Looking back on Tahrir Square.

We try not to look back at the “Arab Spring.”  The military autocracy in place since the coup in 1952 has oppressed the vast majority of Egyptians and been opposed by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  Eventually, the Muslim Brotherhood forswore violence and the military dictatorship grew long in the tooth.  While many Egyptians disliked the autocracy, most found ways to adapt to living under its heel.  Meanwhile, largely un-noticed by Western observers, a younger generation of Egyptians entered the scene.  In 2011, an impulsive revolt in Tunisia set off a sympathetic detonation in Egypt.  Huge demonstrations took place in Cairo and other cities.  The autocracy appeared to buckle, but elections revealed that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood commanded the will of many voters.  The new government, headed by Mohammed Morsi, soon alienated the young people whose demonstrations had opened his way to power.  In July 2013, after having covertly disrupted the efforts of the government, the military overthrew Morsi.

What went wrong?  Egyptian society is shot through with conflicts and individuals rebel against Western stereotypes; these truths extend unto the younger generation.[1]  Egypt remains a deeply “traditional” society in which women are constrained.  Egypt remains a Muslim society.[2]  While Western commentators have made much of the role of “tech-savvy” young people orchestrating protests through social media, the state has equal facility in this area.  Most of all, the “revolution” changed only the holders of some offices, not the underlying society.

As is so often the case, context matters.  Egypt has a long tradition of relying upon assertive leaders in government and religion.  Egypt is nationalist in ways that are now difficult for Westerners to comprehend.  Moreover, Egyptians, like many Muslims in the Middle East, are unusually prone to embrace conspiracy theories.  These cultural traditions limited the scope of action for even the most “Westernized” of people.

In journalistic fashion, Aspden limns the devotees of an Islamist televangelist who still wish to encounter Westerners; a secular Muslim who despises Christians; and a rebellious teacher under heavy pressure from her family to conform to her expected role.

Many/Most of these young people quickly turned against the Muslim government of Mohammed Morsi.  Some young people joined new protest movements under the illusion that they were reviving the spirit of Tahrir Square.  In fact, the new movements had been created by the intelligence services to give a sheen of populism to the coming coup.  Families exerted sustained pressure on their children to “be reasonable,” as families have always done.  Many children eventually bent before the pressure, as many children have always done.  They welcomed the military coup of July 2013.  What they did not welcome or expect was the repression launched by the “deep state” against the original sparks of the revolution.

“What kind of change is possible in the Arab world”?  “Why were so many young Egyptians willing to risk everything in 2011, and why,…just two years later in July 2013, were they willing to make another devil’s bargain with a despot”?[3]  These are important questions, not least because they are likely to arise again when unrest sweeps Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and—perhaps–Iran.

[1] Rachel Aspden, Generation Revolution: On the Front Lines Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East (2017).  Aspden now writes for the Guardian.  For a sense of her writing and views, see: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/rachel-aspden

[2] The apparent notion in the West is that Muslim countries are just like Western countries, except that they are nominally Muslim rather than nominally Christian.  This is an erroneous view.  In Muslim countries, both atheism and apostasy are crimes that will bring a swift and severe response.

[3] Thanassis Cambanis, “Youth Was Not Enough,” NYT Book Review, 12 February 2017.

Arab Spring Board.

For decades since gaining their independence from foreign rule (either Turkish or European), the Arab states have suffered under brutally oppressive, monumentally corrupt, and astonishingly incompetent governments.  For decades it seemed that the “Arab street” would do nothing but seethe.  In Spring 2011, popular uprisings took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.  Optimists began to talk of an “Arab Spring.”  Realists began to recall the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.  Then large, but disparate coalitions of enemies of the old regime toppled their rulers in France, Germany, the Austrian Empire, and in Italy.  Equally quickly, the revolutionary tide ebbed when the victors could not agree what they wanted to put in place of the old regime.  Five years on, it seems to be widely accepted that the realists were right all along.[1]

That said, a great deal of diversity can be found within this universal model.  Tunisia has been struggling on manfully in an attempt to create some kind of non-autocracy and to revive its feeble economy.[2]  Egypt’s “deep state” tossed overboard Hosni Mubarrak, let the Muslim Brotherhood take office (if not power), and then staged a well-prepared coup.  Libya might have restored the old regime, but American intervention put an end to that chance and the country has virtually disintegrated.  Syria, worst of all, collapsed into a civil war that grinds on.

