A View from the Arab Spring, towards the Following Summer

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

by another.

 

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

propagating unrest.

 

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

Islam.

 

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

for blood.

November 2011