The sufferings of Egyptians and Syrians will go on for decades. That will allow plenty of time for think tanks, graduate students, journalists, op-ed writers, scholars and security analysts to build or enhance their careers on the ‘lessons’ of these events. This essay offers the one lesson that none of these efforts will produce. It is that, if the Middle East has a future, it does not lie with freedom, democracy, ‘empowering’ this or that favored sector of society, investing in this or that or the other thing, shoring up anti-something efforts, or ‘standing up’ for something-or-other. It lies, for better or however worse, with Islam.
This is not an Islamist claim. It doesn’t really have a lot to do with the nature of Islam in any of its forms. It has to do with the role of liberals in the so-called Arab Spring, and with the role of the political tendencies and institutions they hold dear. The following will argue this from the conduct and motivations of liberals in Egypt and Syria, and from the record of secular government in the region. To examine this conduct, you need to consider the nature of the events we’re dealing with.
Their very name invites distortion. The term 'Arab Spring' reveals the delusions deliberately or, much more often, unthinkingly promoted by those who sympathise with the now-failed revolts in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia (which won't be discussed here). The spring in the name comes from the 1968 "Prague Spring", well-known as Czechoslovakia's nonviolent striving towards nice, Western, democratic ideals. The idea was to portray the revolts in the same way: nice, non-violent, pro-Western, pro-democracy, and 'democracy' in the Polly-Annish Western sense of a practice where only People Like Us get elected.
None of this applies to the revolts.
Even in Egypt, they were not non-violent: indeed this lie is also a grievous insult to the heroic Egyptians who fought police and snipers like lions. The idea that only non-violent resisters should be held up for admiration pervades not only Western but middle class Middle Eastern propaganda. Apparently, it is only in the West that fighting tyrants is acceptable.
As for nice ideals, that held for the leadership and much of the vanguard in the very first days of the revolts. But this induces a misunderstanding: that the vanguard was the heart and soul of these uprisings.
They were not. Had this been true, the 'Arab Spring' would have been just another of the many pointless middle class cameos in the story of stagnant or dynamically monstrous Middle Eastern régimes. There would have been some arrests and things would have got right back to normal. But it was what's annoyingly called the 'Arab Street' that was out to finish what the middle class liberals started. The ordinary Egyptians (and Syrians), the ones who didn't make themselves heard on web sites or social media, were not Prague Spring types. (When the song Sout al horreya refers to hunger, it is not singing about the middle class.) They were religious and had become increasingly so as the hopes raised by Nasser’s secularist vision faded. Their religion, as it reached out to those trapped in poverty, inevitably acquired political overtones. It affected their notions of freedom and democracy: Morsi’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, did not count as some dangerous threat to their version of those ideals. Unlike the middle class, they wanted real social change, better lives, not institutional reform. Some of them wanted power. They felt their time had come, and their rule would not conform to a liberal, secularist model.
The recent history of resistance to the state testifies to this. Those who died opposing the military in Egypt were, overwhelmingly, Muslim Brotherhood, and this after the middle class ushered in a military dictatorship in the name of liberal values. In Syria, when resistance had to arm itself or perish, it was Islamist militias who increasingly dominated the middle class movements with their business-suited leaders in Turkey or Europe. These Islamist movements were not the heart and soul of the demonstrations that are now reviewed with nostalgia. But they were the heart, soul and muscle of resistance, when the going got really tough and rebel units, in the face of massacres outside the main urban centers, established themselves in the countryside & smaller cities. And as usual, in the countryside, people were more conservative and less liberal.
What the middle class liberals started gained historic significance because it almost instantaneously drew in hundreds of thousands who were neither middle class nor liberal. How did the liberals react?
The liberals’ conduct.
In Egypt, their reaction can be summed up in few words. When Egypt’s first free and fair election brought in Mohamed Morsi, whom they considered an Islamist, they spun tales of how he was a sinister authoritarian in disguise.[i] They poo-pooed the idea that democracy was as it had been defined for two thousand years, as majority rule, and decided it had to guarantee that liberal voices and ideologies predominated. More important, they decided that yes, they actually preferred the murdering, torturing military to Morsi, who they feared was the thin edge of a Brotherhood wedge. The very idea that they didn’t know what their prominent participation in Morsi’s overthrow would bring to Egypt is beneath contempt.
In Syria, it’s more complex.
The liberals fall into three categories – ex-officers in the Syrian armed forces, exile politicians, and highly literate activists. Though middle class, they could not have behaved more differently from their Egyptian counterparts. For the most part they steadfastly refused to abandon their Islamist allies, despite strong pressure from the US.
Perhaps the liberals relied on the Islamist forces to keep Assad at bay. Perhaps, adequately supported by the US, they would have turned on the ‘extremist’ militias. But the fact is, they never did. This, however, proved the undoing of the Syrian revolution.
