Hope and despair for Arab civilization

hussein--ibishHisham Melhem’s brilliant and profoundly significant cri de coeur  about the collapse of “Arab civilization”has reverberated powerfully throughout the Middle East commentariat, says a leading analyst. Surveying the wreckage of Arab culture and civilization, Melhem conducts an unflinching, overdue and merciless autopsy of what he declares to be a social, economic and political corpse, notes Hussein Ibish (left).

But it’s not true that there are no other social, political or religious visions in the Arab world, he writes for Now Lebanon. Indeed, predictions that post-dictatorship Arab societies would inevitably produce elected Islamist governments proved wrong, because even though most Arabs are devout Muslims, they are not Islamists. They might well be willing to accept Islamists in government if they are responsible, effective and accountable. But those Islamists who got the chance in government to show what they are truly made of – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – proved nothing of the kind….

At a certain level, there’s no question that Melhem is basically right. A real Arab “recovery” won’t happen in his lifetime, or in mine. Some of the issues are so deep-rooted and structural that they really will take “decades and generations” to completely transform. But hope need not, indeed cannot, be vested only in such a thoroughgoing transformation. …

The first thing to bear in mind is how radically different things looked, even for what amounts to a fleeting political moment, at the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring.” It was not a mirage. Millions of Arabs in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere really did take to the streets demanding reform, accountability and good governance. It was a genuine and spontaneous expression of “people power” and revealed a real appetite for greater openness and at least some version of democracy…..There is, we can say with absolute confidence, indeed a mass Arab constituency for pluralism, tolerance, good governance and accountability.

Second, let us recall that when societies transform, they frequently do so with stunning rapidity. Particularly in the modern era, change can be, and often is, sudden, dramatic and swift. If three-and-a-half years ago was a period of brief but irrational exuberance about the rise of an empowered Arab citizenry demanding its rights and asserting its responsibilities, we should be open to the possibility that the present impulse towards despair might also prove to be exaggerated.

All across the region, from courageous individuals to small groups that are doing good in their own small spheres of activity and influence, to strategic realignments at the state and regional level (such as the important new international coalition to combat ISIS), the basis for hope for a better Arab future can indeed be identified if you start looking for it…. 

As bad as things are in the Arab world today, the grounds for such hope are genuine. The task is to first identify the bases for improvement, and then to act on them.



Arab Spring failure colors perceptions of Gaza conflict

As the conflict in Gaza enters its third week, polls show most Americans are still supportive of Israel — in part, analysts say, because of the Arab Spring’s failures to spread democracy, the New York Times reports:

A CNN/ORC International poll found that a majority of Americans — 57 percent — believe that Israel’s military actions in Gaza are justified, with only four in 10 saying that Israel has used too much force. The poll, conducted Friday through Sunday, echoed a similar one conducted earlier during the latest conflict — July 8 to 14 — in which the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Americans sympathized with Israel, compared with 14 percent who sympathized with the Palestinians.

Americans perceive Israelis “more or less the way they perceive themselves, as a democratic entity,” said Aaron David Miller, a former American Middle East adviser in Republican and Democratic administrations.

Mr. Miller, now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that reinforcing that bond has been the failure, so far, of the Arab Spring democracy movement.

“The region is so broken, angry, and dysfunctional that they serve as effective talking points for Israel” in comparison, Mr. Miller said.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian struggle for statehood has slipped down the agenda of priorities for the region’s people and governments, analyst Roula Khalaf writes for the Financial Times.

“The circumstances of the region are different this time. There are problems no less important than Gaza – whether in Syria, Iraq or Libya,” says Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian official who now teaches at Birzeit University near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

“But there’s also another sad element: that for the first time Gaza is caught up in a regional power struggle, particularly between Egypt and Qatar, and that weakens the Arab stance.”

Calling on Palestinian officials to recognise a new reality in the Arab world, Ghassan Charbel, editor of the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, laments that the Palestinian struggle for statehood has receded as a priority.

“The war in Gaza is taking place in a different region now,” he wrote in a recent column.


The end of pluralism: violence trumps politics in Middle East?

TEMPTATIONS ISLAMISTIf the second phase of the “Arab Spring” is really about anything, it is about a collective loss of faith in politics, according to Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center.

We might not like to admit it, but violence can, and often does, “work” in today’s Middle East, he writes for The Atlantic:

This is not just a reference to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but also to less extreme militant groups that control territory throughout Syria, providing security and social services to local populations. From Libya to Palestine to parts of the Egyptian Sinai, armed—and increasingly hard-line—Islamist groups are making significant inroads. This is the Arab world’s Salafi-Jihadi moment. It may not last, but its impact is already impossible to dismiss, to say nothing of the long-term consequences. In Libya and Syria, even non-Salafi groups like the Brotherhood are adapting to the new world of anti-politics, allying themselves with local armed groups or working to form their own militias.

