Juan Cole

‘All Praise to George W. Bush’: The Top Ten Myths of the Arab Spring

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1. The upheavals of 2011 were provoked by the Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq Bzzt! Wrong answer. None of the young people who made this year’s revolutions ever pointed to Iraq as an inspiration. The only time Iraq was even brought up in their tweets was as a negative example (“let’s not let ourselves be divided by sectarianism, since that is what the Americans did in Iraq.”) Americans are so full of self-admiration that they cannot see Iraq as it is, and as it is perceived in the Arab world. Iraq is not a shining city on a hill for them. It is a violent place riddled with sectarian hatred, manipulated by the United States, and suffering from poor governance and dysfunctional politics. I did interviewing with activists last summer in Tunisia and Egypt. The youth do not want to be like Iraq! They want to be like Turkey, or, now, Tunisia.

2. President Obama was wrong to ask Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down. This position has been taken by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It is a crazy thing to say. Mubarak could not have stayed in power, with nearly a million people in the streets and order breaking down in the country. If anything Obama was far too slow to act, and there was danger of Egypt turning seriously anti-American if he had not stepped in when he did. Trying to keep a dictator in power who has worn out his welcome is always a big mistake on the part of a great power, as was seen in the case of the shah of Iran.

3. Muslim radicalism benefited from the revolutions in the Arab world. So far, at least, the beneficiaries of the upheavals have been both secular, left-leaning dissidents and Muslim religious parties. Neither is violent. In Tunisia, the new president, Moncef Marzouki, is a staunch secularist. The al-Nahda (Ennahda) religious party got about 40 percent of the seats in parliament. But neither sort of movement is radical or violent. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is now peaceful and talks moderately, and is attacked for it by the radicals such as Ayman al-Zawahiri. Muslim radicals have not been able to take advantage of these largely peaceful movements in the way they could of George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, which really did fuel the spread of violent extremism. Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman of Yemen argues that if democracy can be achieved in the Arab world, it will finish off violent extremism, which only flourishes under dictatorship.

4. Muslim religious groups spear-headed the revolutions. This allegation is made by Iran from one side and Western conservatives from the other. It is for the most part incorrect. Leftists, secularists, workers and students made the revolutions. The Muslim forces had often been devastated by government persecution and were weak (Tunisia) or had been made a junior partner in governance and were reluctant to risk entirely losing that position (Egypt). In Egypt, the revolutionaries are referred to in Arabic as the thuwar, and they are contrasted to the Muslim Brotherhood and other forces. In Egypt, it is these secularists and leftista who are are still calling for demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The most effective revolutionaries in Libya, the Berbers of the Western Mountain region and the urban street fighters of Misrata, were the least fundamentalist in orientation. While the Muslim religious parties may be good at organizing to win elections and so are perhaps the main beneficiaries of the revolutions politically, they did not make the revolutions themselves.

5. The uprising in Bahrain was merely a manifestation of sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite. The protesters in Bahrain included reformist Sunni Muslims. And the conservative forces pressuring the king to crack down on the crowds included the country’s great merchant families which comprise both Sunnis and Shiites. The struggle in these islands, like that elsewhere in the Arab world, was over authoritarian forms of government versus popular democracy, accountability and transparency. The king’s constitution allows him to over-rule both houses of parliament, allows him to appoint the upper house, and allows it to over-rule the lower house. The Shiite protesters were upset that these arrangements, along with gerrymandering that reduced Shiite representation, preventing the majority from asserting itself (Shiites are about 58% of the population). But the discourse was about constitutional monarchy, not about Shiite rule or an Iran-style Shiite theocracy, with some small exceptions.

6. Iran was behind the uprising in Bahrain. There is no good evidence for this allegation, which is the basis for the Saudi and United Arab Emirates military intervention on behalf of the Sunni Arab monarchy. Bahrain’s Shiites are Arabs and probably a majority of them belong to the conservative Akhbari school of jurisprudence, which rejects ayatollahs in favor of the ability of laypeople to interpret the law for themselves. Bahrain Shiites of the Usuli school, prevalent in Iran and Iraq, are more likely to look for leadership to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, than to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Bahrain’s Shiites claim educational and workplace discrimination, and dispute a constitution and electoral system that disadvantages them. They are not agents of Iran.

7. The Arab Spring is a Western plot. This allegation was made by the Qaddafis in Libya and is currently asserted by many in Syria’s Baath Party. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is quite clear that the upheavals in the Arab world came as a surprise to the G8 nations, and were mostly at least initially unwelcome. France’s minister of defense offered help with police training to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia once the demonstrations got going last year this time. The US initially signalled support for Hosni Mubarak during the rallies against him of late January. Hillary Clinton said she was sure that the Mubarak regime was “stable.” Vice President Joe Biden was constrained to deny that Mubarak was “a dictator.” Obama only saw the writing on the wall with regard to Egypt at the last minute, and was starting to be a target of protest posters in Tahrir Square. The US was reluctant to use an ally against al-Qaeda in Yemen such as Ali Abdullah Saleh, and still has never sanctioned him for killing hundreds of innocent protesters. Washington was likewise unhappy with the uprising in Bahrain, and at most urged the king to find a compromise (the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered in the capital, Manama, and so the US did not feel itself in a position to support the protesters strongly). Obama was famously reluctant to get involved in Libya. There is substantial ambivalence over the upheaval in Syria, and so far the main form of intervention is targeted financial sanctions. If there is anything that is already clear as we catch history on the run here, it is that the uprisings were spontaneous, indigenous, centered on dissatisfied youth, and that and presented the status quo Powers with unwelcome challenges.