Here the fateful decision for the liberals was not so much with whom to ally domestically, but with whom to ally outside the country. They chose, or tried to choose, the West. They did not choose the region's counterpart to Morsi: Erdogan, incessantly labeled an anti-liberal authoritarian. To have chosen Erdogan would have meant, were the revolution to succeed, decisive Turkish involvement and influence. This would mean, in turn, that the liberals were irreparably subordinated to the Islamist tendencies represented by Erdogan himself and by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. The liberals, it seems, were not dead set against alliance with such forces when it was a matter of physical survival. But to accept Islamist leadership, if not immediately then in Syria's future, was something the liberals could not contemplate. So they persisted in their dream that they were indeed fighting for Freedom and Democracy, and so was 'Syria' itself.
But those where not 'Syria's' objectives. A large though unknown proportion of Syria's anti-Assad masses weren’t liberals; they were likely more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood itself. (Indeed despite strenuous efforts to highlight the role of women in the demonstrations, the crowds were overwhelmingly male, to an extent that defies attempts to present the 2011 uprising as predominantly secularist.) Many others, not Islamist or even conservative, turned to the Islamist militias as their best counter to Assad. Western governments knew this and quickly soured on the revolution. Long before the emergence of ISIS and ‘Al-Qaeda affiliated’ group, the West was nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood component of the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army. Though it took some time to become apparent, once this happened, the game was up.
From the very start of its ‘efforts’, the US and denied the rebels anti-aircraft weapons they feared might fall into the hands of the rebels’ Islamist battlefield allies. Without such weapons, the rebels couldn’t hang on to their territorial gains and couldn’t protect their civilian populations. Soon arms deliveries slowed to a trickle. The same fear of Islamist domination prompted the US to decide it didn’t, after all, want the revolution to succeed, nor even give it the support it needed to survive. And it did not survive. So the choice of the West over Erdogan was indeed fateful, and the liberals played a major role in making it.
By allying, not with Turkey but with 'the West', i.e. the US and its ever-serviceable partner, Jordan, the liberals had mired the Syrian uprising in false hopes and, eventually, worse, a partly successful attempt to convert the desperate revolutionary forces away from rebellion, to become mere Western proxies in the fight against ISIS. It was also to invite the West to promote reliably anti-Islamist forces, the Kurdish PKK, in preference to the rebels and in sneaking, tacit alliance with Assad.
Turkey held the only promise of deposing Assad, because it held the only promise of an understanding between the anti-Assad forces, Russia and Iran. Turkey couldn’t care less that Russia annexed the Crimea, nor that Russia wanted an expanded presence in the Mediterranean. It didn’t care about Hezbollah and had important economic ties to Iran. There was, then, a chance that Russia and Iran could be persuaded to sideline Assad in return for an important regional ally who would be fine with an expansion of Russian bases in the area. On the other hand, a rebel-US alliance meant that potential allies, Iran and Russia, had to be enemies.
The liberals’ choice also hobbled Turkey. The West’s bright idea for fixing Syria was to support the YPG, the Syrian branch of the Kurdish PKK. They were Assad’s allies and Erdogan's military enemies. On top of this, the West (and sometimes the liberals) consistently incited secularist rebel units against hard-line Islamist forces, so that the rebels were weakened still further. Erdogan, beset by a pro-Assad opposition, potential Russian pushback and the US’ protection of the Kurds, could not provide the military muscle the rebels needed. So the US betrayal was the end of the road. Choosing the West meant, unwillingly, unknowingly but unavoidably, choosing Assad. That was the terrible price for placing faith in Western democracies.
Why did the liberals make their choices?
Though the choices of Syrian and Egyptian liberals were radically different, their ultimate motivation was the same. They found the prospect of an Islamist future intolerable.
It would be hard for those who have never seen Egypt to fathom the frustration experienced by liberals there, even under Mubarak’s secularist rule. A Muslim librarian, gone to buy a washing machine, is berated by the salesman for not wearing a veil. She complains that her assistants constantly slip religious tracts into her display cases. Alcohol is bought and consumed semi-clandestinely, amid disapproval. A woman is told that if she smokes on the street, "everyone will think you are a prostitute." Even modestly dressed, women are subject to constant harassment - and sometimes they would rather not be modestly dressed. You leave a famous antique shop to find the landing entirely occupied by devout employees at prayer. You can't have bacon and eggs, or kiss on the street, or sign into a hotel with a male other than your husband. To enter into a mixed marriage requires a high tolerance for outraged opposition. The liberals, by and large wealthy enough to travel and even live partly abroad, find the country stifling. These lifestyle preoccupations are pervasive, unceasing, and, the truth is, far, far more important to most liberals than whether they live under freedom and democracy. They were much happier under Nasser's aggressively secularist dictatorship.
Maybe better to say this: the liberals wanted cultural freedom, and, for some, the freedom to write political commentary linked to their media careers. But they weren't interested in political freedom. Though pretending otherwise, they viewed it with hostility when they saw it in operation. Political freedom meant democracy and democracy meant the Brotherhood.
The liberals, bluntly put, view the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers with deep hatred. They felt accommodation was impossible. They were prepared to live in the 'pre-Spring' atmosphere, but feared that, with the Brotherhood in a governing position, life would become genuinely intolerable. So the emergence of an Islamist government was seen as an existential threat - not to the existence of liberals, but to the existence of the lifestyle they worked hard to maintain.