Kenneth Pollack offers a profound-sounding analysis of Worth’s book: “The Middle East [Worth] sketches…is a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.”  In these conditions, the absence of order, “Chaos bred fear, fear bred violence and violence bred revenge and more anger and more violence.”  That explanation seems to work well for Syria, but it hardly explains anywhere else in the Middle East.

Unrest did not occur everywhere to the degree that it occurred in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.  Much more limited unrest took place in some of the Gulf Arab states, in Jordan, in Morocco, and in Algeria.  Virtually nothing troubled the calm in Saudi Arabia.  The troubles in Iraq were both graver than in Egypt and arose from different traumas.  Yet all Arab governments are more or less oppressive and incompetent.  Why did the “Arab Spring” not take place all throughout the Arab world?  Why did the unrest have different outcomes in different places?

Part of the answer may be that the price of oil in 2011 stood at $100 a barrel, while the price of oil today is about $45 a barrel.  In 2011, Saudi Arabia was rolling in dough.  This wealth allowed the Saudi state to buy off any dissent among its subjects.  Having staved-off unrest at home, Saudi Arabia could also deploy its wealth in support of friends in other Arab countries.  On the one hand, when the United States reduced aid to Egypt after the coup against the democratically-elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia whipped out its check-book to more than make good the loss of American aid.  Links between the two Arab countries seem to continue to tighten.  On the other hand, when opponents of Bashar al-Assad in Syria called for aid, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States sent money and weapons.

The simple “they agreed on what they were against, but disagreed on what they were for” analysis of the Arab Spring misses yet another parallel to 1848.  The multi-national Austrian Empire lashed out against all enemies foreign and domestic.  The Czechs, the Italians, and the Hungarians all felt the force of Austrian arms.  The threat of Austrian intervention also contributed to the defeat of German nationalism.  Will the Saudi victories turn to ashes in ten years’ time, just as did those of Austria between 1859 and 1867?

[1] See Kenneth Pollack’s review of Robert F. Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016), NYT Book Review, 1 May 2016.

[2] Now if Islamists would just stop shooting up the tourist resorts.

Exporting jihadis.

Who goes to fight for ISIS? An estimated 8,000+ from the Middle East; 8,000 from North Africa; 5,000 from Western Europe; 4,700 from the former Soviet Republics; 900 from Southeast Asia; and 280 from North America. If we refine it to individual countries then there are 6,000 Tunisians; 2,500 Saudi Arabians; 2,400 Russians; 2,100 Turks; and 2,000 Jordanians. Given the small size of its total population, Tunisia appears to be massively over-represented.[1]

If one plays with the numbers then 8,000+ from the Middle East – (2,500 Saudis + 2,100 Turks + 2,000 Jordanians = 6,600) = 1,400 from other places in the Middle East. Where? Yemenis, Qataris, Iraqis? Similarly, 8,000 from North Africa – (6,000 Tunisians) = 2,000 from other places in North Africa. Where? Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco. Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco are sufficiently strong police states to bar most emigration. In Libya, the Islamists are preoccupied with a civil war they still hope to win. Otherwise, they’d go to Syria.

If we look at the usual explanations for why young men become jihadis, we see discussions of “failed states” and economic stagnation that leads people to embrace radical Islam as a consolation.[2] However, Tunisia had one of the highest literacy rates and one of the most developed economies in the Arab world. In a way, then, it made sense that the “Arab Spring” first blossomed in Tunisia. That uprising gave birth to the most free of the Arab “democracies.” However, Tunisia is also the single greatest source of the foreign fighters going to join the ISIS Caliphate in Syria. This is more than a puzzle for political science theory.

How can we explain this development? First, Tunisia may be the world’s tallest midget in the eyes of casual Western observers, but it is a sore disappointment in the eyes of many Tunisians. The government remains deeply corrupt and oppressive in casual ways. (Cops still slap people on the street. Try that on in the US today.) Also, many pre-revolutionary figures have wormed their way back into public life.

Second, lots of Islamic fanatics had been locked up by the old regime that was overthrown in 2011. The new regime immediately let them out of jail as victims of the old order. (Bashar al-Assad did the same in Syria, although with a different purpose.) They circulate, they talk, and they make contacts inside the country and outside it. In 2012, a group of Islamists attacked the American embassy in Tunis. In 2015, two separate terrorist attacks killed 60 tourists and wounded 80 others, while a third attack killed a dozen members of the Presidential Guard. If 6,000 Tunisians have left to join ISIS, the government has barred 15,000 from leaving.