8. The intervention of NATO in Libya was driven primarily by oil. European sanctions on Libya began being dropped in the late 1990s, and US sanctions were lifted in 2004. Western oil companies had sunk billions into the Libyan petroleum sector by 2011, and it is highly unlikely that they would have wanted to risk instability there or the advent of a new government that might not honor their bids. The oil majors suffered substantial losses because of the loss of Libyan production last spring and summer. The conservative government of David Cameron in the UK and that of Nicola Sarkozy in France allegedly feared that if Qaddafi were allowed to crush the Libyan reformers by main force, he might drive them into the arms of al-Qaeda, as had happened in Algeria in the early 1990s. And, they may have feared that Qaddafi would provoke a big exodus to Europe at a time when European economies are poorly situated to absorb such immigrants in large numbers. Sarkozy may have felt the need for a quick victory to bolster his position in the polls ahead of next year’s presidential elections. Cameron, as a conservative, may have sought to rehabilitate the use of military force to enforce international order, which had been tarnished in UK public opinion by the Iraq disaster. Those who say Europe would not have intervened in the absence of the petroleum factor forget the Balkans, which presented similar challenges of massive violence on Europe’s doorstep. Likewise, oil isn’t everything; Bahrain has very little, and so it cannot explain Washington’s reluctance to lambaste the monarchy there. To argue that Western Europe had interests in Libya that drove its intervention is common sense. To peg everything to oil is vulgar Marxism.

9. The Arab dictatorships now overthrown or tottering were better for women than their likely Islamist successors. The postcolonial Arab states often pursued what my friend Deniz Kandiyoti of the School of Oriental and African Studies has called “state feminist” projects of female uplift. But because these policies were pursued by unpopular dictatorships, they created a male backlash. The Muslim Brotherhood’s patriarchal pushback against the upper class feminism of Suzanne Mubarak was a feature not of 2011 but of 1981-2010. The massive trend to veiling among Egyptian women took place in the past 20 years, not all of a sudden today. That is, “state feminism” often backfired because it was felt as intrusive and heavy-handed. Women’s progress was tainted, moreover, by association with hated dictatorships. Nor was Hosni Mubarak exactly Germaine Greer. Two of my Ph.D. students had their projects initially rejected by the Egyptian authorities because they included a focus on feminist issues, which were increasingly controversial in Mubarak’s dictatorship. If Tunisia and Egypt can now move to democratic systems, women will have new freedoms to organize politically and to make demands on the state. Nor can outsiders pre-define women’s issues. Their actual desires may be for social services, notably lacking under Mubarak and Ben Ali, rather than for the kinds of programs favored by the old elites. In any case, while women’s causes may face challenges from conservative Muslim forces, it is healthier for them to mobilize and debate in public than for faceless male bureaucrats to make high-handed decisions for women.

10. The Arab upheavals are an unmitigated disaster for Israel. This position has been argued by Netanyahu and others. While it is true that the Muslim religious parties coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt are more sympathetic to the Palestinians than were Ben Ali and Mubarak, the issue is more complex than that. The Syrian National Council that is opposing the Baath Party in Syria has said that it will cease supporting Hizbullah and Hamas if it comes to power. The National Transitional Council in Libya is not anti-Israel. Moreover, you cannot gauge whether the changes are good or bad for Israel only by whether they might affect Israeli policy toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Dictatorships such as that of Mubarak were politically pathological, pursuing policies advantageous to the Israeli Right wing that were deeply unpopular with the Egyptian people. A democratic Egypt that actually represented public opinion would not necessarily be militant (no Egyptians want a return to a war footing), but it would be honest in its dealings with Tel Aviv. Israel has not been benefited by its denial of statehood to the Palestinians, by Mubarak’s corrupt collaboration in right wing policies, nor by the Syrian Baath Party’s cynical deployment of Palestine as a domestic issue. In a politically healthy Middle East, when Israel steals Palestinian land and water, it would get regional push back of a political and economic nature (as has finally started happening with regard to Turkey). That isn’t apocalyptic, it is politics. What has been wrong with Israel’s relationship with its Middle Eastern neighbors has been a lack of politics in favor of bribed sycophancy or ginned-up militancy, which has bred terrorism on the one side and arrogant hawkishness on the other. The changes in the Arab world, if they lead to more democracy, could well normalize Israel and Palestine in the region. It wouldn’t be the end of disputes, but it might be the beginning of the end of pathological politics.

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