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An Interview with Historian Walter Laqueur on the Arab Spring

RUBIN: To move on to more recent events: Why the pessimism concerning the chances of the Arab spring -- in Egypt and elsewhere?

Laqueur: My evaluation had more to do with my experience as historian of revolutions than the Middle East. (I was the author of the entry “revolution” in the penultimate edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences.) Talking about a “stolen revolution” is a bit of a joke for there had been no revolution in any of these countries, merely the deposition of unloved authoritarian rulers who had outstayed their welcome. The secular revolutionaries were relatively few and split the extreme left. Various Trotskyite sects endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood which, after all, was an anti-imperialist movement. The power of the traditional structures and ideologies was greatly underrated.

All the attention was focused on Midan el Tahrir. I don’t think any of the foreign observers went to Mahalla al Kubra, or Kubra al Kheima, or Cairo’s megaslum,  Manshiet Nasser (also known as Rubbish City), home to a million unfortunate people, or the many other places where the great majority of Egyptians live. Nor did they pay attention to the fact that a great many people had benefited from the Mubarak regime, millions of state employees -- but this is a different story.

Rubin: The U.S. government obviously prefers the Muslim Brotherhood to the SCAF -- the generals. why?

Laqueur: Who knows? I do not understand the cogent need to choose between two anti-democratic forces. Perhaps they know  something we don’t. Perhaps they think the Brotherhood will eventually prevail and will feel gratitude towards Washington. Perhaps they believe the Ikhwan have changed their character and will become even more moderate when in power.

Rubin: There is obviously a great deal of ferment in Egypt -- the young people relatively qualified who cannot find jobs commensurate with their training and expectations. In what direction will they turn?

Laqueur: It is a real tragedy. Egypt is a very poor country as far as natural resources are concerned. The Brotherhood has neither a vision nor a program except “Islam is the answer." The situation has greatly deteriorated since the outbreak of the Arab spring and the number of unemployed has risen. There has been a flight of capital from Egypt, tourism has greatly declined. The Egyptian pound has lost its value, inflation has risen significantly. I do not know how much money the government has for the import of essential foods. It cannot be more than a few months (three months according to government spokesmen). Unless Egypt gets a handout of a few billion dollars immediately, there will be starvation. Can a disaster be averted? I doubt it. It may coincide with a similar breakdown in Sudan. Help from the oil-rich Arab countries? This would be a real sensation.

Rubin: In view of all this, how to explain the great optimism of the Western media beginning  with the Arab spring in January 2011 concerning the prospects of the democratic-revolutionary movement -- the dawn of a new glorious age?

Laqueur: I wish I had an answer. To read now the comments of the correspondents of the New York Times reminds one of Alice in Wonderland. They were so utterly mistaken. It is probably unfair to single out one specific newspaper because the illusions were so widely shared even by the experts. In part, the roots of the misunderstandings were, of course, psychological. For so long, reports from the Middle East had been negative and depressing: autocratic governments, riots, terrorism, corruption, civil wars, and so on. And now suddenly, there was this great, intoxicating promise of freedom and progress -- a beacon of light to the whole world….

There was a total misreading of the Egyptian situation and the prospect and the reasons should be examined very,very carefully.