by Henry Precht
Four years have gone by since the “revolution” in Egypt was achieved and President Hosni Mubarak was brought down. Back then spirits were high and liberals from the region and outsiders knowledgeable about it were convinced that a new era had opened with the “Arab Spring.” Demonstrations spread from one dictatorship to another and—less frequently—to vulnerable monarchies.
Four years on, the Arab Spring bears a close resemblance to winter in Maine. What went wrong? To help answer that question we might also keep in mind that 35 years ago the Iranian revolution came crashing through and that the crashers are still running the place with only occasional harsh spurts of popular discontent. Why did Iran succeed—relatively—in building a new future while most neighboring Arabs have flopped?
While waiting for learned historians to organize their notes and answer us, I will sweep up a few generalizations:
History is a good starting place. In the last fifty years Arabs have dined on the complete menu of regimes: imperialism, socialism, democratic facades, military or royal autocrats, Islamic-flavored rule. Some of them bunched together at the same time. One factor has dominated in each and every age: distrust. Citizens haven’t trusted their masters and vice versa. That is the essential—and missing ingredient in making a “spring” flower. Trust has been missing probably since the pharaohs build pyramids to assure themselves they would have an afterlife as gods promised.
Decades of autocratic rule dealt important blows to the Arab psyche before 2011. With almost no experience of a true, functioning democracy, citizens were reluctant to believe their co-nationals could rule fairly and wisely. Used to corrupt officials, citizens refused to believe a new moment had arrived. They were hardly ready for democracy and its demand for trust up and down the chain of command.
Maybe they were right, maybe they know their country better than political science theorists. The Egyptian army, for example, has long enjoyed an honored position as the nation’s savior. The generals were not going risk their comfortable perch in order to promote equality with the civilian sector.
Next, with all respect, let us acknowledge that the region is a zone of poor educational attainments, widespread poverty and few social amenities. The small middle classes are vastly outnumbered by those earning less and out-influenced by those ranking above them. Middle Easterners in the mass are thus—with important exceptions—ill equipped to handle complex ideas or resist the blandishments of rabble-rousers. With absolutely no scientific basis, I would say that Iranians register more positive scores in most categories of citizenship.
If Arabs lacked the prepared citizenry to do effective battle for a new order, they also missed the kind of galvanizing leadership (Khomeini) Iran had plus a home-grown ideology that, heavily fused with religion, helped to unity and propel the citizenry. Tunisia comes in second place and has achieved a measure of stability. Egyptians and most other Arabs had those elements when Nasser took power; no other leader at no time has come close to duplicating his qualities. Cairo’s Tahrir Square afforded space to many orators; few projected compelling charisma beyond its perimeter.
If you asked locals why the “spring” failed, the first answer would undoubtedly be, “the foreign hand.” And they would be right in good part: Saudi Arabia sent troops to repress demonstrators in Bahrain and money to stir things up in Syria, Yemen and Libya. The Saudis, Kuwaitis and other oil-rich sheikhs helped the Egyptian military push aside the freely-elected Moslem Brotherhood. Some locals would also accuse the U.S. of manipulation. (If indeed true, Washington’s aid would likely have been late and inadequate.) Everyone knows the U.S. and some Europeans combined to overturn Libya’s Qaddafi, having earlier ruined Iraq.
More interesting than the question why things went wrong is the harder one of what comes next. Alas, not even the Sphinx can answer that one for us. Nor is any religious divine likely to provide an inspired prediction.
I am neither scholar nor divine but would argue that the old structure has been shattered and will not be easily repaired. I would imagine it will be years before stability is firmly and lastingly established. Meanwhile, young folks have learned to test themselves in the streets and their new bravado will create a continuing danger for the realms.