Presumably, we are three months into a great “Arab Spring,” a revolutionary movement for democracy that swept across the Middle East after the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor on December 17, 2010, sparked protests that brought down an oppressive, incompetent, and corrupt Tunisian government one month later. The apparent analogy here is the “Prague Spring,” the eight-month liberalization Czechoslovakia enjoyed under Alexander Dubcek before Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks crushed the fragile experiment in August of 1968. More broadly, “Arab Spring” alludes to democratic revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe two decades after Prague, in 1989.
The unprecedented turnout on Saturday for what has been dubbed “the first real referendum in Egypt’s history” seems to confirm that the Arab world’s most populous country is happily ambling down the path to democracy. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry hailed popular enthusiasm for the referendum as he toured Tahrir Square. By overwhelmingly approving a series of constitutional amendments, the Egyptian people have set the stage for parliamentary and presidential elections under a reformulated and decidedly more democratic constitution. The great Arab Spring is in blossom.
Or is it? Are we quite certain that this Arab Spring even exists? The crowds that have poured for months into the great public spaces of capitals and bustling cities throughout the Arab world may appear to our eyes like European democratic revolutionaries past. On occasion they even tell us that this is what they represent. But do they?
Let us recall that politically significant outpourings of large crowds were by no means unheard of in the bad-old undemocratic Arab world. In January 1952, thousands of young Egyptian protesters marched on downtown Cairo, sparking mayhem and fires reminiscent of the early Cairo protests of 2011. Economic decline among peasants and the emerging middle classes, combined with an increasingly corrupt constitutional monarchy and ruling liberal elite, had discredited Egypt’s fledgling democratic experiment. The mass protests in Cairo that January were a prelude to the young officers’ coup against King Farouk nine months later, a move ratified and cemented by yet another mass outpouring of joyous Egyptians into the streets of Cairo.
Fifteen years later, in 1967, Gamal Abdel Nasser, modern Egypt’s great charismatic hero, the man who had successfully seized the Suez Canal from the former colonial powers, offered his resignation to the Egyptian people in the wake of his shocking defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War. Millions poured into the streets to reject this resignation (even as the traumatic pain of that defeat spelled the end of Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalist dream, soon provoking the rise of Islamism as a substitute ideology).
This is why we speak of an “Arab Street.” At critical junctures in Egypt’s history, monarchs and politicians have stood by helplessly as the fate of their regimes was determined by mass outpourings on the streets of Cairo. Those crowds may have ratified and given birth to popular autocracies, but liberal democracy is not what they were about — except insofar as Egypt’s single experiment in liberal democracy was abolished on its streets. So have we been witnessing an Arab Spring, or merely a new iteration of illiberal regime change via the Arab Street instead?
Writing at The Weekly Standard on the day before Egypt’s recent referendum, Lee Smith argued that a “yes” vote ratifying the proposed constitutional amendments “may mean that Egypt’s revolution is over — or that is was a Muslim Brotherhood–driven campaign from the outset.” Strong words, but arguably true. Certainly, in light of the 77.2 percent margin for “yes,” we ought to consider Smith’s point.
Despite the impressive popular enthusiasm for the first real referendum in Egypt’s history, the proposed amendments were favored by the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Approval of these limited constitutional changes will lead to rapid elections, which favor these two illiberal parties, already the most powerful political forces in Egypt. Against this, the spectrum of parties that were the public face of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Tahrir Square had called for a “no” vote, a more comprehensive constitutional rewrite, and elections delayed long enough to allow their fledgling political organizations to cultivate a popular base.
So the massive “yes” vote exposes the supposedly liberal demonstrators of Tahrir Square as a weak national force, and strips away the legitimacy behind any further efforts to delay elections. The referendum also places the power of a more radical reshaping of the constitution in the hands of a parliament likely to be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party. More disturbing still, I argue that even the supposedly liberal parties that advocated a “no” vote on Saturday’s referendum are actually a largely illiberal and anti-Western force of hard-leftists and Nasserite nationalists.
Of course, we have seen enthusiastic participation in Middle Eastern elections before. Enough said.
We also saw a disturbing incident this weekend in which presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei was violently attacked by apparently organized Islamist thugs. Although ElBaradei has worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood in the past, he broke with them on this referendum, staying with the more secular parties in his opposition coalition and recommending a “no” vote. Isolated incident? Or did this attack on ElBaradei strip away the democratic facade, revealing the illiberal well-springs of the enthusiasm behind at least a good part of this weekend’s mass electoral turnout? (Or were the attackers paid thugs, another kind of bad sign?)
It is fair to point out that framing the referendum in the first place as a “yes” or “no” to constitutional changes that favored the entrenched parties must have biased the vote toward a “yes.” Not everyone who voted “yes” strongly supported either the Muslim Brotherhood or the National Democratic Party. The case for a “no” vote may have had too little chance to penetrate the hinterlands. The meaning of the vote is not transparent, then. On the other hand, these confounding factors exemplify the dilemmas of Egypt’s few liberals (and of its secular but illiberal Leftist and Nasserite parties as well).
So is a genuinely liberal democratizing wave sweeping the Middle East, or did the fall of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali simply reveal to all of those oppressed or disappointed by a failed Middle Eastern system that the existing powers were vulnerable? Arab Spring, or Arab Street? Time will tell.