A View from the Arab Spring, towards the Following Summer
Prof. Haim Harari, The Weizmann Institute
International Policy Forum, November 01, 2011
The phrase “Arab Spring” is a surprisingly appropriate description of current events in the
Arab world. It relates not only to the awakening of anger and to the desire for change by the
Arab masses, but also to the lack of understanding of the circumstances, by most European
and American observers. Winter in New York, London or Berlin is often accompanied by a
mild depression. It is a period when nothing blooms, very little remains green, sunshine is
rare and most birds are gone. And then comes the spring, when everything begins to blossom,
warmth returns, birds are chirping and life restarts. Alas, in most of the Arab world, winter is
a pleasant period relative to what comes next. The winter temperature is quite comfortable
and the sun often shines. When spring arrives, the heat returns, heralding an unbearable
summer, without one drop of water and a harsh and dry brown-yellow land. The little that
was partly green, during the winter, is gone. Indeed, “The Arab Spring” inevitably leads to a
difficult and unpleasant summer. The metaphor reflects not only what it purports to describe,
but also the mentality gap between its Western authors and the real situation.
Many of the demonstrators in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Damascus were truly fed up
with the corrupt dictators, lack of democracy and absence of freedom. Indeed, democracy is
long overdue in the Arab world. But democracy and freedom are not trivial concepts.
Democracy is not removing the Shah of Iran and replacing him by a cruel Ayatollah regime.
Democracy is not removing the Russian Tsar and replacing him by Stalin and democracy is
not electing Hitler. Democracy is not even just an honest election, once every four years.
None of the above guarantee the rule of law, freedom of speech, free press, proper judicial
system, equality for women, fair treatment of minorities, freedom of religion, equal
opportunity and social mobility, to quote just a few basic ingredients of a real democracy.
Achieving any of the above in a society in which all significant organized forces are hostile
to each of these concepts, and in which the majority of women are illiterate, cannot happen
through street demonstrations. Successful protests in such countries are as good as pressing a
“restart” button on a machine which can be controlled, at present, only by one of three
previously existing forces. And, if all of these forces are hostile to every single element of
democracy, the Arab Spring will indeed lead to a long and harsh summer.
There are 22 Arab states from the west end of North Africa to the Gulf. They are as diverse
as the 27 member states of the European Union. Like the EU they have a dominant common
religion, coming in two major flavors, and numerous variants for each flavor. Like Europe,
they have substantial ethnic and religious minorities and many arbitrary national borders.
But, at the same time, all or most Arab states have many things in common. Not last among
these features is the total absence of democracy, by any definition that is even remotely
acceptable by Western standards.
At the risk of oversimplification, we might observe that, in every Arab country, in different
forms and at various levels, there are at most three major organized types of political forces:
First, “Royalty” of one sort or another, supported by the military-police-intelligence
complex; Second, fanatic political Islam, Sunni or Shiite; and third, tribal forces and rivalries
or organized ethnic minorities. In some Arab countries, one of these three types of forces is
partly missing. In others, one of the forces appears in more than one flavor (for instance, the
extremist Sunni and Shiite Islamic groups in Iraq or in Lebanon).
The first and, until the current “Spring”, the dominant organized force is the military,
coupled with the police, intelligence services and related bodies, supporting a ruler, who is
either a King (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan), a Sultan (Oman), an Emir (Kuwait, Qatar,
UAE), or a “non-royal quasi-monarch” who is, in some sense, royalty without a crown
(Assad, Ghaddafi, Mubarak). In several cases, the ruling military-backed regime is also tribal
or sectarian, controlled by a well defined minority of the population (the Allawites in Syria,
the Bedouins in Jordan and the Sunnis in Bahrain).
The second force is the extreme political Islam, Sunni or Shiite. The Sunni version is usually
the Muslim Brothers or variations on its themes, and the Shiite version is largely inspired, if
not directly guided, by Iran’s Ayatollahs, who have an active hand in much of the tumult in
the Arab world. Iran and Turkey are, of course, Muslim but not Arab. However, both
interfere in a variety of ways in the upheaval of the “Arab Spring”. In a full analogy to a
kingdom, which has a king, a prime minister and an army, political Islam is often organized
in three layers: The “military wing”, which might be a strong organized force like the
revolutionary guard in Iran, or the Hizbullah in Lebanon; the “political wing”, which
pretends to be the real leadership but has only limited influence; and the “spiritual leader”
who is the actual dictatorial ruler, approximately equivalent to an absolute King, although he
is always pretending to play the role of a religious scholar and he never stands for election.
The third force is the old tribal structure, based on family or clan loyalty and surviving in the
21st century in a way of life not unlike that of several centuries ago. Somali, Yemen and, to a
large extent Libya, are countries in which such allegiances are extremely strong and tribal
forces must be reckoned with. In other countries various private armies may belong to
specific religious or ethnic groups, rather than to tribes. This is the case with the Druz in
Lebanon and the Kurds in Iraq.
Needless to say, not every Arab country has significant versions of all of these three forces.
