What We Are Learning from the “Arab Spring”
It is sensible to ask what recent events generally termed the “Arab Spring” mean. That is, even if we identify winners and losers and good things and bad things is it more than a parlor game. One wit took umbrage at the term “Arab Spring” because everybody knows that there are only two seasons in the Arab world neither one of which is Spring. It’s always an easy and correct copout to say it’s too early to know, and indeed there are numerous strategic and political implications yet to be realized. But it remains true that leaders have been driven from four Arab countries – Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia – and there is nothing insignificant about this. Syria is teetering on the brink while others – Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon – have been influenced by the uprisings. As easy as it is to make a case in either direction I believe there are four trends, some of them positive but not all, to the events of the past year.
1. The people have spoken and are energized. It was common knowledge that most political action in Arab regimes was among the elites. That it was the elites who determined the future and set the agenda. The influence of popular will was considered minimal and easy to ignore. With strong military influences and authoritarian traditions the voices from the streets were easy to hold down. Tahrir square showed that this was no longer the case. Clearly a rational deliberative democracy is not going to break out in Egypt anytime soon, but there has been a power shift toward popular voices.
2. Popular will and democratic voices have unleashed support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The future will see the emergence of an Iranian presence and a developing role for political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed in Egypt and held at bay for decades – now they hold electoral power. It’s possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could be considered an antidote to Al Qaeda, a softening of the Al Qaeda message because the Brotherhood must deal with the practical political issues of the population. But it is also the case that the Muslim Brotherhood will produce increasing anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric, not to mention a stubborn and difficult relationship with Israel. The last thing Egypt needs is a war with Israel and troubles along the border with the Gaza Strip. But it’s difficult to imagine the parliamentary power of the Muslim Brotherhood making life easier for Israel.
3. The American foreign-policy position will have to do business with the Muslim Brotherhood and religious oriented political parties. The United States will simply have to reconcile itself to Islamist dominated parties in Arab countries. The US still makes the mistake of believing that elections are the most important facet of democracy. We still have not internalized that when you are “in for a dime you are in for a dollar.” In other words, if we support open and free elections then you must be able to live with the results. Ideally, democracy building starts with institutions and habits of the mind before elections. But on the other hand political Islam is in its infancy stages and will, I believe, be one of the most interesting political theory developments in the future. If Western countries can play a role in this development, then so much the better for the future of international relations.
4. Finally, I have been surprised by the behavior of the Saudi’s. For most of their history they have been a rich and politically lazy society that did little more than produce oil and religion topped off with a dollop of authoritarianism. Moreover, the basis of much of their foreign-policy has been simply to buy off enemies and do what is ever necessary for their own self-preservation. They seem to be continuing down this path and have little regard for the promotion of any sorts of freedom or rights for their own people. Their assignment of military forces to Bahrain was designed to squash any hint of liberal democracy and to make a statement that they were not could allow such dalliances in their neighborhood.
There remains plenty of political and social forces that will shape the post-Mubarak Egypt as well as other “Arab Spring” countries. Hopefully, the spirit of Tahrir square, with its sense of social solidarity, will continue.