The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Narrative Fail in Arab Spring

Egyptian liberals were ecstatic over their role in the fall of Hosni Mubarak, but that victory may have been the high-water mark of their movement. The AP reports that following liberals’ poor showing in Egypt’s first democratic elections in years, Islamists took 60 of the 100 seats on the council to draft a new constitution. Now two liberal politicians have quit the body in protest.

As liberals continue to cede ground to the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s increasingly clear that democracy and liberty in Egypt do not point in the same direction. Mounting evidence suggests that the new Egypt will be less liberal than the old one, especially regarding religious minorities and women’s rights.

The Egyptian public has every right to pursue this course if they want. These developments show that the twittering activists of Tahrir Square were incredibly out of touch with their own society—and that their Western cheerleaders were clueless as well. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, Western journalists, academics, and NGO officers predicted the spread of democracy and liberal values throughout the region. Such sunny scenarios seem increasingly farfetched.

Published on March 28, 2012 6:00 pm
  • Kris

    Egypt tends to see itself as the foremost Arab country. There certainly was no reason for the liberal intelligentsia in Egypt to learn anything from the Iranian revolution. (Or from most other revolutions in history, for that matter.)

  • http://inthisdimension.com alex scipio

    Western liberals clueless?

    Really?

    I am shocked! Shocked I tell you!

  • Joe Johnson

    How long before oMOBba and Hillary demand more aid to Egypt?… of course, to buy peace.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” Edmund Burke

    “Cultures evolve at Glacial Speeds” Jacksonian Libertarian

    The Arab Spring was never going to result in the instant evolution of the backward Islamic cultures of the middle-east into superior western cultures. It has how ever gotten cultural evolution going again from the frozen and stagnant condition most Islamic cultures have been in for centuries.

  • Hubbub

    And how are these developments surprises? Who in his right mind would expect a Muslim society to wholeheartedly embrace a democratic or a republican society? Such an embrace would be antithetical to Muslim sensibilities. How many times must this be beaten into our – western – heads?

    Can we not take these people at their word and their history and their writings?

    We can only deserve what we get for our disbelief.

  • Anthony

    Francis Fukuyama on “Why Nations Fail” in AI provides related insight…

  • Jim.

    Once more, I would like to present Niall Ferguson’s amazing powers of prophecy on Morning Joe.

    Remember, this aired 14 Feb 2011…

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2011/02/14/niall_ferguson_explains_how_obama_blew_it_with_egypt.html

    While things haven’t gotten as bad as they could get (yet), they aren’t anywhere near as good as the blonde commentator here seemed to take as a matter of faith.

    Historical Literacy beats Leftist Fantasy in straight sets…

  • Fred

    Well,D’uh. There was never any Arab Spring; that was always a fictional construct of the naive Western mind. It was what it always is in that part of the world, one group of vicious thugs fighting another for absolute power. It’s just that this time, the “out” thugs hid behind a tiny, but visible and highly attractive to the West, minority of liberals. Now that they are the “in” thugs, expect them to be as bad as or worse then the old “in” thugs. Despite the wishful thinking of Europeans and Americans, some people are just not capable of liberal democracy and the rule of law.

  • Jim.

    By the way — thugs like Mubarak knew that they would face overwhelming military pressure if they didn’t go easy on Copts.

    We need to make the same thing clear to whatever new regime settles in, in Egypt.

  • BillH

    WRM: …twittering activists of Tahrir Square were incredibly out of touch with their own society—and that their Western cheerleaders were clueless as well.

    I like that. Could we put it into the form of a general proposition for the liberal knee-jerk, i.e. twittering activists of ____________ [location] were incredibly out of touch with their own society—and that their _____________[liberal cohort] cheerleaders were clueless as well.

    For example, twittering activists of Zucotti Park were incredibly out of touch with their own society—and that their MSM cheerleaders were clueless as well.

  • Dan D

    WRM hits on an important point regarding the activists and the Western media reporting regarding last year’s protest movement in Egypt. Some 58 percent of Egypt’s population live in rural areas. Many of them – as well as many city-dwellers – have depended on subsidies (bread, cooking oil and gas and housing) from the government. Those protesting in Cairo no doubt reflected the hopes of many Egyptians – but not all. This is a large country of 81 million people. 200,000+ people packed in Tahrir Square is definitely a powerful statement in a country that under Mubarak had been tightly-controlled by the state, but nonetheless as in all societies there were diverging viewpoints.
    The media chose not to delve deeper into the big picture and instead confined themselves to environments (major cities) and people (sophisticated, Westernized urbanites) whom they were more comfortable with when providing their coverage. But then this was nothing new after witnessing the coverage of the Green Movement in Iran in 2009 in which ground zero of the media attention was based in Tehran where dissatisfaction with the mullahs was higher than in the poorer, more rural areas.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Imagine what a simple, idea-manipulable world this would be – why, we might NEVER have to deal with rich complex realities! – if the same intellectuals who are out of touch with what great masses of people WANT were similarly wrong about what those same masses actually need. We could not only ignore them in good conscience; we might even feel more than a little justified unleashing a few firing squads on them. Let us hope that the “twittering activists” not only misread the wishes of the majority of Egypt; let us also hope that they were totally

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Sorry – Rest of my comment:

    Let’s also hope the twittering activists were totally misguided and ignorant about what Egypt NEEDS even in the long run (because if they were even just a little bit right, surely Egypt – given the direction it’s chosen – is in far bigger trouble than anyone could have imagined a year ago?). “The mullahs may have bad answers, but the secular liberals have NO answers” – Doesn’t that sound like the assumption under which Mubarak and his US backers operated for over 3 decades?