A movement meant to demonstrate that peaceful protest could work ultimately demonstrated the opposite, notes Hamid, the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East:

This is one of the great tragedies of the past few years—that a movement meant to demonstrate that peaceful protest could work ultimately demonstrated the opposite. According to former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, the Arab Spring shattered the myth that “peaceful change in this region is not possible.” Indeed, it did. But then the violence raged on in Syria and Libya. Leaders in these countries saw their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts as weak and feckless, as conceding too much to their opponents and emboldening them in the process. In .the case of the Egyptian coup in 2013, the most populous Arab country, long a bellwether for the region, willfully aborted its own democratic process. The worst mass killing in the country’s modern history soon followed.

That this violence is, in some way, tied to religion makes it more difficult for outsiders to parse. As the military historian Andrew Bacevich writes, “No single explanation exists for why the War for the Greater Middle East began and why it persists. But religion figures as a central element. Secularized American elites either cannot grasp or are unwilling to accept this.” Indeed, the divide between Islamists and what we might call “anti-Islamists” cannot be reduced to the single-minded pursuit of power. As I argue in my new book, it is just as much about real ideological divides over the role of religion in public life and the nature, meaning, and purpose of the nation-state.

Not too much intervention, too little

The Middle East, as a region, is more unstable, divided, and rife with extremism today than it has been at any other point in recent decades, Hamid observes:

It would make little sense to blame these developments on American military intervention. The past six years have been characterized not by the use of force, but by a very concerted desire on the part of the Obama administration to reduce our regional engagement, in general, and our military footprint in particular.

The presumption was that with the withdrawal from Iraq, a key Arab grievance would be addressed. The Obama administration could, then, re-establish a relationship with the Arab world based on “mutual respect,” leading to a “new beginning.” It wasn’t unreasonable to think this. After all, it was precisely our over-engagement, and the waging of two costly, tragic wars, that appeared to provoke such anger toward the United States. Yet disengagement and detachment haven’t helped matters. Anti-Americanism persists at strikingly high levels and, in a number of countries, attitudes toward the U.S. are more negative under Obama than they were during Bush’s final years.

“The two most destructive conflicts in the Middle East today are in Syria and Iraq, two countries that have imploded not because of too much intervention, but because of too little,” he suggests.


Arab Spring outcomes ‘on balance more than disappointing’

larryDiamondThe results of the Arab Spring “on balance are more than disappointing,” says Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, where he directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL).

It has been more than three years since the first protest movements started in late 2011. …Do you think this is a completely disappointing process when looking back to the early euphoria people experienced? asks Mehmet Hecan.

No, it’s not completely disappointing because at least one of the several countries that had revolutionary movements and deposed authoritarian regimes is now moving towards democracy, namely Tunisia. This is a very significant development. I think it’s now very likely to lead to the first clear democratic system in the Arab world, at a minimum, since the failure of parliamentary democracy in Lebanon in the mid-1970s.

We should notice that meanwhile in Yemen, which is one of the other four Arab countries that deposed an autocrat, there has been a pre-constitution-making process and a national dialogue conference that at least reached some degree of agreement on the broad parameters of a new constitutional structure and the need of sharing power and revenue between northern and southern Yemen. It still has a very long way to go and could implode in a variety of bad ways, but you know, at least the process is still on track.

Elsewhere it is very grim. Egypt has emerged in an extreme authoritarian direction with a narrative and set of dynamics that are viciously repressive, and a fascist overtone of complete intolerance of criticism of the opposition, glorification of xenophobic nationalism, and worshipping of a hero-savior in the form of general El-Sisi. It is very alarming. Libya has virtually disintegrated as a state since it is in the control of different militias and warlords. Bahrain has become again a repressive authoritarian regime that has completely suffocated popular aspirations for freedom and accountability. 

The outcomes on balance are more than disappointing, but there is one emerging success story and another possibility of a partial success story. Much of the history of the Arab world remains to be written. This is a process that is going to evolve and unfold over an extended period of time, probably over the next 20 years. 

Diamond is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and a senior consultant to the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy.


The Arab 1848?

The Arab upheaval has been the cause of profound bewilderment in the developed world and among policy makers, not least in Washington. Great enthusiasm for the Arab Spring was quickly replaced by confusion and concern regarding Islamic democracy or an Islamist Winter, depending on one’s perspective, analyst Azar Gat writes for The National Interest.

