It’s not an Arab Winter: Today’s violence in the Middle East is the end result of generations of tyranny, suppression and distortion of political discussion
While the world’s television cameras were pointed at Cairo, the rest of the region was hardly at peace. While Egypt was burning, 60 people died in fighting in Latakia, Syria, in the course of a new rebel offensive. More fighting took place around Damascus, in Homs and Aleppo. While the Muslim Brotherhood burned Catholic and Coptic churches, at least 28 people were killed and 100 wounded as five car bombs exploded across Baghdad. Meanwhile, members of the Berber minority stormed the Libyan parliament building in Tripoli, smashing windows and destroying furniture.
Because all of these events are taking place in roughly the same geographical area, because they are happening in places that witnessed revolutions two years ago, and because many of the protagonists speak Arabic, it is tempting to lump them all together and dismiss them out of hand. But before having a self-satisfied laugh at the notion of “Arab democracy,” think twice – and the phrase “Arab Winter” needs to be stamped out now. It’s a useless cliché.
Yes, there is a wave of sectarian and political violence washing across North Africa and the Middle East. But this is not the endgame of the Arab Spring. We are not witnessing the final, tragic result of street protests that took place two years ago in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya, not to mention Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain. On the contrary, we are witnessing the end result of generations of tyranny: decades of suppression and distortion of political discussion, of deliberately weakened civil society, of shallow economic debate and profoundly venal corruption.
Why do the Muslim Brotherhood and the army seem to be the only groups with any organisational capacity in Egypt? Because there aren’t any others: before 2011, mosques were among the very few non-state institutions allowed to exist at all. Why are the Berbers storming the parliament in Tripoli? Because during the 42-year reign of Moammar Gadaffi, their language was suppressed and their very existence denied. Why is there sectarian fighting in Iraq and Syria? Because previous dictators used torture, chemical weapons (Saddam Hussein in Kurdistan) and mass murder (Bashar al-Assad’s father in Hama) against their ethnic rivals in the past, and because human beings have long memories.
As a result of the long, enforced silence, the inhabitants of countries created when British and French colonial powers drew lines in the sand are now, sometimes for the first time, arguing about the best way to rule themselves. Some groups have concluded that a good government requires the elimination of rival groups. This is hardly anything new: Europeans spent centuries convulsed in Catholic-Protestant warfare, not to mention national warfare, before coming to the conclusion that only secular governments, linked by a web of international treaties, can keep the peace. The Arab world hasn’t yet had the conversations that could lead either to the former or to the latter.
Others have concluded that massive disorder requires new, fanatical forms of orderliness: surely chaos in the streets can only be controlled with military discipline, or with religious totalitarianism. The opposite view – the notion that chaos can be defeated through a decent legal system, a fair court system and a political system that legitimises competition – is new, untested and so far untried. But how could it have been, under the reign of Mubarak or Gadaffi?
Worse, the lack of open debate for several decades has left a breathtaking legacy of economic illiteracy across the region. Everyone who went to Egypt in the days following the revolution in 2011 was regaled with stories of the billions of dollars that the deposed president Hosni Mubarak had stolen – billions of dollars which would now be flooding back into the country: soon, I heard more than once, everyone would become rich. A similar set of stories could be heard in Tunisia, where I was quoted suspiciously precise sums – $217 billion, perhaps, or $169 billion – which would be returned to the country’s coffers now that President Ben Ali had escaped the country.
In many cases, the country’s new leaders were no better educated than the men in the street who were waiting for the cash to start flowing.
There is no North African equivalent to the Polish and Hungarian economists who spent the 1980s sitting around seminar rooms, arguing about how a communist economy could decentralised in theory, an exercise that gave them some preparation to carry out that decentralisation in practice, once it became possible.
Nor is there even an equivalent to the current Turkish leadership, which unleashed the power of entrepreneurship in their country over the past decade and allowed small business to flourish. A friend who went to interview the Muslim Brotherhood’s economists in Egypt in the spring of 2011 came away flummoxed. They seemed to be vaguely social democratic, he told me, but they were so unclear about what they wanted that it was hard to tell.