Egypt’s dominant forces are, even now, the military and the Islamists, with no other visible
organized force, except for the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai. Bahrain has the Sunni Monarch
and the Iranian inspired Shiite majority. Iraq has Shiite Islamists and secular Shiites, Sunnis
of all flavors, Kurds of rival political factions and other smaller minorities. Saudi Arabia
exhibits an intricate cooperation of Sunni Islamists, royalty and the military, and, in addition,
an awakening Shiite minority, concentrated in the rich northeast oil area of the kingdom.
Tunis was a secular dictatorship and Qatar is pursuing a veiled Muslim Brotherhood agenda,
while serving as a main American military base. Such are some of the paradoxes and
complexities of the Arab world. There are also Sunni Brothers supported by Shiite fanatics,
like the Hamas, which is the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brothers, strongly supported
and supplied by its Iranian sponsors.
But almost nowhere in the Arab world we can find any significant organized force, other than
the above three dominant flavors: The military based Monarchy (or quasi-monarchy), the
Islamic extremists and the tribal forces. In particular, there is nowhere in sight a substantial
organized force pushing for real democracy. There are individuals, active in weak political
parties or in street demonstrations, cheering for democracy. But, whenever one of the three
major traditional forces is toppled, its place is taken by another element of this unholy trinity,
or by a different version of the same type of force. No street demonstration, facebook driven
enterprise or democracy seeking educated youngsters, can change this fact. A formal election
day, in any such country, even if no irregularities are taking place, must inevitably lead to a
victory of one of the above, usually the Islamic option. The uneducated rural masses,
numerous illiterate voters and even educated, frustrated and hateful young adults are easily
incited and influenced by the preachers, and the mosques are the focal points of “guided
enlightenment”. Since the Islamic extremists are often the only counterforce to the cruel
dictator, they will usually be the winners, if one of the three dominant forces is to be replaced
Even before the “Arab Spring” the Islamists won the election in Algeria, only to be
undemocratically toppled by the military. Hamas won the Palestinian election in Gaza and
the municipal election in the Palestinian West Bank, and Tunis, a largely secular country
with a relatively liberal tradition, has now voted an Islamic party into power. It is clear that,
in Egypt, the only force that can replace the military are the Muslim Brothers and any other
option is a wishful unrealistic illusion. If the King of Bahrain is removed, an Iranian-inspired
theocracy will replace him and, after the American departure, a similar fate is probably
waiting for predominantly Shiite Iraq. The most likely replacement of Assad, if he ever
ceases to butcher his own citizens, is again an extreme Islamic Sunni group ruling
predominantly secular Syria.
On the other hand, in Libya and Yemen, and probably also in the Gulf States, the leading
counterweight to royalty and quasi-royalty are the tribal elements. It will be interesting to see
whether Libya will now fall in the hands of fanatic Islamists or into an inter-tribal civil war.
Neither alternative resembles a beautiful spring, and a third option does not seem to be in the
cards. Lebanon, created by the colonial powers as a Christian enclave, is already largely in
the hands of the Shiite Islamists and Qatar, an Emirate, is collaborating actively, willingly or
under duress, with the Muslim Brothers everywhere, using its Al Jazeera as an instrument of
Most European and American observers, those who think that spring is the beginning of a
good period, observe the Islamists through the distorted lenses of Western culture. There are
a few truths, which are not transparent to most of these commentators.
The first such truth, which is very clear to the extreme militant Islam, is that it is not
necessary to preach for anything in order to rise into power. In most Arab countries, the only
forces are the military-royal force and the extreme political Islam. All that is necessary is to
incite against the regime and collect the fruits. There are two ways to eat fresh fruits from a
tall tree: You may climb a ladder and pick the fruits actively, or you can lie under the tree in
the storm and wait for the fruits to fall into your hands, and they will reach you because there
is no one else around to enjoy them. Some of them might be rotten, but they will be yours.
Even though there are very few fruit trees in the desert, this last option is the one preferred by
the Islamic parties. They are always present in the street demonstrations, but they rarely take
the lead. They know that an angry demonstrator is a powerful weapon against a military or
dictatorial regime, and if the anger prevails, political Islam will win by default and will pick
the falling fruits. The Western TV viewer sees secular youth roaming the streets in
demonstrations in Cairo or Tunis, with no major visible Islamic influence, and suddenly the
first post-revolution election leads to an Islamic government.
The second truth is that, once an election is declared, the real movers and shakers, namely the
preachers, the Ayatollahs and the ”Spiritual Leaders”, will never run for office. They are
allegedly selected by God, not elected by people. It is their disciples, sometimes their
puppets, invariably wearing more moderate masks, who will run for office. In this way,
secular voters, educated women and others are coerced to vote for what will then become a
very ugly version of the religion. It is this façade that leads to amazing remarks in
Washington such as “the Muslim Brothers in Egypt are not of a uniform extreme nature”. But
when reality is unveiled, spiritually and literally, it is quite different.
