Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Understanding the "Arab Spring"

Sar Shalom

A common item of discussion on this blog is the role of what has been called the Arab Spring. One of the problems with evaluating the Arab Spring is that most Americans view it through the prism of American history, notably the American Revolution. This leads certain people to see similarities to the American revolutionaries at the start of it and thus predict that its result will be Arab governance of the Arab people, by the Arab people, for the Arab people, with the Arab people becoming disposed to constitutional liberalism. The counter view starts with what form the new regime took and concludes that the whole thing is a dangerous development.

I would like to suggest an alternate prism for evaluating the Arab Spring, that of the French revolutions, and I do mean that in the plural. To summarize, the first French Revolution, the most famous of them, started with the same ideals as the American Revolution, encapsulated in the motto, "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité." However, after the 1790 revolutionaries succeeded in effecting regime change, the nouveau regime quickly devolved into the Reign of Terror which gave way to Napoleon and the First Empire early in the 19th century. The First Empire ended with military defeat at Waterloo with the allies subsequently reinstituting the Bourbon monarchy. There was a second attempt to institute a republic in France with the July Revolution of 1830, which only succeeded in changing the ruling dynasty within the monarchical system. This was followed by the June Rebellion of 1832, which constituted much of Les Misérables, which was squashed within two days. The Republic was finally restored by the 1848 Revolution which installed Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as president. However, that republic was short-lived as Louis-Napoléon installed himself as emperor Napoléon III over the Second Empire. It wasn't until 1870, more than 80 years after the first revolution that was supposed to create a republic, that France finally instituted a republic with any longevity.

I know less about when the social order of France changed from something much like what predominates in the Arab world today, where there is a small elite that lives well while everyone else lives in abject poverty, to the more egalitarian society that exists in France now. What I do know is that in both today's Arab Spring and the French revolutions and rebellions the stark contrast between the privileged elite and the masses contributed to the unrest, and that the revolutions spawned by widespread misery did not bring about a quick end to the misery.

What this framework brings to the forefront is that there is a long-term and a short-term way to evaluate the Arab Spring. The final word on the long-term will have to wait until it happens. However, it does suggest that dismissing the notion of an Arab republic ruling a constitutionally liberal polity based on current events in the Arab Spring would be like dismissing the notion of a stable French republic based on the Reign of Terror. However, in the short-term, we have to deal with the regimes that were created today by the Arab Spring, particularly the regime that was created in Egypt. For the small number of liberals in Egypt, there is probably widespread identification with Gavroche's lines:
There was a time we killed the king
We tried to change the world too fast.
Now we have got another king
He is no better than the last.
In a way, we're all living with a world that will not make the changes we would like as quickly as we would like. Sometimes we will think we are promoting "Liberté, liberté cherie (liberty, cherished liberty)," but those providing the manpower for the change think more of "Qu'un sang impur, Abreuve nos sillons (let an impure blood water our furrows)."

In the short run, our task must be to learn to be wary of those whose lofty rhetoric reminds us of Thomas Jefferson and be alert that such a person may have as much in common with Napoléon III. For the long term, instilling constitutional liberalism in the Arab world will require social change in their societies. While claiming that any particular action will have such a result is clearly non-sense, it is almost as clear that certain other actions will prevent such change. One such action is imposing a regime on the people that serves western interests rather than the interests of those they rule. In that sense, while the change from Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood was a clear step back for western interests, and the subsequent change to al-Sisi be still be a net negative from Mubarak, the cost of imposing the Mubarak regime on the Egyptian people must also be factored in to the assessment of the Arab Spring.


  1. If you decided that a revolution is some kind of overthrow of the Ancien Regime then, as a rule nearly 100% of all revolutions lead directly to something worse, whether it's totalitarianism or civil war.

    In the Arab world with no history or culture of participatory governance, tolerance, multi dimensional rule, conciliation, concession let alone any of the western purported values, all you will ever see is a swing from totalitarianism to civil war and back again. The direction the pendulum swings is irrelevant.

  2. This is one of those pieces that I want to sit here and chew on before I respond, but I am pleased that you closed with Egypt.

    It's early in the morning and I am feeling a bit daffy, but just last night Laurie and I were watching an SF Giants baseball game when I mistakenly referred to their new acquisition, Michael Morse, as "Morsi."

    Laurie's eyes kind of narrowed and she said, "The guy's name is 'Morse,' not 'Morsi.'"

    I laughed my ass off because apparently my mind was more in the Middle East than it was at AT&T Park.

    I'll get back with you.

  3. "One of the problems with evaluating the Arab Spring is that most Americans view it through the prism of American history, notably the American Revolution.

    Ultimately, I think that I very much appreciate your academic and thoughtful approach to this material. I do not know that I would say that "most" Amerians viewed the Arab Spring through the prism of the American Revolution.

    Barack Obama, a supporter of the Islamist "Arab Spring" movements certainly encouraged Americans to do so, which I consider to be one of the more insidious and irresponsible behaviors of the current administation.

    "This leads certain people to see similarities to the American revolutionaries at the start of it and thus predict that its result will be Arab governance of the Arab people, by the Arab people, for the Arab people, with the Arab people becoming disposed to constitutional liberalism."

    What I do know is that in both today's Arab Spring and the French revolutions and rebellions the stark contrast between the privileged elite and the masses contributed to the unrest...

    I am not so certain about that.

    "Contributes" is a rather hazy word and therefore difficult to deny.

    Obviously poverty and financial disparity played a major role in the French Revolution, which is part of the reason that we in the West tend to look to economics as the source of conflict, more generally, but the evidence does not seem to support that conclusion when it comes to the the rise of political Islam.