In Libya, I found the same. There, the economy was organised for the personal benefit of the Gaddafi family for 40 years, so much so that real statistics on how it actually worked were hard to find. A new leadership drawn from the exile community and the leaders of the armed revolution, and not necessarily clear about its collective views was just then, in 2011, starting to analyse the
country largely from scratch. In Tunisia, where both liberals and moderate Islamists were heavily repressed in the past and remain weak in the present, friends and relatives of the old ruling family still pull most of the economic strings. Radical change is not in their interests.
And yet in every country in the region, all of the revolutions began with economics, or rather with political economy. Mohammed Bouazizi, the man whose self-immolation sparked the original revolution in Tunisia, was protesting against his inability to make a living in a repressive state which bore down hard on entrepreneurs without connections. Aged 27, Bouazizi had been rejected from every job he tried to get, including the army. At the time of his death he was supporting himself, his mother, and a sister at university by selling fruit from a pushcart in the street. He was doing well enough, had bought some electric scales and was saving up for a truck. Then he came into conflict with local police, who wanted bribes. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay. A policewoman confiscated his scales, tipped over his cart and slapped him in the face. In protest – against corruption, against his helplessness, against his family’s and his society’s frustration – he set himself on fire.
The same forces which thwarted Bouazizi – a corrupt and repressive state apparatus, a system stacked against small businessmen and would-be entrepreneurs, an absence of political rights and rule of law, an elite which tried to keep not only all the political power but all the money for itself – also helped fuel protests in Egypt, Libya and Syria. No one who has taken or retained power since 2011 has come up with an adequate response, economic or political, to the crowd’s demands for fundamental, systemic change – because no one, before 2011, had the freedom to give much thought to it.
Yet while the countries of the region do share some historical experiences, it’s also a mistake to imagine that they will continue to follow a similar path. On the contrary, the recent experience of dictatorship is often the only thing that any of these countries really have in common. The role of political Islam is very different in Egypt and Libya, for example, not least because the Libyans are suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood and think it might be an Egyptian plot. The Sunni-Shiite divide, which matters so much in Syria and Iraq, scarcely affects Libya at all These nuances will come to matter more over time. A historian of 1848 once wrote that while the European revolutions that took place in that year had similar ideological inspirations, and while many of the revolutionaries used the common language of democracy, national sovereignty and individual rights, the different ethnic and political circumstances in each nation meant that they had played out very differently. As a result, “each must be assessed in its own context, each had a distinctive impact The drama of each revolution unfolded separately. Each had its own heroes, its own crises.
Each therefore demands its own narrative.” I looked up and used that quotation in February of 2011, but it is even more apt now: though some of their causes were similar, each Arab revolution – and now each Arab transition – must be understood in its own context. After all, some countries in the region are rich in oil, and some are very poor. Some are very open to Western influence and Western tourism, and some are not. Most Tunisians are literate, and read French as well as Arabic. Many Egyptians cannot read any language at all.
If anything, the comparison of 2011 to 1848, also seems more apt now than it did two years ago.
After all, most of the 1848 rebellions also seem to have failed rather quickly. Monarchy was reimposed, democracies failed to consolidate, constitutions did not last. But although A.J.P. Taylor called 1848 a moment when “history reached a turning point and failed to turn,” some of the revolutionary plans were eventually realised. In 1849, the revolutions of 1848 might have seemed disastrous. By 1919, they seemed like a harbinger of successful movements for democracy and independence all across Europe.
This is not exactly an optimistic prospect: It took more than half a century before the liberal ideas bandied about in 1848 had any real impact on European politics.
Two or three generations – or more – might be what the Arab world needs too. During that time, there may be specific places or circumstances where the West can be useful. But mostly, we can offer the lessons of our own history.
In the end, the real tragedy of last week is not that the Egyptian army’s attack on Egyptian protesters signals the end of the revolution, but that it serves as a reminder of how long deep changes can take. The Egyptian elections of 2012 did seem like a step towards a more open and more stable society, if only because they brought about a transfer of power through institutions, rather than through violence. However badly President Mohammed Morsi governed, he enjoyed a legitimacy that his immediate predecessors had not. Had he been allowed to fail in elections, and not removed by force, his weak presidency would at least have set a precedent.
With his removal, and with the massacre of his supporters last week, we are back to square one.
The Egyptian revolution isn’t over, just as the Libyan or Tunisian revolutions aren’t over. It’s just moving at a more disappointing pace than some had hoped. Two steps forward, one step back – and it might not end up anywhere very different any time soon.