Juan Cole

It’s US: Why Americans Should Support the Arab Spring

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Young Americans followed the events of 2011 in the Arab world with great interest and remarkable sympathy, such that a real difference now shows up in polls between younger and older Americans with regard to their views of the region. As the heady days of expelling tyrants gave way to the hard task of transition to democracy and plans for its consolidation, interest dropped off. As it became clear that the young leftists and liberals weren’t going to be the main political beneficiaries of the revolution, American commentators often soured on the changes.

That Muslim religious parties did well in the Tunisian, Egyptian and Moroccan elections suggested that the region had moved to the religious right rather than toward liberalism or a European-style center-left direction. (Comedian Bill Maher said it was because the Tahrir young revolutionaries were unrepresentative and ‘they [Egyptians] are all nut jobs,’ i.e. religious fanatics. Maher is entertaining and I agree with him a lot of the time, but this KKK thing he has about Arabs is disturbing.) The continued role of old regime elements and, in some countries, the military, caused many to assert that there had been no revolutions at all. A troubling string of incidents of violence in Libya suggested that where a revolution really did take place, it simply led to instability.

Americans have given up too soon on the Arab Spring. They have bought into overly large generalizations, some of them purveyed by right wing American pundits who have their own reasons for defaming the Arab region. And they aren’t making the comparison to difficulties other societies have had in their transitions from revolution to democracy, including the United States. (France is the all-time champion of difficult transitions, what with the Great Terror, the Vendee, Thermidor, Empire, restored monarchy (then the July monarchy), Empire II, and five republics! Some 40,000 were killed in the Vendee peasant revolt in the 1790s, and rather a lot were guillotined in the Terror. Tunisia and Egypt have had a walk in the park in comparison.)

Let us take the issue of the religious parties. They aren’t the end of the world, as long as they a) commit to participating in regular elections and b) agree to respect the will of the people in any one election and on any particular issue. The evidence so far is that the Sunni religious parties have made these commitments.

We should remember that the Thirteen Colonies that made the revolution starting in 1776 were religious societies. They had undergone the Evangelical Great Awakening, and millenarian and anti-papal movements were rife. Religious Americans fought the British for religious as well as material reasons. While the framers of much Federal law and of the Constitution were most often Enlightenment Deists and relatively secular in outlook, the mass of Americans were otherwise. Even the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbade Congress to designate an official American religion, was considered solely a Federal initiative, and states often had Established religions. Massachusetts had an established church until 1833, and its constitution still mentions requiring state and local institutions to raise money for and support the Protestant church.

The Founding Fathers mostly wanted a separation of religion and state (Thomas Jefferson certainly did), and this aspiration won out in American law and practice over time. The people who deny this separation are being silly. I’m making a different point, that Federal constitutional law covered a relatively small part of society.

So, religious Americans fought for the Revolution, and the post-revolutionary states often used state resources to support Protestantism. Anti-Catholicism was an unfortunate enthusiasm of many of the revolutionaries, and King George III was often seen as having Catholic tendencies, because of the offer of religious freedom to Catholics in Quebec once it was added to Canada, and because high church Anglicanism was hated by American dissidents.

So if you are dismayed that the Muslim an-Nahda Party now dominates the Tunisian cabinet, you may as well be angry about bigotted Congregationaiists coming to power in some of the Thirteen colonies after 1776. (You could argue that the House of Representatives even today is highly religious; and the South Carolina state legislature is apparently a tailgate party for the Southern Baptist convention).

It isn’t just the revolutionary United States. Brazil moved away from military dictatorship via a diverse coalition of dissident groups that included the Catholic church. When I visited the Pontifical Catholic University in Sao Paulo last year, the students recalled for me the role their predecessors had played in defying the military. Nobody gets upset about Catholicism’s semi-revolutionary role in Brazil or Poland. Religion is more important than most secular American intellectuals are willing to admit, and in ignoring it they end up not even being able to understand change in their own society, much less ones abroad.