    "Politcal Islam" or "radical Islam" or "Islamism" did not come about through the theological yearnings of the Arab masses, but via the ongoing frustrated ponderings of the Arab elites who remain unhappy with the rise of the West.

    In any case, I do not know that I dismiss "the notion of an Arab republic ruling a constitutionally liberal polity," but I certainly do not see it happening any time soon and definitely not out of the bowels of the Arab Spring.

    I am, however, suddenly put to mind of John Adams looking across the pond and saying to himself something like, "Good God, they're slaughtering one another and Jefferson calls it liberty!"

    What we saw in the so-called "Arab Spring," as you certainly know, was not liberty, but its opposite.

    1. While Islamism did not arise from the masses, its opportunity to seize power did result from a movement that originated with the masses. There's a difference between what leads to the establishment of an organization and what leads to an organization taking power.

      In Iran, Islamism was able to latch on to the popular movement to seize power and then squash all popular movement once it was in power. In Egypt, the Islamists were able to carry out the first part, but could not suppress the popular movements once they were in power. The difference was in who controlled the arms in Iran and in Egypt. The Egyptian Islamists have no equivalent of the Revolutionary Guards of the Basij and thus had to rely on the regular military for security. When the people started demanding the ouster of the MB government, the Army staged a coup. A further consideration is that the Air Force attempting a coup early in the Islamic revolution in Iran, but the Soviets tipped off the Islamists of the impending coup (mentioned in A Time to Betray).

      I agree that an Arab republic ruling a constitutionally liberal polity will not happen anytime soon--it took over 90 years for France to get from its first revolution to that. Also, while the Arab Spring is an inapt vehicle to bring that about, I'm not sure about the strategic value of standing in the way of the Arab Spring. I'd accept that praise should be withheld before the results come in, that is there is reason to berate Obama for viewing the Arab Spring in Jeffersonian rather than Adamsian terms, but that doesn't build to a case that we should have tried to stop it.

    2. Americans looked at the Arab Spring through the only eyes they could, their own. The difference is that the men that started our Revolution were among the leaders of society, accomplished and able to complete the task of creating an exceptional country, flaws and all.

      As has been said, there is no tradition in the Arab and Muslim world of enlightenment values that underpin democracy. To the contrary, the tradition and current doctrine is antidemocratic, in faith and in deed, among other maladies. There are examples everywhere of the obstacles that will have to overcome by these people, starting with the OIC, the ayatollahs and the non-state actors.

    3. Sar Shalom,

      I do not know that the Americans, or the west, more generally, should have sought to stop the Arab Spring. In fact, I can hardly begin to imagine how we could possibly have stopped it. What I think is that we need to recognize what those movements were and we need political leadership in the west who is willing to be honest.

      Obama suggested that the rise of the Arab Spring, which was the rise of political Islam, was something akin to the rise of the 18th century political Enlightment combined with the revered Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and the 1960s in the United States.

      I find that comparison - particularly given the violent and genocidal nature of polical Islam - to be downright obscene.


      I think that as liberals and progressives we need to address the growing disdain within our own political venues toward the United States and the West, as a whole. Often when I have raised the question of anti-Semitic / anti-Zionism you have sought to place it, rightly in my opinion, within he larger context of anti-Americanism and the movements in opposition to what is essentially a defunct, and now historical, western imperialism.

      I would argue that the western tendency, following Word War II, toward a more self-reflective and self-critical form of politics, as championed by the New Left, was a healthy and natural inclination that has run its course and is now having a detrimental effect on European and American culture.

      It was necessary in the 1960s to take a long, hard look at the history of slavery and Jim Crow and 19th century aggressive western imperialism. Now I would argue is a time to reevaluate western culture and politics within a global context that does not start with western guilt as the jumping off point for discussion.

      We can acknowledge the "sins" of our past while also recognizing that western societies are far and away more free, reasonable, and enlightened than are non-western cultures, more generally.

      The reason for this is because western liberal political traditions are more agreeable to the human condition than are the prevailing traditions in other parts of the world.

      I feel reasonably certain that you agree and I have no problem whatsoever claiming the superiority of western liberal capitalism over any other cultural-political system currently in operation.

    4. There's nothing wrong with critical theory, per se, or even Orientalism (privilege), multiculturalism, or political correctness, but there is plenty wrong when they unquestionably determine how humans must act.

      To say this is not a crime, although some believe it should be. Nor does it mean that these things should be removed from all consideration either.

      The same for progressivism's fetish for science as the answer to everything. To think otherwise does not make one anti-science, just when it is proffered as fundamentalist religion.

      This simple distinction escapes many, by mistake and on purpose.

  4. The "German Revolution" wound up as the run up to WW1. The French Revolution concluded not with the Reign of Terror but Napoleon. The Spanish Civil War ended with 45 years of Franco. The Ayatollah's overthrew the Shah. Assad toppled the corrupt and equally unpleasant rule of previous waves after wave of military coups. Gaddaffy 'revolution' gave them the worlds most profitable and 'stable' failed state in history. Nasser overthrew the Egyptian king and we watched more than a half century of authoritarian police state rule. Ho Chih Minh and Company oversaw the expulsion of more than 1 million Vietnamese, and the outright killing of perhaps a half million more - AFTER victory. Then there's Pol Pot, Robert Mugabe, Samora Machel (Mozambique - liberation from Portugal lead to a million dead in a Marxist civil war), Jose Eduardo Dos Santos (Angola - overturned all elections, tried to murder Jonas Savimbi and massacred UNITA political staff leading to a civil war),

    and on and on and on and on.

    The Arab Spring is what we cynically call all such 'people's revolutions'. In the absence of the Soviet Union, we needed a new moniker but the spirit and intent is the same as all the others.