Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

My essay on the Arab Spring in the January/February issue of World Affairs is now out from behind the pay wall.

The phrase “Arab Spring” is a misnomer. The political upheavals sweeping Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are concurrent yet different phenomena, and it’s premature to assume that any of them, let alone all of them, will bring their respective countries out of the long Arab winter of authoritarian rule. In the medium term, the number of genuinely liberal democracies to emerge in the Arab world is likely to be one or zero.

I’ve been to all three countries that overthrew tyrants last year—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—and I rented an apartment in Lebanon while the government of Syria, which may well become fourth on the list, waged a murder and intimidation campaign against Lebanese journalists and elected officials. The only things these countries have in common with each other is that they’re in turmoil and that they are Arab.

Large parts of Tunisia appear so “Westernized,” at least on the surface, that visitors might think they’re in Greece or even in France if they didn’t know better. Egypt is an ancient and crushingly poor nation ruled, as it has been more often than not, by a military dictatorship. Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi was an oil-rich dungeon state that had more in common with North Korea and the former Soviet Union than with its neighbors. Syria, meanwhile, unlike any place in North Africa, is a sectarian tinderbox with the potential to Lebanonize or to Iraqify almost immediately upon the overthrow of the state.

These nations differed dramatically from each other before the region-wide upheaval began, so it logically follows that the revolutions themselves, not to mention their conclusions and aftermaths, should also differ dramatically. The Arab Spring isn’t one thing, as the post-Communist revolutions in 1989 more or less were, with local variations in only a couple of places like Romania and Yugoslavia. Here each country and revolution is its own Romania or Yugoslavia, differing significantly from each of the others.

Tunisia might be okay. I am too young to have visited Spain in the waning days of General Franco’s regime, but Tunisia looked and felt as I imagine Spain did in the early 1970s, when, along with Portugal, it was primed to tardily join the Western democratic mainstream. It felt pre-democratic in ways that no other Arab country does, aside from Lebanon. (Yet even Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution didn’t pan out. The country was slowly but inexorably reconquered by Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian allies.)

Most Tunisian women in the cities eschew the headscarf and dress like Europeans. Alcohol is widely available and consumed more by locals than tourists. The economy is almost as advanced as those of southern Europe, and large parts of the cities actually look like southern Europe. The Mediterranean is a recognizable place despite the civilizational boundary that separates its northern and southern shores. Tunis, on the coast, has more in common with Provence than with its own Saharan interior. And its vineyards produce wine that is almost as fine.

Imperial France left a powerful imprint on Tunisia’s cultural DNA, as did Rome long ago. “The explanation for Tunisia’s success,” Robert Kaplan wrote in the Atlantic in 2001, “begins with the fact that modern Tunisia corresponds roughly to the borders of ancient Carthage and of the Roman province that replaced it in 146 B.C., after a third and final war between the two powers. ‘Africa,’ originally a Roman term, meant Tunisia long before it meant anything else.” This little wedge of a country in central North Africa has been at least partially oriented northward for most of its history ever since.

Tunisia signed an association agreement with the European Union seventeen years ago, the first in the region ever to do so. It is an Arab country, but it is just as much, and perhaps more importantly, a Mediterranean country, in look, feel, and to some extent in cultural values. Women’s rights are far more advanced there than they are anywhere else in the Arab world. The capital Tunis is visibly less Islamicized—and by an enormous margin—than any Arab city in the world aside from Beirut, which is almost half Christian.

Yet the Islamist Party, Ennahda, did very well in recent elections, winning forty-three percent of the vote. Some of its supporters at the polls could be fairly described as Islamic moderates or mainstream religious conservatives, but the party’s leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, cannot be. He praises suicide bombers who murder Israeli civilians and the terrorist insurgency that ripped the guts out of Iraq. “Gaza,” he said of the territory ruled by totalitarian Hamas, “like Hanoi in the sixties and Cuba and Algeria, is the model of freedom today.”


Read the rest in World Affairs.


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