Friday, July 7, 2017

The Arab Spring, Failed Hopes, and Self Doubt

The Arab Spring, a great movement for democracy, human rights, and hope, has crashed and burned. Outside Tunisia it has led only to some combination of civil war and renewed repression. Algerian writer and activist Kamel Daoud wrote a moving essay about these events for a French newspaper that has now been translated and published in the Times. It makes me wonder.

Daoud admits that the dreams of the protesters and the rebels are dead or dying, but he does not attribute this to any sort of natural disease. He believes that those dreams were murdered. They were murdered by dictators like Assad with their airplanes and poison gas, by cynical foreign governments, by lies. The liars claim that attempts to establish Arab democracy only empower radicals like the Islamic state and lead to chaos and foreign intervention:
For President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, the Arab springs were “devastating conspiracies.” According to a private Egyptian television channel, even ‘‘The Simpsons’’ contained proof of untoward foreign designs in Syria. The political chaos in Libya has fanned distrust as well.

The foreign-intervention theory is used as a weapon against local dissenters. In 2016 Bouteflika, ailing and immobilized, announced that he would seek yet another term, after having the Constitution amended so that he could stay in office for the rest of his life. When his opponents countered his proposals by invoking democratic values, government media accused them of being traitors, Western agents or Zionists.

The case of Syria — subject to alliances with Iran or Russia and playing against Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United States — gives weight to such propaganda. It seems to demonstrate that any demand for democracy eventually translates into chaos, and chaos invites the return of colonialism. The same goes for Libya. Better then to submit to one’s dictators than compromise oneself with foreigners.
I want to agree with Daoud that the dream of Arab democracy remains alive, and that things might have gone differently. But I am not sure. I am not much of a believer in luck or genius. I think most of what happens in history is driven by vast, long-term forces that we only partially understand and can rarely control. It seems to me that people who point out what happened in Libya when the dictator was overthrown are onto something. The situation did not degenerate into chaos for no reason at all; it degenerated because Libyans are deeply divided among themselves by region, tribe, class, attitudes toward Europe, and their interpretations of Islam, so much so that once the heavy hand of dictatorship was removed the situation spontaneously combusted. Can democracy flourish in such circumstances? Assad has held onto power in Syria not just because he has airplanes and poison gas, but because he has the support of many Syrians. Foreign powers meddle in Arab conflicts not just for their own nefarious purposes but because various Arab factions are always begging them to.

Consider events in Iraq and Egypt. In Iraq the US removed the dictator and his whole apparatus, and so far the result has been corruption, conflict, terrorism, the rise of the Islamic state, a devastating civil war, and the effective secession of Kurdistan. Consider the still smoldering ruins of Mosul, once one of the Arab world's great cities, as collateral damage from this experiment. In Egypt democracy was established and an election held, but the winner was from the Muslim Brotherhood. The secular, western-oriented people who began the protests and launched the revolution recoiled in horror from what their countrymen had chosen and allied with the military to overthrow the Morsi government and return Egypt to dictatorship. The hard, rational part of my brain says this all proves that most of the Arab world is simply not suitable for democracy.

But even as I reach that conclusion I doubt it. Americans always used to say that Latin America was unsuitable for democracy and pointed to the numerous failures, but right now most of the region is democratic, and some of those democratic nations are thriving. Am I just being smug and indifferent when I write off the dreams of Daoud and millions of others? Is my resignation just an excuse for the west's clumsy combination of military meddling and moral indifference? For my refusal to endorse spending American dollars and soldiers overthrowing Assad? I don't know.

I would never tell Daoud or an other citizen of a dictatorship to give up hope; hope is a precious thing in any circumstances. But I am not myself optimistic that things will get better in the Middle East any time soon.

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