There are some lamenting the death of the Spring after last’s weeks butcheries in Egypt. It seems, after all, that Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Morsi-appointed commander of the Egyptian armed forces, has turned back the clock to at least 2011, and perhaps even earlier, as his troops secure streets, impose curfews, and return the military back to power.
But all that implies time travel is real.
They had to name it something, after all
The term “Arab Spring” came from the Prague Spring, the 1968 brief flowering of politics and democracy in Czechoslovakia which was swiftly annihilated by Brezhnev’s tanks. It represented to a whole series of radicals and thinkers the hopes of the 1960s – the triumph of the New Left, the spreading of democracy worldwide, the challenge to the Establishment. When Arabs rose up in late 2010 and early 2011 to take on their own dictatorships, the term caught fire as it not only felt good but implied a flowering of hitherto unknown liberal culture that had been hiding beneath the surface of Arab society for decades.
At least they got the “Arab” part right
All those connotations created expectations that were stupid. Arabs were not living under Soviet occupation; they didn’t have a secret tradition of political liberalism that had been suppressed by outsiders. Their population density patterns were different and their geographic limits of economic development were quite far apart from those of the occupied Eastern Europeans. (It is, after all, hard to get a desert to bloom).
Even the analogy that this is 1848 all over again, when Europe’s peoples rose up against their monarchs but were swiftly crushed, is still off. While it’s true that many Arab countries are struggling with the problems caused by industrialization, it’s equally true that far more problems have been caused by the lack of it.
So what the hell is it, then?
Rather than a revolution, one should think of it as an evolution. Revolutions are fast, hard, and great for journalists. They’re also easily undone because of their swiftness. Evolution, on the other hand, is slow, difficult, and terrible for reporting. (The headlines read more like: “Minor Committee Makes Incremental Change In Legal System”, and by the fourth word you’ve already skipped over to the sex crimes).
Learning bit by bit
As an educator, I can tell you that direct experience pays so much more for learning than someone telling you something. Yes, Arabs heard that democracy was great a billion times. But because they themselves had never done it – and never made horrible voting choices they regretted – they were unable to balance the forces needed to create stable societies. They’ve done the first; the question now remains, can they do the latter?
Copying the West just isn’t the model forward
Arab societies can’t mirror the path followed by Europeans and Americans. A lot of that is cultural; Arab intellectualism is often poisoned by anti-colonialism and anti-Westernism, so they’re more ready to reject secular government, free market capitalism, and other good ideas wholly because they’re alien.
But it’s also because some of these ideas wouldn’t fit into Arab society very well. Capitalism is highly individualistic; many Arab countries have deep bedrocks of tribalism, which favors groups. Tribalism and capitalism are not compatible; adopt one and you eventually lose the other. Such a process is deeply painful. Few people have ever wanted to undergo it.
One big lesson from the Morsi mess is that Islamic government isn’t nearly as great as it sounds
It’s true Egyptians didn’t give Islamism enough time to truly fail, but fail it would have nonetheless. For Egyptians, this may well be a turning point in their conversation about secularism – perhaps they are, after all, better off splitting mosque and state irrevocably. Direct experience pays so much more than lecturing. Egyptians at large know that political Islam is not the solution. So now their challenge is to accept the only alternative. This, again, will not feel good.
This still leaves the problem of economics
Much of the instability comes from the lack of employment. Alas, here’s where Arab Spring countries still have a lot of learn – and where the lessons will be most difficult. I remember a Tunisian co-worker once describing to me what he thought was a brilliant investment scheme. I could give 30,000 dirhams to a bank (less than $10,000), who would hold it for me for six months. After that time period, I’d get it back.
“What’s the return on that?” I asked.
“No return. You just keep yourself from spending it,” he said.
Jesus Christ, I thought, because this guy, while a good teacher and a pretty liberal fellow overall, clearly had no idea that after six months, even with weak inflation, you’d have less value in that money. He went on to tell me he believed interest payments were against his religion. Such thinking is very difficult to disprove except through long, painful experience.
There are also the horrible subsidies. A good government, in many peoples’ thinking, is one that provides free or cheap services for the people. Local expectations include more than just schools and hospitals, but also reduced gas, cooking oil, and staple foods. All of these pervert the economic system, make it less competitive, and intellectually cheapen human capital by reducing the need for anyone to learn to be efficient.
Nobody likes losing their job, let alone their bread
Changing the economic structures of these countries will be like swinging a cruise ship completely around to avoid an incoming ice pack. But on board, every passenger will feel violently ill as the ship does so. Some ships would stop to end the complaints and possible revolts, but would increase the likelihood of a much more serious accident later on. Others would bravely press forward and thereby save everyone by taking a safer path. Who will do what remains up in the air.
But no, the Arab Spring is not dead
That can only happen if politics freezes up again and strongmen return stability-at-any-price rule. Even the Egyptian government, powerful as it may seem, is still enjoying something of a popular mandate as it crushes the Muslim Brotherhood. Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator, languishes in Saudi Arabia, Ghaddafi is dead, and Assad will probably never have complete control of Syria again. The game has changed, permanently. Arab politics are still fluid and will remain so. Alas, Arab countries have fallen prey to that old Chinese curse – “May you live in interesting times.”
- Is This the End of the Arab Spring? – Room for Debate – NYTimes.com (globaldiplomacy.wordpress.com)
- The Coup In Egypt Doesn’t Mark End Of Arab Spring – Analysis (eurasiareview.com)