    There can be no doubt the secular liberals were “incredibly out of touch with their own society.” So much the worse for them. And worse still for the rest of Egyptian society.

  • Fred

    J R, Just because that’s the assumption that Mubarak operated on doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The Egyptians, whatever you might think they NEED, are who they are. And who they are are people who NEED a strongman of some sort kicking butt to keep them from slaughtering each other. Intellectuals and twittering activists may be smarter than reality, but my money will still be on reality 100% of the time.

  • Steve in Philly

    “The Egyptian public has every right to pursue this course if they want.”

    No, they don’t. The “public” doesn’t have any rights, and no individual comprising that public has the right to enslave their fellow citizens under a theocratic dictatorship. Democracy is just another form of statism when individual rights are not respected. Stop being so politically correct.

  • Russ

    The secular liberals forgot that democracy is trumped by a piece of bread. Huge numbers of people in Egypt are hovering close to starvation. They are illiterates and effectively unemployable even in a globalized unskilled-labor market.

    Democracy can be imposed from without, but it can only survive if it takes root within. Expecting Egyptians to figure out democracy and religious tolerance when they can’t even figure out how to feed themselves is simply silly.

  • Diggs

    In’shallah they shall have fascism.

  • Robert Hanson

    Egypt has no oil, no industry, no production of any sort. There is Western tourism, and there is Western aid, and that is all.

    Mubarak knew that Egypt couldn’t survive without Western handouts. So he didn’t take the Syrian route of violent supression. Thus he lost power, and eventually his head as well.

    So now that a middling dictator has been replaced by an Islamic theocracy, are we still going to feed the entire country ie do for the theocrats that hate us, what we wouldn’t do for Mubarak, who supported us? By freely giving aid to a country that violates our principles in thought, word, and deed…

    In other words, are we going to essentially pay Egypt to be violently theocratic, supressing and/or murdering it’s minorities, while violating every Western Liberal value we hold dear? And if so, why?

    Forget “humanitarian” pc blabbering. The whole country voted to go that way, the whole country is agreed on the murderous suppression of minorities. The whole country voted to elect representatives to write a constitution that outlaws invididual freedom. They have no right to ask for any “humanitarian” anything.

    It’s time to cut off the aid, and let them suffer the consequences of their own actions. The sudden discovery that the inevitable result of running a nation on the values and rules of Medieval Islam is mass starvation may just possibly wake them up. Nothing short of that will….

  • BigSoph

    There is this strange idea that if people have a choice, they will choose choice.

    Where in the world did you get that idea? Terry Pratchett once said that the problem is that there is a fundamental issue with human anatomy – a tendency to bend at the knee (or, in the case of The One, from the hip)

  • Mr. G

    Those same Western liberals will simply be hopping on the anti-Israel bandwagon as the Muslim Brotherhood starts lashing out. One thing about the Palestinians is that the only promise they make about democracy is that it means no Israel and no Jews.

  • Brian

    Islamists have to fall flat on their faces, before the population figures out they are even worse than Mubarek. Islamists will fall flat on their faces. The question is whether the population will have a chance to get rid of them or whether they will become permanently entrenched through force (e.g. Iran).

  • http://www.allenmitchum.com Allen Mitchum

    The Saudi Arabianization of the Middle East continues…http://blog.allenmitchum.com/2012/02/arab-spring-and-saudi-arabianization-of.html

  • M. Report

    Let the hunger games begin.

    One one side, the Islamists and the masses,
    on the other, the Liberals and the Copts,
    with the army in the middle, and the US,
    if it has the will, supporting the LCs
    by making them the only ones who qualify
    to receive and distribute foreign aid.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    From http://blog.allenmitchum.com/2012/02/arab-spring-and-saudi-arabianization-of.html, courtesy of #22:

    “The slow decline and regression of human and civil rights in the Islamic world in the mid 20th century coincided with Saudi Arabia’s ascension in the Muslim World. What began with religious zealots challenging the Saudi Royal Family’s religious credentials in the infamous Siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, ended with the Royal Family brandishing its religious credentials by embarking on a path of promoting, subsidizing and spreading its puritanical brand of Islam, Wahhabism. Previous Islamic-in-name-only populations throughout the world were slowly colonized by Imams and clerics trained in the ways of Wahhabism. Madrassas and Saudi designed cultural centers from Cairo to Jakarta to Islamabad were constructed throughout the globe to promote Saudi interests. Saudi agents and bagmen created fertile ground for the regression of human rights and culture wherever they traveled.”

