By Monte Palmer
May 23, 2012
The euphoria of the Arab Spring is giving way to despair as dreams of prosperity and justice continue to fade. The tyrants are crumbling, but their military establishments remain entrenched in positions of power. Elections have been held, only to raise fears of Islamic rule. Chaos reigns, sending liberated economies into a free fall. Jobs and welfare have yet to materialize.
Such is the nature of revolutions. They begin by tearing down the old and then turn to the far more difficult task of building a new and better world. Several missing links in the Arab revolution suggest that this rebuilding process may take a long time. It will
also require a great deal of patience and sensitivity among global powers desirous of a stable and democratic Middle East.
The list of missing links begins with the lack of a clear identity or ideology among the protesters who so bravely toppled the ruling tyrants of region. The Arab Spring was not an organized movement, but a mass explosion born of despair that incorporated virtually all segments of Arab society. To borrow a term from earlier Shia protests in Lebanon, it was a movement of the dispossessed. There was no internal cohesion in the movement other than a shared dream that the fall of the tyrants would bring an end to what the Arab Human Development Report described as an "existential nightmare".
With the tyrants gone, everything else would be sorted out with time and goodwill. There was neither, and the revolutionary movements began to splinter into their diverse factions. They will continue to splinter until the citizens of the liberated countries can agree on a common vision of Arab society and its future.
What this means, in effect, is that the Arab Spring lacks a true mass organization to sustain it in the difficult years to come. It has no core figure or ideology to rally around. The protesters were a vanguard willing to challenge the regime with their lives, but the majority of the people were either sleepers or bystanders more concerned with individual survival than changing the face of the Arab world. They remain so. As long as the vanguard remains divided among itself, there can be little hope for a coherent change in the Arab world
The more the movement of the dispossessed continues to splinter, the more difficult it will be for the Arab revolution to create sustainable democratic institutions capable of maintaining order while they focus their energies on national development. Democracy is not the only path to development, but it is the only one that facilitates political change by reconciliation rather than violence.
Not only are the embryonic democracies of the region fragile, but the competing views in Arab society are so extreme that they may be beyond reconciliation by peaceful means. Of these, none is greater than the gapping distance between secular and Islamic views of the Arab future. This problem came to the fore with the sweeping victories of the Muslim Brotherhood and its kin throughout the region. The people have voted, but will the Muslim Brotherhood be allowed to rule? Democracy is not merely a matter of winning elections. Elected leaders also have to rule.
The dilemma posed by the dominance on the Muslim Brotherhood in recent elections points to another glaring moderate Islamic force that can serve the spiritual needs of Muslims in a secular environment. Sadly, most senior clerics in the Arab world served the tyrants rather than the masses. Their credibility as suffered accordingly. To use an Egyptian phrase, Establishment Islam now suffers from the curse of the pharaoh and does not offer a viable alternative to either the Muslim Brotherhood of the more extreme Salafis.
A lack of clarity in discussing the issue is only adding to the confusion. The words liberals and Islamist are bandied about as if they had specific meanings. They don't. Liberals and seculars are used interchangeably and run the gamut from socialist labor unions to free market entrepreneurs. They agree on nothing other than the vague fear that the Islamists will clip their wings by imposing strict Islamic rule. Words like socialist and liberal also give the false impression that the secularists are hostile to Islam. This is hardly the case, for most liberal groups have been in constant negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The word Islamist is equally confusing. The term was coined by the pro-Hosni Mubarak press in an effort to paint the Muslim Brotherhood with the brush of the jihadists and other Salafi currents. The label stuck and was soon picked up by the Western press for the sake of simplicity. Assuming that the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood are on the same page is a tragic error. In fact, conflict between the Brotherhood and the diverse Salafi currents who now dominate the scene could lead to conflicts over strategy, timing, concessions to secularism that will keep the region in chaos for years to come. It would also be an error to assume that even devout Muslims are anxious to return to a time warp of 7th century Arabia. Some are, but most aren't.
Now add an Arabic language that sacrifices clarity for the love of embellishment to the discussion. How are Arabs to make rational electoral choices when they are overwhelmed with campaign speeches and press commentary that thrive on hyperbole rather than reality.
The demands of the protesters, moreover, are not self-fulfilling. Totally missing in the liberated states is an apparatus for meeting the needs of the dispossessed. The bureaucracies of the region are corrupt, self-serving and profoundly inefficient. Gamal Abdul Nasser even spoke of forming an alliance with the masses against the bureaucrats, and those were the good days. The Arab bureaucracies have continued to rot in an environment of corruption and oppression and cannot meet the needs of the dispossessed in the coming decade any more than they could in the past.
Also missing is the existence of a depoliticized military. How could it be otherwise when the main function of Arab militaries was to keep the tyrants in power? One cannot simply order the military out of politics. It is part of an Arab military culture born of years of tyranny. The military establishment, like the bureaucracy, will have to be totally reconfigured from scratch. The Turks are working on the problem, but it is tough sledding.
One thing is for sure. Serious efforts to reform the bureaucracy and the military will require massive layoffs. What this means, if effect, is the dismantling of the overwhelming largest employer in the Arab world. Who will replace the redundant bureaucrats and soldiers, and what will this new wave of dispossessed do to the Arab spring?
The American answer to this riddle is free market economics. Alas, the practice of free market economics in the Arab world has only made the rich richer while swelling the ranks of the dispossessed. Economists acknowledge the problem of temporary increases in social inequality, but are confident that things will be sorted out with time. I'm not sure that the Arab Spring has that much time, especially when popular pressures are demanding subsidies, equity, and government jobs.
Not only do the Arabs currently lack the capacity to meet the needs of the dispossessed, but corruption reigns and a long established alliance between capitalists and bureaucrats will assure that the billions of aid dollars that are pouring into the Arab world go for naught. Legions of parasitic contractors and NGOs will help them along. Not all contractors and NGOs are self serving, but many are. Non-Governmental, may sound like a halo, but that isn't necessarily so. One must surely worry about Neguib Mafaouz's dictum that revolutions are initiated by dreamers, carried out by brave people, and taken over by opportunists.
Underlying this lack of cooperation is the missing link of mutual trust. Such is the price of decades of oppression and corruption. As things currently stand, the Arab psyche is haunted by fear, uncertainty, and a profound lack of faith that others will play by the rules whatever their merit. Feelings of revenge are also prominent in Arab culture and will clearly add to the prevailing uncertainty of the Arab Spring as those linked to the pharaoh cling desperately to their positions. Both culture and the psyche are "sticky." They will not change overnight.
The missing link of security may be even more lethal. People who are desperate, afraid, and uncertain of their future invariably cling to their core family and religious groups in the hope of finding stability in a cataclysmic environment. That is where their loyalty lies. Where else do they have to turn? Certainly not to embryonic political systems the future of which may be fleeting, at best. For all of the bravery and sacrifice of the protesters, the majority of the Arab populations will focus on survival until the dust of the revolution has settled. As Mubarak quipped when someone accused a colleague of being a survivor, "We are all survivors."
Even knottier is the missing commitment of self-sacrifice for the good of society and country. The dispossessed have become adept at articulating their wants, but I have seen little evidence of concerted sacrifice or cooperation for the public good.
Such basic instincts are logical. Far less logical are the impulses stimulated by the emotional cyclone sweeping the region. Fear has already been mention and takes center stage in Arab analyses of their psyche. Now add the conflicting emotions of hope and despair, euphoria and disappointment, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, efficacy and self doubt. Which will predominate? Is logical decision making really possible in the emotional pressure cooker of the Arab Spring? These and related psychological themes are elaborated in my Arab Psyche and American Frustrations. They can also be discussed at arabpsyche.wordpress.com.
Finally, the Arab Spring is missing coherent international and regional guidance. The Arabs can't adjust to American policy, because the US, still reeling from defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, has no policy. On one hand, the US is struggling to create a region free of terror that is safe for Israel and Saudi Arabia. On the other, it courts a Muslim Brotherhood hostile to Israel and pursues policies that breed terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Libya. Sooner or later the US may have to face the choice between stability, oil, and Israel. The State Department glosses over its lack of policy by saying that it treats events on a case by case basis. A better indicator of a lack of Middle Eastern policy is hard to find.
The meddling of the Russians and the Chinese adds confusion to the picture as does the reluctance of the Arab kings to see the Arab Spring succeed. Who can blame them? They are next on the list.
Monte Palmer is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University and a former Director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut. His recent books include The Arab Psyche and American Frustrations, The Politics of the Middle East, Islamic Extremism (with Princess Palmer), Political Development: Dilemmas and Challenges, and Egypt and the Game of Terror (a novel). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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