The Syrian liberals' situation was almost the mirror-image of the Egyptians'. Despite sincere hatred of Assad's Syria, liberals could well imagine that his overthrow would bring something much like what the Egyptian liberal experienced and very probably what they feared for the future. Though the Assad régime was repugnant, though the course of events made armed revolution the only possible response, Syrian liberals were deeply concerned to retain control over the revolution's course. This could not exclude alliance with conservative Islamist forces, but it had to involve some external constraint on the extent to which Islamists would dominate a post-Assad future. That constraint could only come from close, fruitful alliance with the West, and, since the Europeans were far too timid to act on their own, with the US. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the Syrian liberals never contemplated the betrayal of the revolution undertaken. (Indeed the entire history of independent Syria indicated that any attempt by members of a liberal élite to rejoin the fold would end in torture and death.) But they hoped against hope that US support would enable them to retain strong leadership of the anti-Assad forces.
So in Egypt and Syria alike, fear of Islamists pushed the liberals into decisions disastrous for their revolutions. But did they really have an alternative? If they did, was it anything more than an unappetizing choice of some supposedly lesser evil?
Suppose that the liberals were completely justified in their attitudes towards political Islam. Suppose they had a deeply principled commitment to the values that happened to underwrite their lifestyle. It hardly matters. Political Islam is the only road to change left in the Middle East. It might be a dead end or even a road to hell, but nothing will improve unless that road is taken. It’s the only way to bring the sort of real change that sidelines the élites - often the 'notable families' who have run things since Ottoman times - who have so conspicuously failed to provide good government.
The reason Islam offers the only realistic hope for change is simple: there are no plausible alternatives. Sure, liberal democracy or some other secularist tendency might in theory offer some wonderful solution. But they cannot offer a plausible solution because their record is so indelibly tainted, especially but not exclusively in the Middle East.
A rational observer of history has to conclude that, believe it or not, Islamism offers the safest alternative, because literally every major atrocity in recent history has been secularist, including the mass slaughters of Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Congo. True, history also offers some good secular régimes, including liberal democracies, but these failed to ward off the horrors of, for example, Franco Hitler and Stalin, not to mention two world wars. Someone might argue that, despite these unusual cases, secularist and in particular liberal democratic government offers rewards that outweigh the risks. But that won’t work if, as a rational Middle Easterner would do, you focus the secularist record in the Middle East.
There we have just two régimes that might possibly be considered liberal democracies. Israel, with its bloodshed and its dedication to racial sovereignty, can hardly attract emulation. So there remains Lebanon, which even has a roughly Western-style economy. But Lebanon’s civil war cost 175,000 lives, and no one suggests a repeat is out of the question. Yet when we look at other secularist régimes, the record is even worse.
The secularist governments of the Middle East have included some non-disasters, countries where torture and repression are rife as the society slowly deteriorates – in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Otherwise, secularism has been a catastrophe. There’s Saddam, the Assads, and the Shah of Iran. There’s Iraq after the American occupation. Gaddafi drifts into insanity after inflicting terrible suffering in Chad and Libya itself. Secularist government brought Yemen nothing but war and starvation. Algeria’s horrifying struggle with Islamists cost another 175,000 lives.
But it is not just the terrible record of secularism that make it an implausible solution. Woven into these disasters is the West’s dogged resistance to every single secular or moderate ideology that gained some traction in the Middle East – as opposed to the gallery of dictators that have benefitted from Western support. Communism wouldn't do. Arab nationalism and Arab socialism weren't good enough either. Their greatest and most successful exponent, Nasser, became a pariah among Western democracies; he was undone by the Western-sponsored and secularist state of Israel. Moderate Islam, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, has labelled extremist and ruthlessly suppressed by the entrenched élites it threatened. The West may not have overthrown Morsi, but they quickly accepted the coup and have been lavishing military and economic attention on the Sisi régime ever since. Yet if a secularist project wanted to please the West and dedicated itself to repressing even moderate Islamist groups, it would have time and energy for nothing else.
With secularism offering no plausible promise of change, only Islam remains. Even if what matters most is the defeat of political Islam, that will never happen unless Islamists are discredited. To be discredited, they would have to be given a real, full chance to govern, free from the sort of deep state sabotage that marked Morsi's so-called reign in Egypt. Only then will political Islam prove or disprove itself. If it brings positive change, great. If it doesn't, the secularists will get their new chance, without the encumbrance of a strong Islamist opposition.
Given the whole secularist record in the Middle East, I wouldn't be optimistic how that would turn out. The abiding contemporary liberal stance is loud espousal of freedom and democracy. But these only have to do with the forms and legal structures of government, not with policy. They don't give people jobs or address climate change. There is also, of course, commitment to diversity, which means we will all acquire full participation in our disastrous societies. In the early days of liberalism, liberals at least offered laissez-faire capitalism, a bad program but a substantive program nonetheless. Today they have nothing. I can't see why they would be more likely than Islamists to find substantive solutions.
[i] For a critical analysis of this claim, see Mohammed Fadel, “What killed Egyptian democracy?”, Boston Review, January 24, 2014, http://bostonreview.net/forum/mohammad-fadel-what-killed-egyptian-democracy