Stupid Reasons to be Skeptical of the Arab Spring

There are many challenges to real reform in the Middle East. These are none of them

Now that these longstanding rulers are no longer in power in the two countries, where do these seemingly leaderless Arab revolts take Tunisians and Egyptians, and how will they effect change to their systems of governance? Virtually all previous revolutions in the region have involved top-down, military-political phenomenon. But in contrast to previous revolutions, neither Arab nationalism nor radical Islam is sweeping the hearts and minds with universal conviction. It may be true that the Arab Spring is bringing more democracy, or political plurality, where voters may have a genuine opportunity of electing new rulers. But there is little evidence suggesting that the political groups competing in those elections will have any viable solutions capable of providing new leadership for these countries and effecting any meaningful governance change. – Marat Terterov

There are two main reasons why Terterov’s argument is flawed. First, Terterov apparently believes that success for the Arab Spring should be measured by the ability of Arab countries to immediately transition from authoritarianism to democracy without any growing pains – a view that is clearly quite absurd. Secondly, Terterov gives five reasons why we should be skeptical of the Arab Spring, four of which are either false or misleading. Ignoring the fact that Terterov fails to give any evidence to any of these claims, the author’s claims are quite preposterous (not to mention the fact that he compares the Arab Spring to the Islamic Revolution in Iran and 9/11 – events that had a serious lasting effect on the region). There are reasons to believe that real change in the reason will take time, but the Arab Spring has clearly ushered in a new era of political consciousness and empowerment that cannot be denied.

Terterov’s first point, that Egypt and Tunisia are not leading Arab states, is both wrong and irrelevant. While it is true that Egypt’s regional political importance has declined over the years (due to, working backwards, complicity with American and Israeli actions vis-a-vis Gaza and Iraq; the general and mass disenfranchisement of the Egyptian people under Mubarak, and perhaps the abandonment of the Palestinian cause after making peace with Israel,) the Arab cultural heart is still Cairo. Egypt may have dipped from its Arab-nationalistic heyday of Nasser, but it remains a leading Arab state politically and the cultural center of the Arab world.

Moreover, it does not matter whether or not Tunisia and Egypt are or were leading Arab states. The simple act of a people rising up against a brutal dictator inspired the rest of the Middle East. The simple fact that uprisings in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and even Israel have been inspired by Tunisia and Egypt is proof that the latter two states didn’t need to be ‘leading’ states.

Terterov’s second point, that neither Ben Ali nor Mubarak were state builders is equally irrelevant and misleading. The predecessors in Tunisia and Egypt – Bourguiba and Nasser/Sadat – are not responsible for the repressive culture that had dominated Tunisian and Egyptian political culture for decades. To follow this line of logic is to believe that Ben Ali and Mubarak were not responsible for the massive rates of state corruption or the Big Brother state security systems that penetrated the lives of civilians. It is true that Ben Ali and Mubarak did not create the system, but they were certainly responsible for its evolution.

And come on! Does Terterov have anything relevant to other countries? Bashar al-Assad is a product of his father, Hafez, who came to power through the ‘Corrective Revolution’ and is solely responsible for the creation of the current Syrian political system. And Qaddafi anyone? The “The Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution” took power in Libya in a coup in 1969 and transformed the country from a monarchy to a dictatorship/state-of-perpetual-revolution. In the Gulf, the Khalifa dynasty has been ruling Bahrain since the 1700’s and Yemen was only 16 years removed from the Hamidaddin monarchy before Ali Abdullah Saleh took over.

To say that we should be skeptical of the Arab Spring because Ben Ali and Mubarak did not build their states focuses far too heavily on Tunisia and Egypt (while ignoring the other states in turmoil) while implying that the deposed leaders should not be held responsible for their actions and the ways in which they consolidated power (often to the detriment of the greater national good).

The third point – that the army remains a ‘bedrock of power’ – is true in some ways. In Egypt, the interim government is the armed forces. SCAF has done a tremendous job refusing to initiate change, and has proved adept at not holding ex-regime officials responsible (Mubarak’s trial notwithstanding). SCAF has realized that its prosperity under Mubarak was directly related to the maintenance of the status quo and is therefore open to allowing some superficial reforms, but has so far proved to be unwilling to push for the more fundamental changes that are necessary.

Yet the crisis in Libya is precisely the opposite. The Libyan army was consciously weakened by Qaddafi out of fear of a military coup. Consequently, when fighting in Libya began, the army fragmented, weakening the regime and strengthening the rebels. The mass defections of the army (along with the help of an intervening NATO) helped equalize the two sides leading to a stalemate. In other words, it was precisely that Qaddafi did not allow the military to become a bedrock of power that the rebel movement stood a chance in the first place.

Lastly*, the idea that there are no new ideas in the region is a terribly weak and condescending argument. Terterov writes:

The self immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi in Tunisia had far less to do with democracy and much more with the deeply engrained Muslim concept of social justice, as well as the lack of gainful economic opportunities without which justice is impossible to attain.

And this is true. Bouazizi may not have lit himself on fire because he was defending democracy or freedom, but he came to symbolize these exact notions. Of course, after decades of brutalization under these various dictatorships, this symbolism was revolutionary and contagious. To acknowledge that the protests and demands of the Arab Spring are revolutionary is to realize that the Arab people are trying to usher in a new era.

There are many reasons to be skeptical about the future of the Arab Spring – Terterov even talks about one (the regional outlook of the west) – but the author’s arguments are generally baseless. It seems as though Terterov is attempting to draw conclusions for the entire Middle East by making a few generic and misleading observations about the difficulties in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak. Terterov’s skepticism (which he apparently bases on very little) is better seen as doubt that Arab states will immediately be able to make the transition from authoritarianism to a free democracy.

Terterov’s conclusion (repeated at the top of this post) makes a lot of sense. There are plenty of reasons why Arab states will not immediately produce perfect democracy. The Arab Spring, however, should not be judged in the short-term. The political groups that will eventually compete for power in Arab countries have major problems, but for the first time in decades, the people of the Egypt and Tunisia (followed by, hopefully, others) will have a voice and an ability to influence the politics of their country. This needs to be seen as a step in the revolution, rather than the end point.

Photo from Valpovic

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