The other thing to say, though, is that the religious dominance in the revolutionary Arab states has been exaggerated. The religious party in Tunisia only got 42 percent of the vote for the transitional parliament. They got the prime minister position only because the leader of a secular party was willing to make a coalition with them. The secularists who got 58 percent of the seats could actually have formed a secular government if they had been able to put up with one another. Moreover, the leader of al-Nahda said that it would not try to put Islamic law in the Tunisian constitution. It is not even clear that the al-Nahda party will be able to repeat its success in the spring, 2012 elections for a full-term parliament. There has been a lot in the papers about the Salafis (hard line fundamentalists) in Tunisia, but as far as I can tell they are a tiny minority and just are good about making a scene and throwing public fits for publicity.

In Egypt, the religious Muslim parties did very well in the first parliamentary elections of November-December 2011. But by the time of the first round of the presidential election in May, 2012, the Egyptian public had clearly soured on the religious parties, and the secularists got over 60 percent of the vote. If the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Mursi, had had to compete with a more popular candidate than the old-regime former general Ahmad Shafiq, he might well have lost (he won by a 3% margin). In the first round of the presidential elections, the Labor Left and the liberal streams reemerged and claimed millions of votes. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt has been turned into a theocracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to do very well in the upcoming Libyan elections, but, again, that may say more about their role in opposing Qaddafi than about the popularity of their campaign platform. In Yemen, 80% of the electorate voted for a secular Arab nationalist successor to the deposed Ali Abdullah Saleh, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Much energy of the Yemeni state and army has been expended in defeating the radical fundamentalists of the Ansar al-Shariah or “Supporters of Islamic Law,” which has al-Qaeda tendencies. They have now been chased out to Oman, apparently. And while the fundamentalist Islah Party continues to be important, it had been in coalition with the old government! Religious politics was a feature of the old Yemen, and will be a feature of the new Yemen.

So the religious take-over has been exaggerated.

As for problems of governance and instability in the aftermath of the deposing of the dictators, actually what is amazing is that things are going so well everywhere but Syria and Bahrain. Tunisia pulled off the election of a constituent assembly, elected a prime minister and a president, and are crafting a constitution and electoral laws in preparation for new parliamentary elections next spring. There is currently a struggle between the president and prime minister over the extradition of a Qaddafi-era politician to Libya, but the problem is the lack of a constitution. Once one is drafted, such disputes can be settled more easily.

Egypt is having a rocky ride because of military interference in the political process. But some sort of transition is occuring, and there is now a civilian elected president for the first time, who over time is likely to be able to push back against the military. If a new constitution is drafted and approved, and new parliamentary elections are held late this year, things could settle down and the transition proceed.

Libya should have its elections in a couple of weeks, and the resultant government will have more legitimacy and authority to tackle the country’s problems. The separatist tendencies in Libya are not as strong as some Western observers have suggested. Some of the image of instability is created by very small groups, like the handful of al-Qaeda wannabes who have attacked the Red Cross, the US legation, and the British ambassador’s convoy in Bengazi. While all that is disturbing, actually the damage in all but the last incident was minor and it is not as if this is a social movement of any size.

Americans forget that in the 1780s the Articles of Confederation did not work very well, and there were problems of too little federal government. They forget the Rhode Island farmers’ strike, Shays’ Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the various slave revolts, the continued conflicts with Native Americans, etc., etc. Thomas Jefferson, less timid than our contemporary pundits, remarked after Shays’ revolt that ‘a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.’ You have a sense he wouldn’t be that alarmed by contemporary Libya.

They forget that 15 years after the constitution was written, the vice president of the United States killed the first secretary of the treasury in a duel.

So give the Arabs some time to sort out their new situation. Let them craft their new constitutions, hold their further elections, and begin their transition in earnest. It is early days. What had the United States accomplished by 1785?

The slogan at Tahrir Square was “Bread, dignity and social justice.” That sounds a lot like their version of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Liberty and democracy have been a central demand of contentious politics in the contemporary Arab world. Let us wish them well instead of always putting them down. After all, we’ve been at this for over 200 years and we still don’t have it down.

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