A Premature Spring

By Roberto Toscano, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Jul 05, 2011

Sometimes spring comes prematurely, and the tender buds that were promising to blossom can be frozen and destroyed by a resilient winter. Will this be the case for the Arab Spring?

Yes and no. In spite of the blowback in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, in what has already happened, there is something that is irreversible.

Not so much the political results in Tunisia and Egypt, since in both countries it would be premature to talk of "revolution" in the sense of a radical regime change, which is something more than the mere demise of a dictator. It is relatively easy to remove a dictator, much more difficult to change structures and networks of power that have consolidated in the course of decades. The fact is that, though political and constitutional aspects are important, the economy is not less important. Corporatist capitalism, in particular, has meant the absence of a free market, replaced by privilege and cronyism, and impeded upon the growth of a class of modern, competitive entrepreneurs and repressed any real labor organization. To this should be added that often military establishments have been co-opted by their inclusion in the system of production, creating vested interests that will be difficult to curtail even in a future democracy. How can elected representatives and independent businessmen challenge a combination of force and corporatist economic power?

What is irreversible, in spite of these huge difficulties and question marks, are the feeling of empowerment of the Arab masses and the revelation that the autocrats, once thought of as formidable and invincible, can be defeated and removed from power. This knowledge will not be lost, and will produce results – some earlier, some later. "Yes we can" is something the Arab masses, especially the younger generation, will not forget and will not give up.

Of all the historical parallels that have been drawn for the Arab Spring, perhaps the most apt will turn out to be that of 1848, the year when revolutions broke out throughout Europe, which were mostly defeated by the violent reaction of status quo forces but which planted the seeds for the eventual triumph of liberalism, nationalism, and democracy all over the continent.

A second important, and hopefully not reversible, result of the events of this surprising spring of 2011 is the disappearance from the focus and slogans of the protest with the attribution to external actors (mainly the United States) of both the status of enemy and of the responsibility for the injustice and oppression that Arab populations have been long (one could say traditionally) the victims of.

Protesters are not oblivious, of course, to the international dimensions of a non-democratic status quo, or to the fact that responsibility follows power, and that the policies of the most powerful country, the United States, have had a profound impact on the protracted entrenchment of non-democratic regimes. Yet, for the first time, the main focus of the protests was internal, and this has extremely important consequences: the recognition of agency and the abandonment of a fatalistic feeling of impotence facing an overwhelming external power. Demonization of an external force is a confession of impotence, an admission of hopeless inferiority that Arab masses have now proved ready to overcome by focusing on their own tyrants.

The basic issue, however, remains power. How will that newly found consciousness and their feeling of agency and empowerment be able to prevail against violent and often merciless entrenched structures of power? There is no successful insurrection against determined and united armed forces. And if the armed forces split, then civil war erupts. The first case spells Iran, the second Libya.

The roots of the protest are similar throughout the region: indignation (for stolen votes, stolen lives, and stolen rights); the demand for respect; and the anger at corruption. Yet every country is different and will have different paths to change. For instance, the "sprint" of the Tunisian and Egyptian democratic movements is hardly conceivable in Iran, where a combination of military force (the Pasdaran) and residual ideological appeal of the regime rather point in the direction of a "marathon." But change will come.

The time has come for political elites to listen to the people instead of trying to impose ideological platforms: Islamism, Western-style liberalism, or late Marxism. The time has come, instead, to conceive of a space for different options within one single political-constitutional framework. But, after all, isn't that what democracy is all about?

Another very important lesson that we should be able to draw from the recent events in the Middle East (both in terms of success and of failure) is that the time has come to set aside a schematic, alternative view of civil society on one side and politics on the other. Civil society must supply the lifeblood of democratic politics, but it cannot replace politics, meaning the organization of political parties with alternative proposals for the running of the res publica, the state. Human freedom flourishes only in the presence of a constant exchange and tension between the state and civil society. An all-powerful state is not compatible with freedom, but neither is a society that, in the absence of a credible and functioning state, inevitably turns from civil to uncivil. If North Korea is bad, this does not mean that Somalia is good.

The very concept of democracy should be examined more carefully. It should be made clear that when we say democracy we do not just mean majority rule. If that were so, then political Islam, also of the radical brand, could be defined as "democratic." Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine win elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will run in democratic elections, probably with significant results. What is more than doubtful is whether political Islam is liberal, i.e. respectful of pluralism and of the right of minorities, including the freedom of religion and the "freedom from religion" for those who are not believers or no longer believers.

The reverse, however, is also true, in the sense that throughout the Middle East, one encounters educated elites that are undoubtedly liberal (and also secularist) but who tend to resist, sometimes supporting or condoning authoritarian regimes, majority rule insofar as it goes in the direction of political Islam.

The only hope for the Middle East is the "liberalization" of Muslim masses and the "democratization" of Western liberal and secular elites. This is a long and difficult process, but one that will be made inevitable, and sustainable, by the social and economic transformations affecting the way people live throughout the region. We should stop wondering (and worrying) about the influence of religion on society, and focus instead on the influence of a changing society on religion – in this case, Islam. After all, the history of Christianity, and of its difficult and troubled relationship with democracy and individual freedom, shows us exactly that.

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