions existing within each state can progress be made in the Middle East as a whole. Instead of relying on rash, quick-fix democracy, emphasis needs to be placed on fostering national dialogue within each state, or else we will risk a swinging pendulum that will knock the Arab countries backwards and prevent them from assuming a proper place at the tables of the international community.
— Mitchell A. Belfer is editor of the Central European Journal of International & Security Studies, Metropolitan University, Prague.