The third truth is that, once in power, the private armies of the extreme Islam are not
conventional at all. They are not interested in planes or tanks. Their primary weapon is
ruthless terror against civilian populations, and the leading tools are car bombs, explosive
devices, suicide murders, rockets and, eventually, even hoping to acquire weapons of mass
destruction. We see it in Iraq, in Somali, in the Palestinian areas, and in the Muslim, non-
Arab, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The division of labor between the Iranian army and the
revolutionary guard, or between the Lebanese army and the Hizbullah, serve as models for
Hamas and future Muslim Brotherhood regimes.
The fourth and final truth is that an election of an extremist Islamic regime is not a victory
for democracy, even if a real majority voted for it. It is usually the first and last free election
in such a country, just as in the Fascist or Communist regimes, which are sometimes elected
democratically, for the first time, and perpetuate their totalitarian regime thereafter without
regard to any democratic principles or human rights.
Western observers view much of the above with the naïve eyes of those who believe that
removing a dictator is a guarantee for freedom, that religious leaders cannot be murderous
and that a winning candidate in an election is indeed the real ruler. They also have the
illusion that public declarations bear a close relationship to true plans and views. None of
these are common practices in the struggle between the two leading undemocratic forces of
the Arab world: The ruthless kings and dictators and the even more ruthless extreme political
The relation of Israel to the events in the Arab world is entirely asymmetric. Israel, its
conflict with the Palestinians and any actions it takes, are either totally irrelevant or have a
very minor impact on the events in the Arab world. But the scorching “Arab Summer” that
will probably follow the “Arab Spring” may create serious problems for Israel. It is entirely
clear that the protesters in Bahrain, Tunis and Yemen, and even those in Cairo and
Damascus, could not care less about the Palestinians and are not spending a minute thinking
about Israel. Only after the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian Muslim Brothers tried to mobilize
the masses for “a march of a million” against Israel. The attendance was meager and the
great march fizzled. This was followed by a fierce attack on the Israeli Embassy, by a
relatively small group, with no great visible interest of the demonstrating masses. The
protests are entirely an internal affair of each Arab State, with no relation to the Israeli-
Palestinian dispute, and nothing that Israel might do, or avoid doing, would have the slightest
effect on them. On the other hand, any power grab by the Muslim Brothers, an organization
historically created with the active help of the Nazis, and committed to the annihilation not
only of Israel but of the entire Jewish people, will not be good news for Israel. This topic
requires a separate analysis, and we will not dwell on it here.
The American attitude of the Obama regime, during the evolving events in the Arab world, is
truly amazing and baffling. One might understand and applaud an idealistic American
attitude based on the principles of supporting freedom, justice and democracy everywhere.
One could also understand a less honorable, but very pragmatic, American policy of
supporting its friends in the Arab world, regardless of their own attitudes towards freedom
and democracy. But there is no explanation, either idealistic or pragmatic, for a policy which
works against dictatorial friends of America and does not oppose, in any significant way, all
dictatorial foes of America.
The Obama government gave a significant boost to Hizbullah during its first months in
office, by returning its ambassador to Syria in the midst of a tense and dramatic election
campaign in Lebanon. The U.S. did not utter a word in support of the serious antigovernment
street demonstrations in non-Arab Iran. The U.S. was extremely active in
removing Mubarak in Egypt, sending a shattering message to all its other Arab allies in the
region. It reprimanded the pro-American King of Bahrain, host to the main American naval
base in the Gulf, who was fighting against Iranian sponsored agitation of his Shiite citizens.
It helped to destroy the ruthless Ghadafi, a man who only a few years earlier was elected as
the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and presided over its frequent
condemnations of Israel, supported by many European nations and being a “born again”
friend of America and the West. America did not lift a finger against the murderous Assad. It
also did not utter a word when U.S. allies Turkey and Qatar started, immediately after the
election of President Obama (and never earlier), to support the terrorist Hamas, which is the
Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brothers. The complete American departure from Iraq is a
clear invitation to Iran to swallow this Shiite-dominated country, which cannot defend itself
against the Ayatollahs, and the Turkish-Iranian coalition seems to be making preparations for
marching into the oil rich Kurdish north of Iraq, with not one visible step taken by America
or Europe to prevent such a dangerous move.
The excitement about the “first democratic election of the Arab Spring” has already led to the
victory of the Islamists in secular Tunis, and that same Arab Spring is now well on its way to
a hot suffocating Islamic summer. But the Western world, and its leader, President Obama,
seem oblivious to the direction into which “the Arab Spring” is moving. Following the
American treatment of Mubarak, and the almost absent reaction to Assad, all friends of the
West in the Arab world, headed by the Saudi leaders, are now maneuvering in order to
distance themselves away from the U.S. administration.
Does the Obama government not understand what is happening in the region, or do they
understand and support it cheerfully? Both possibilities are mind boggling, and both
endanger the entire free world. It is indeed impossible to believe either of these two
hypotheses, but it is even more difficult to present a third alternative theory for the American
view of the evolving events. When and if the Muslim Brothers win the first “democratic”
election in Egypt, the largest Arab country, it is very likely that the “Arab Spring” will
officially move into a long and dangerous dry summer, with a significant thirst, hopefully not