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An Interview with Historian Walter Laqueur on the Arab Spring

Walter Laqueur is one of the world’s greatest historians and political analysts. Indeed, it might be said that Laqueur was one of the main people who created this profession and hence the scores of think tanks around the world.  He has written extensively about European and Middle East politics, terrorism, and insurgency. Born in 1921, Laqueur continues the prodigious output of thought and writing which is characteristic of his work. His website is www.laqueur.net

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Rubin: Within a week of the beginning of the Cairo demonstrations last year, you wrote a series of articles which appeared under the general title "Cassandra in Cairo."  They were published in several European newspapers, and also, I believe, in the Democracy Digest and the New Republic. They were in stark contrast to most comments at the time. I quote from the beginning:

Of all the headlines covering the Egyptian situation, I found only one with which I could fully agree -- "Jubilation today, future uncertain." It is not tactful to play Cassandra in the middle of universal rejoicing, but I fear that the high expectations of today will lead to bitter disappointment for the following reason.

What happened in Egypt was not a revolution, certainly not so far. It brought about the deposition of a man -- one who was a dictator but by no means the worst dictator in the Middle East. The worst dictators will not be attacked by Al Jazeera because they are (rightly) afraid of them. Mubarak probably misappropriated state funds -- but all that has been found so far is one house in London. He lived relatively modestly. Those who know more than I do, tell me that of the $70 billion he allegedly stole, perhaps two or three billions will in the end remain -- and he may even have acquired them semi-legally.

A list of Middle East rulers who have not enriched themselves in office would be very short indeed.

Under his rule, fewer people were killed than under most other Middle Eastern rulers, certainly fewer than under Nasser, who in addition ruined the Egyptian economy. When Nasser died, many Egyptians were weeping, but not when Mubarak left.  He was an autocrat and a stupid man, out of touch with the feelings of his people. He outstayed his welcome by ten or fifteen years, which happens frequently to old people who stay too long in power -- even Churchill, de Gaulle, and Adenauer did.

But he was not a monster. Under him, the Egyptian economy grew by 5-6% a year and the Gini coefficient -- a key indicator of inequality -- was less than in the U.S., Russia, or China

What led you to such pessimist conclusions?

Laqueur: My early steps as a political commentator were in this field. I lived for several years among Arabs -- not politicians, not intellectuals, but simple people; fellaheen, Bedouin, poor town people. True, my Arabic was deficient and I have forgotten most since. I visited Egypt as a young journalist when King Farouk was still in power. My first book, titled  Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East, appeared in 1956. It was an amateurish effort but it was a pioneering study and widely read and commented on at the time.

Rubin: Do you still stand by your evaluation of 1956?

Laqueur: Yes and no. I overrated the prospects of Communism in the Middle East, but not by very much, and I also noted that the appeal of Marxism was really skin deep. I underrated the appeal of religion, but I was in good company -- everyone did that. I noted that the quest for an universal faith was very strong and if Communism had an appeal it was that of a secular religion. Nationalism seemed to be the wave of the future, the great breakthrough of  Islamism (the Muslim Brotherhood) came only after nationalism -- in the case of Egypt, Nasserism -- had failed and Communism had declined. In the late 1950s many Arab and North African intellectuals flirted with Communism -- fascism was out of fashion following the defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It is striking how many of them ended up in the Muslim Brotherhood or its periphery.

There have been some interesting individual studies, but the general picture remains to be written. I wish someone would write the story of Ahmad Husain (of Misr al Fatat fame in the late thirties). In his fascist period, Ahmad Husain was very hostile to the Ikhwan. Later, he sympathized with them. His younger brother, who died a year or two ago, spent years in prison as a Communist. But he, too, ended up a fellow traveler of the Ikhwan and became the darling of the Egyptian intelligentsia. These were quite typical stories and they deserve to be retold in detail.

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.