Egypt, Lebanon and the "Arab Spring"

Sorry for the absence of posts over the past week. Between travel and a lot of work obligations I've been too mentally tired to put anything together. And thanks for those of you who noticed and expressed concern in the comments.

I've been following the recent coverage of the supposed "Arab spring" with some amusement. Basically you have a problematic -- if generally positive -- election in Iraq, another one that was practically rigged in Palestine, a dictator who magnanimously allows rivals in elections in Egypt and various whatever you want to call what's happening in Lebanon and that is supposed to be a "spring?" I think we have a long way to go before we can take any democratic reform in the region seriously, even if a few events could be the seeds of something bigger.

Below are some excerpts from articles I've been reading on this issue, with comments in parentheses. The idea is that it gives a taste of the tone of the debate in the Western press, from various relatively mainstream positions.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Is democracy developing in the Nile River? [Taipei Times]

The regime may assume that it will be able to use the process to its own advantage, but events may not be that easy to control once people begin to feel empowered. The democratic genie is out of the bottle.


(Ibrahim is just trying to get people excited about current events. He's like that. But he knows better.)


Tamara Wittes: Elections or no, he's still Pharaoh. [Slate]

Without real political freedom in Egypt, it's hard to see how much will change when Mubarak is gone. Having speared the ghosts of the past, he should feel secure enough to prepare his country for a more democratic future. But Gerald Ford never had much of a vision thing going, and neither does Mubarak. Given the NDP's dominance, his nod to democratic norms won't prevent him from winning a fifth term. Unless Mubarak or his successor lifts the state of emergency, dismantles the Political Parties Committee, and allows open debate, Egyptians will miss their chance for gradual transformation—and start thinking, along with other Arabs, about hitting the streets.


(The idea that you can compare the US after 200 years of democracy and Egypt is laughable. But don't expect better from the Saban Center.)

Micah Halpern: Appearances can be deceiving [Jewsweek]

So, yes, embarrassing Egypt into announcing change was a brilliant move. Even more brilliant will be transforming that announcement into true action.


(Read for bizarre references to holding a referendum on whether homosexuals should vote -- they already do and the minister of culture is one -- but some insight the regime wanting to keep a facade ofliberalization, sadly disillusioned if he really thinks this was all the results of pre-planned "brillant moves.")

Charles Krauthammer: Three Cheers for the Bush Doctrine [Time]

The Administration went ahead with this great project knowing it would be hostage to history. History has begun to speak. Elections in Afghanistan, a historic first. Elections in Iraq, a historic first. Free Palestinian elections producing a moderate leadership, two historic firsts. Municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, men only, but still a first. In Egypt, demonstrations for democracy--unheard of in decades--prompting the dictator to announce free contested presidential elections, a historic first.


(Weird Hegelian delusions of grandeur, anthropomorphizes "History" and in any case mostly an attack on supposed opponents of Bush's pro-democracy policy, whom he identifies as liberals even though most "paleo-conservatives" are more bent against promoting democracy in the Middle East than liberals. This man is too smart to mean what he says, so watch out.)

Volker Windfuhr and Bernhard Zand: A Wave of Disobedience [New York Times]

In Beirut, everything was geared toward Hariri. After he was forced by Damascus to resign, his comeback was only a matter of time. What the celebrators and mourners on Martyr's Square in Beirut lack is a figure of national unity, someone who could solidify the historic alliance among the diverse religious factions into a political force. They need someone who is "indispensable," a word written, in a woman's handwriting, on one of the dozens of images of Hariri lying at his grave.


(The same applies elsewhere: what the Lebanese have is leadership, even if their leader is now dead and probably would have been less ecumenical if he was still alive. It's lacking elsewhere. But good point about civil disobedience, it's the same one that Tarek Al Bishri is making in Egypt.)


Roger Cohen: A Middle East moment of ineluctable motion [International Herad Tribune]

Bush has changed American policy, making clear that the push for free societies will no longer be of the selective kind that turns a blind eye to the likes of Mubarak or the Saudi royal family. He appears to be serious.


The Afghan model for a fundamentalist Islamic society has been demolished. The invasion of Iraq has brought into the Arab heartland a model - still bitterly contested - of the very liberal and democratic society most anathema to the jihadists bent on reestablishing the caliphate. Democracy is no longer an abstraction, a risible plaything selectively dangled by Western powers with interests more compelling than ideals. It is right there, on the doorstep, or on the screen in the living room.


(Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was never exported nor much like as a model for an Islamic society, and Iraq's model of one man, one vote would be rejected by many in Lebanon. And he quotes Israel propagandist Patrick Clawson at length.)


Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay: Political change beginning across Middle East [Knight Ridder]

(Varied quotes from neo-cons, realists and others. A good balanced article that looks at the plan, or lack thereof, behind the supposed American push for democracy in the region.)

Frank Wisner and Kenneth Bacon: Nudging Along Spring in Egypt [Washington Post]

As hostility to the United States in the Muslim world continues, we need firm friends. Egypt has been one -- blemishes and all -- for more than a quarter-century. This is not an excuse to overlook Egypt's human rights record or its failure to move toward democracy. But it is a reason to craft policies that protect our alliance with Egypt while encouraging democratic change.


(The realist view, but their suggestions for how to do it -- using aid, pressure further constitutional changes that will limit Mubarak's successors and strengthening civil society are risibly wishy-washy.)

Something stirs [The Economist]

An Arab democratic opening will be long and tortuous. The regimes that block it are strong, cunning and ruthless. The rhetoric of “resistance”—Islamist, Arab nationalist, anti-American, anti-globalisation, or whatever—retains a powerful grip. Many Arabs still support groups such as al-Qaeda. A huge amount still depends on the outcome in Iraq: a descent into chaos or the failure of the political process there could crush democratic stirrings throughout the region. For all these reasons, it is probably too early for the Americans to crow about an Arab year of revolutions. All the same, the distance between Mr Bush’s talk of freedom and Arab aspirations, which only recently seemed to yawn so wide, may at last be starting to close.


(A typically Economist-like reasoned -- too reasoned? -- approach. Gives the benefit of the doubt to Bush. More thorough than most articles in giving a wide range of different situations and countries as examples.)

Todd Purdum: For Bush, a Taste of Vindication in the MidEast [New York Times]

At the very least, Mr. Bush is feeling the glow of the recent flurry of impulses toward democracy in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and even Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where events have put him on a bit of a roll and some of his sharpest critics on the defensive. It now seems just possible that Mr. Bush and aides like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz were not wrong to argue that the "status quo of despotism cannot be ignored or appeased, kept in a box or cut off," as the president put it in a speech at the National Defense University here.


(Seems to end with the suggestion that democracy would be undesirable because "full and genuine democratic elections in either country might well result in strongly anti-American governments.")

Tony Karon: Are We Serious About Arab Democracy? [Time]

The two, related, challenges facing advocates of Arab democracy are to accept that it will involve parties that the U.S. might regard as beyond the pale, and that the results may be quite different from those Washington would prefer. It's unlikely that most of the key U.S. allies in the Middle East would fare much better than Iraq's Allawi in genuinely democratic elections. But allowing Arab electorates the right to choose their own leaders is still healthier in the long run. The burden of governing is almost always a moderating experience. (Just ask Turkey's crypto-Islamist government, or the leftist administration of President Lula in Brazil.) The alternative, to promise democracy but curtail it when we don't like the outcome, may be even more dangerous.


(No, Tony, we're not. But what's with that goatee?)

Chris Toensing: Freedom, yes, but only if US strategic goals are satisfied. [Daily Star/ MERIP]

He [Bush] is content to watch these regimes stumble on the cobblestones of the "uneven and unpredictable" road to freedom, as long as they remain congenial to U.S. strategic goals in the region. Their prisons, meanwhile, are convenient pit stops for the CIA's "ghost detainees" in the war on terrorism. If American interrogators cannot build a case against these prisoners, maybe their less legally restrained Saudi Arabian and Egyptian friends can.


It is easy, of course, to decry the hypocrisy in Bush's self-appointed mission to democratize the broader Middle East. His administration is hardly unique in this respect. But the ink-stained fingers waved by Congressional Republicans at Bush's every mention of the Iraqi elections pointed in a dramatic way to American complicity in its Middle Eastern allies' suppression of the very freedoms the president says are spreading, as well as the artifice of "reform" by regimes with no intention of giving up power.


(Toensing rightly points out what most people forget: little has actually happened so far. The enthusiasm about an "Arab spring" is far, far too premature.)

Apart from the last article by Toensing, I see most of the hullabaloo above as being ridiculously premature and merely serving the political agenda of the Bush administration. Bush's policy definitely had something to do with the events described above, but do it really seem to any of the commentators that there is a consistent policy being followed here? Why is nothing being said about what is happening in Jordan, or why was only about a year Tunisia's nasty President Ben Ali was welcomed to the White House -- after he changed Tunisia's constitution so that he could run again. Moreover, does anyone get the feeling that there is any kind of follow-through? And isn't it bizarre that we only care about democracy that have disputes with Israel?
4 Comments

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.