Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Arab revolt in retrospect

Bret Stephens

from Wall Street Journal
republished Wednesday December 28, 2011

In my first column of 2011, I wrote that Egypt "resembles nothing so much as Iran in the waning days of the Shah, in which a comparatively moderate regime led by a sickly despot confronts a restive and radical public." This was several weeks before the demonstrators arrived in Tahrir Square and Hillary Clinton reflexively judged the Mubarak regime "stable."

You don't have to be particularly clever to point out the relatively obvious. But what does it say of the State Department that it failed to reach the same conclusion? This has been the year of Arab upheaval, but upheaval needn't mean surprise. In Egypt, there was an 82-year-old dictator, 29 years in power, seeking a sixth presidential term via another rigged election while scheming to hand off power to his unpopular son. This was never going to go down well, with or without prior turmoil in Tunisia. And it could all be seen coming for years.

Here was another one from the Dept. of the Obvious: Islamists would run away with the elections. In February, I wrote that the Muslim Brotherhood would get as much as 40% of the vote in Egypt. That prediction was hotly denied by various experts who were sure the secular groups that had driven the demonstrations in their early days would be their prime political beneficiaries. So far, the Brotherhood has taken about 40% of the vote in rolling parliamentary elections, while the more fanatical Salafists have taken another 25%.

I don't pretend to be clairvoyant. I got some things wrong, too, like thinking Mr. Mubarak would hold on longer than he did. But it's worth wondering why so few people saw the Arab revolts coming, and why—once they began—so many misunderstood what they were and where they were going.

Tahrir Square on the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Feb. 11, in Cairo.

The short answer to the first question is that it's easy to mistake inertia for inertness. Egypt had been politically static for nearly 60 years; Tunisia for more than 50; Syria and Libya for about 40 apiece. Why not another few decades of the same? Besides, the Arab world had supposedly been spooked by Iraq as an object lesson in what happens when the strongman falls. The early wisdom of the Obama administration was to deal with the Arab world as it was, and not—as the Bush administration had sometimes sought—as it might be.

As for the second question, maybe the best answer is that hope and change are two words best kept far apart. Beginning in January, an unreasoning pessimism about the Arab world's capacity for change abruptly gave way to an unreasoning euphoria. Fourteen centuries of conservatism were supposedly collapsing in the face of Twitter's 140 revolutionary characters. The term "Arab Spring" became common parlance with no consideration for the change of seasons. People like Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim emerged out of nowhere to play the part of Lech Walesa. It was 1989 again at last.

But 1989 was the wrong template. The Arab world had revolted against unpopular overlords before: the Ottomans during the First World War; the British in the 1920s and '30s; the weak monarchies of Farouk in Egypt, Faisal in Iraq, and Idris in Libya. What happened in 2011 was another such revolt, this time against secular autocrats. Someday it will be known as the Fourth Arab Revolt.

A revolt is not always a bad thing. Moammar Gadhafi richly earned his fate, and Syria's Bashar Assad deserves (and will probably get) something similar. Nobody will shed tears for Mr. Mubarak or Tunisia's Ben Ali or Yemen's Saleh. To the extent that 2011 serves a warning to those who aspire to rule forever, whether in Cairo or Moscow, so much the better.

But 2011 is also a reminder of Edmund Burke's famous observation that while it's easy to make a government and even easier to give a people freedom, to make a free government—"to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work"—is the hardest task of all. Egyptians are failing conspicuously at it. We'll see if the Tunisians, Libyans, Syrians and Iraqis can do any better.

The challenge now before the Arab world is whether it can reach toward liberalism through the mechanisms of democracy. The broad experience of the West is that democratic institutions emerged over time from cultures already at home with the ideas of Locke, Spinoza, Smith and Voltaire. Does it work in the opposite direction?

The limited experience of democracy in the Arab world (and in Turkey) is that it's a handy vehicle for Islamist parties with illiberal ideas and unscrupulous methods to gain and keep power. Whether democracy tames and tempers those parties over time—or they tame, temper and ultimately destroy democracy—remains an open question. The record of illiberal democracy, from Hitler to Chávez to Putin, isn't exactly inspiring.

With the honorable (if reluctant) exception of Libya, the U.S. has mainly been a bystander in all this, partly by necessity, largely by administration choice. This too may come to be remembered as one of the lasting lessons of 2011: Freedom can't succeed without a tutor's strong and guiding hand. Or, to put it another way, to expect change to succeed without experience is the triumph of hope over experience.

No comments: