False optimism permeated much of the early coverage of the Arab Spring. Too many Western writers believed that finally the time had come for long-suffering Arab populations to throw off their authoritarian rulers, break up cliques that had dominated regimes and economies and bring in political diversity and electoral politics, analyst Jeffrey Simpson writes for the Globe and Mail:
It was not to be, for many reasons outlined clearly in a paper of sustained realism based on decades of experience by Michael Bell, a retired Canadian diplomat who served as ambassador to Egypt, Jordan and Israel. In his paper for the Transatlantic Academy, titled Liberal Attitudes And Middle East Realities, Mr. Bell explains why, despite the high hopes, “there is little tolerance for liberal pluralism” in Arab politics.
Instead, Mr. Bell writes, “a multitude of issues contribute to the dysfunction of Arab Middle East polities, including traditions of colonialism, authoritarianism, the rentier state, clientelism, corruption and imagined history”….
What frames political thought in Arab countries (beyond the liberal elites visiting Western columnists tend to quote) is what Mr. Bell calls ethno-nationalism and an ideological belief system. Western “reformers” of the Arab world need to temper their enthusiasm, because “overly assertive liberalism can lead to bad policy, with calamitous results when it confronts the ingrained habits of brittle societies.”
“Democracies cannot exist without democrats,” Mr. Bell observes.