    Many heartfelt thanks for an extremely eloquent and pointed summary. And may I say, if THIS is more or less what’s been happening to Egyptian society over the past 30-odd years – and esp. to its politically more astute and articulate elements – then it explains a good deal of how even the best-intentioned revolutions can derail. Or even never get off the ground. As regards the points made by #14:

    “J R, Just because that’s the assumption that Mubarak operated on doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The Egyptians, whatever you might think they NEED, are who they are. And who they are are people who NEED a strongman of some sort kicking butt to keep them from slaughtering each other. Intellectuals and twittering activists may be smarter than reality, but my money will still be on reality 100% of the time.”

    Fred, I have little doubt that what you’ve described is a very accurate characterization of Egypt TODAY. And even – and mountingly so – of the (Saudified?) Egypt of the past 3 decades, if not well before the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Clearly the best kind of strongman is, as you say, one able to keep more or less ALL of his people from slaughtering each other. The worst – and least sustainable – is the kind that increasingly goes along with, encourages or facilitates the slaughter, terrorizing, bullying, etc, of some of his people by others (“I’m askeered of you guys, so why don’t I let you all beat up on them?”). Whether Mubarak belonged more nearly to the first or to the second category of strongman may not, I suspect, be apparent clearly to anyone for decades.

    And frankly I have next to no idea what Egypt needs. But I’m sure you’ll agree, that doesn’t mean that what it DOES need is simple and obvious to somebody else merely because he’s Muslim. And that all that somebody has to do is scream and denounce and kill for it, while strong men wink at and appease him in various underhanded ways, for those needs to be met. I don’t know to what extent Mubarak was appeasing as well as repressing certain unappeasable elements. But I do get the sense that he was damming up a certain pressure bound to burst eventually. Perhaps even damming it up in ways that ensured that when the explosion finally came it was the most noxious gases that diffused most widely. Anyhow nothing could last forever, not even Mubarak. And the fact that the twitterati were premature – if not completely misguided – in precipitating his overthrow doesn’t mean they didn’t have their finger on a certain pulse that maybe just won’t go away. Or perhaps even their EYE on a certain bill that’s bound to come due? At least if Egypt is ever to become a viable and sustainable country? And maybe even if it doesn’t?

    I’ll admit I have the weirdest suspicion about the future of that ever-dynamic country. (Or dynamic at least since Napoleon and Muhammad Ali, c. 1805.) It is that any future Egyptian leadership that wants a nation even remotely UP to the demands of the modern world (a recurrent theme of Professor Mead’s, if I’m not misreading him) – as opposed to a backwater that’s breezily inflamable and exploitable by foreign interests – is going to have to bite a certain bullet. A bullet it may have been postponing since as far back as Nasser and the military coup of 1952. What Egypt’s leaders may have to start doing is listening as CLOSELY as possible to ALL their country’s various voices. And not just to those that happen to be loudest, most anti-Western, most “tradition”*-bound, most easily offended and outraged, or most prepared and willing to blow people up. In short (if I may be permitted a really bad metaphor), the bloodiest wheel isn’t always the squeakiest. And sooner or later you’ve got to attend to all the wheels anyway, without letting one that’s defectively built to begin with (or much too BIG for the entire apparatus?) throw the entire vehicle off balance. God help us all if and when the Egyptian jalopy finally jumps the curb and starts plowing into pedestrians. And all because a certain wise (for his time) strongman – or junta – kept delaying the repair or replacement of certain key parts.

    *BTW, I’m not sure what the great masses of Egyptian people would have understood by the word “tradition” c. 1930. But based on what I know of its history, my guess is it was something far less strident, angry, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, gynophobic, Salafic, militarized and URBANLY mobilizable than what many hot young bloods would mean by the term today.

    By all means let us keep focused on reality. And all the more so since it IS constantly changing (though I keep getting the sense nothing ever quite DIES – it just somehow, I don’t know, resurfaces?). And consists of so many voices and needs. Best of all, thankfully it isn’t always the most strident and intolerant of those voices, or the ones most ready to take up arms to avenge some blasphemy, that have the best grasp of a country’s BEST future. Occasionally even that contemptible creature, a Middle Eastern secular liberal, has SOME degree of handle on what his country needs. And the softest, whiniest, most easily ignored (or repressed) murmur of one generation has been known to become the most insistent, demanding, not-to-be-ignored roar of the next.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Even a bad metaphor shouldn’t be mixed:

    Par. 4 – “… explains a good deal of how even the best-intentioned revolutions can derail. Or never get off the ground.” A better writer might have put it: “Or never leave the station.”

  • J. Pulley

    “The Egyptian public has every right to pursue this course if they want.”

    That is a carelessly illiberal sentiment.