The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Overdoing Islamist panic

John Bradley, a British journalist who has written books about Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has a new book out. And it's all about how the Arab uprisings were the most horrible thing ever to happen, how the Islamists have taken over everything, and everyone is stupid for hoping that some form of democracy might finally come to the Arab world.

Bradley's book on Egypt captured well the sense that things were coming to an end, and being subtitled "The land of the pharaohs on the brink of a revolution," he can claim uncanny prescience. But in fact, the book did not really predict anything specific other than the exhaustion of the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime, and had other problems. One of them was a very hostile treatment of Islamists — not that they don't deserve a cautious approach, but it was very much over the top — I remember for instance an odd passage in which Bradley gets pissed off with the then Deputy General Guide of the Muslim Brothers, Muhammad Habib, for speaking polished fusha rather than aamiya.

Since the Arab Spring — which Bradley has taken to calling the Salafi Spring — he has been resoundly negative and pessimistic, and often alarmist about the electoral victories of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt. I downloaded the first chapter of his new book, After the Arab Spring: How Islamist have hijacked the Middle East revolts and found him resolutely negative about Tunisia (Tunisia for Pete's sake!), only citing Tunisians who worry about the victory of Ennahda (in my experience a minority) and taking incidents that were likely political manipulations like the whole Persepolis affair of last summer as signs of an impending totalitarian imposition of Sharia law. He almost sounds nostalgic about the supposed liberalism of Ben Ali! 

There is good reason to be cautious about what Islamists will do once in power, and the negative impact they may have on women's rights and other matters. But surely it is both too early to condemn them for anti-democratic behavior or to regret that democratic elections have been held that freely and fairly brought Islamists to power. The key issue Bradley seems to have is that the Islamists are neither secular nor liberal. At this point, it's a philosophical problem: it seems Bradley is unwilling to recognize that democratic processes who bring conservative religious forces to power as democratic. But would he say the same about a Republican president elected from the religious right in America (like George W. Bush) or indeed, the way that all presidential candidates must make references to God in their speeches?

From the introduction of the book, this is the way Bradley sees things:

It's perfectly legitmate to worrry about an Islamist-military alliance in Egypt (although this is not applicable to Tunisia) or of a Saudi-backed counter-revolution. But there are also wider demands for democratic accountability and good governance that remain strong whether the public backs Islamists or not. In other words, so what if there will be policies that are neither secular nor liberal/progressive? Many made the mistake before of giving Ben Ali or Mubarak the benefit of the doubt as a bulwark against Islamists (here Bradley treads a path followed by Christopher Hitchens and many French commentators). But these were not champions of women's rights (little progress was made in Egypt under Mubarak while Ben Ali simply manipulated the legacy of genuine female empowerment left by Bourguiba) or indeed democracy. The Islamists have come in to run government after elections, not by coup or through a revolutionary process. They may be conservative, but I'm not sure that even if they have retrograde ideas, they should be considered undemocratic.

Or at least, it's too early to tell.