The European revolutions of 1848, the ‘Spring of Nations’, with their great hopes and dashed dreams, have often been cited as an analog. But what can the European experience of modernization and regime change teach us about the contemporary Arab world?

What makes nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the current Middle East similar is their relative position on the road to modernization. According to the most authoritative estimates, real GDP per capita in non-oil producing Arab countries is in the same range as mid- to late-nineteenth-century Europe. Urbanization rates in Egypt and Syria are, respectively, just below and above 50 percent, a level crossed by the United Kingdom around 1850 and by Germany around 1900. Illiteracy in the major Arab countries still hovers between 20 to 30 percent, again in the same range as in mid-nineteenth century Europe….

While these major indicators are of fundamental significance, differences remain that should also be factored in. Whereas nineteenth-century Europe and the West were the world’s pioneers and world leaders in modernization, today’s Arab countries are among the world’s strugglers, with only Africa trailing behind. Because of this, the Arab world enjoys many of the fruits of modernization as imports from outside—in communications, household appliances, computers, medicine and the like. This also means that the Arab world is susceptible to pressures from the hegemonic developed world – most notably economic, partly military, and, more ambivalently, intellectual – even if the efficacy of such pressures is inherently limited. Finally, there are all the differences of culture and historical traditions, for, as we know, the process of modernization, while most powerful and deeply transformative, is far from being linear.

In comparison and analysis, certain key concepts serve as prisms, Gat suggests: democracy, liberalism, development, nationalism, religion, and stability.


The call for democracy has reigned supreme in the enthusiasm that surrounded the Arab Spring and the fall of the Old Regimes throughout much of the Middle East. It remains the strong expectation of Western opinion and the official demand by Western governments, most notably that of the United States. In today’s West, democracy is perceived as the ultimate ideal and political norm, unconditioned by extraneous circumstances. But in reality, rather than democracy being an abstract, timeless idea waiting to be recognized and adopted by right-minded people, its successful implementation has always depended on and closely correlated with a number of developmental factors variably embedded in the process of modernization.


Liberals everywhere in nineteenth-century Europe were deeply concerned that democracy would jeopardize liberal rights, such as respect for human life, free speech, freedom of religion, toleration for a diversity of opinion and identity, and, above all, the right to property. They feared that the masses would place little value on these hard-won sociopolitical norms, or else would be swayed by non-liberal creeds, whether traditionalist-conservative or revolutionary. ….

The Muslim Brotherhood’s reign in Egypt was too brief to offer conclusive evidence, but the omens were not very good. The Brotherhood in power were relatively restrained, for the reasons mentioned. Nonetheless, they were ideologically and politically intolerant towards the large Christian minority, the Copts, and failed to respond to widespread incidences of violence against them. ….

Western opinion and policy makers wish to see democracy installed and maintained, while also wishing that liberal values and norms be protected. They naturally tend to regard democracy and liberalism as inseparable, as the two have become in liberal democracies during the twentieth century. However, when the two sets of cherished values and norms conflict, which of them is to be given precedent? This question has long been absent from the script of Western and liberal democratic discourse. Moreover, liberal parliamentary regimes that were not democratic but later grew to become fully so were very much the norm in nineteenth-century Europe. But their opposite, the recently posited concept of ‘illiberal democracy’, has rarely if ever materialized anywhere. The reason for this is that liberal values seem to be essential for a deep respect for a democratic system, as opposed to an opportunistic or instrumental attitude towards it. Illiberal democracies do not only infringe on liberal values and norms, but are also ever in danger of turning undemocratic too.


In some ways, political and social Islam resembles political and social Catholicism in nineteenth century Europe. Catholicism organized itself politically in reaction against the forces of secularism, modernity, liberalism and democracy, preached nonworldly virtue and social justice, and practiced social work for the poor. The most significant political party that exemplified the movement was the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum), which was consolidated to defend Catholic rights in Protestant-dominated unified Germany after 1871. ….

Can political Islam travel the same road and be transformed into the Arab and Muslim equivalent of the Zentrum and Christian Democrats? …..

Such a development might take time and require a preliminary semiauthoritarian phase, as it did in Turkey. The apocalyptic violent streak that Islamism has developed in recent decades is a major obstacle. So also is Islamic universalism and its challenge to the Arab states. Whereas militant violence was practically absent in nineteenth century political Catholicism (though not in other, revolutionary creeds), Catholic universalism was a much stronger reality. It nonetheless receded before the European nation-states, which were far more deeply rooted than their supposed counterparts in the Middle East.

Azar Gat is currently the Ezer Weizman Professor of National Security and was twice Chair of the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University.