Third, the growing economy has not grown anywhere near fast enough to raise living standards in a significant way. In early 2014, 15.2 percent of the labor force remained unemployed. It has gotten worse since then. Two terrorist attacks in 2015 killed the tourism industry, the third ranked part of the economy, along with a lot of tourists.

Are there any lessons from this sad story? Yes. First, a lot of developing economies went down the wrong road after independence. Encouraged by soft-headed Western development theorists, they adopted the Soviet model of a controlled economy. These economies became deeply entrenched with local elites. As a result, they’ve been less nimble than Chain and India about changing course. It will take a while to fix this. Patience.

Second, human rights and personal dignity are important values. Middle Eastern governments have to learn to respect their citizens. It will take a while to fix this. Patience.

[1] Jaroslav Trofimov, “How Tunisia Became a Top Source of Islamic State Recruits.” I forgot to note the date.

[2] Certainly that has been my own sense of it, provided one extended this idea to the poverty stricken Muslim enclaves in Britain, Belgium, and France.

Good enough for government work.

What follows is the sort of quibbling over details that appeals only to scholars. However, historians believe that human affairs are “contingent.” That is, even if humans are storm-tossed in some vast sea of historical processes, the actions that individuals take or do not take always have consequences.

Commenting on the troubles in Yemen and Libya, Professor Daniel Benjamin (US State Department counter-terrorism co-ordinator, 2009-2012, and now a professor at Dartmouth) said that “The forces that drove the Arab Spring [of 2011] were of such enormous dimensions that it’s unrealistic to think any president or any group of leaders could steer these events.”[1] It is possible to take a different view.

For one thing, the “forces that drove the Arab Spring” have been totally mastered. Protests in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, and Somalia all soon ended after largely cosmetic concessions by the authorities.   Something harsher was required in in Egypt and Syria. Under pressure from the crowds in a few urban areas and from the United States, the Egyptian military dictatorship bent but did not break. Now it has reasserted its power, using the threat of Islamism as its justification. Seeing what was happening in Egypt, the far more ruthless Assad government in Syria took a strong line with the urban malcontents.   They malcontents are mostly in refugee camps at the moment. What the Syrians were left with was an uprising among conservative Sunni Muslims who have been joined by a flood of Islamist foreign fighters, just as the insurgency in Iraq attracted hordes of Islamist jihadis. What does Islamism have to do with the American liberal vision of the “Arab Spring”?[2]

For another thing, the United States played an active role in creating the chaos that now engulfs both Libya and Yemen.   The Obama Administration exceeded its mandate from the UN when it expanded its involvement in the Libyan rebellion from protecting civilian lives to toppling the Gaddafi regime through air-power.[3] Then the U.S. walked away when the overthrow of Gaddafi opened a Pandora’s box of troubles. Much more reasonably, the U.S. also supported the initiative by the Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council to push “president” Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office. Here alone the Americans had a clear goal: to preserve the ability to hunt Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula jihadis.

As the NYT headlined the story in which Daniel Benjamin was quoted, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For.” That’s a modest goal. Not transformative of the entire Middle East. Not a lasting solution to the problem of radical Islam. Not the sort of thing to win someone a Nobel Peace Prize. But manageable within the limits of our power.

[1] Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For,” NYT, 17 June 2015.

[2] See: “Arab Youth,” September 2014.

[3] It also helped poison Russian-American relations. See: “Obama versus Putin,” September 2014.

Arab Youth

Can one be optimistic about the future of the Middle East? Not if you read the newspapers. What if you read the work of knowledgeable scholars? Then there might be more cause for optimism. Juan Cole has argued that a watershed divides the older generation of Arabs from the youth of today. The older generation is poorly educated and often illiterate, largely rural, and religiously observant. Fundamentally conservative, they have accepted a “complacent, stagnant and corrupt status quo” in politics and the economy. Younger people, Cole argues, are better educated, more concentrated in urban areas, more familiar with all kinds of technology, and less religiously observant than are their parents and grandparents. In Egypt, half the population is less than 25 years old. They are also un-employed and under-employed at “Depression-era rates.” On the one hand, this gives them serious grievances against their own society. On the other hand, it leaves them with a lot of free time for complaining, talking, organizing, and demonstrating.   Their familiarity with social media magnifies these tendencies. Cole argues that these sorts of young people played an important role in the “Arab Spring” uprisings that brought down authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.[1] Cole focuses in particular on “left-liberal youth living in towns and cities” whom he sees as forming a credible opposition to both traditional authoritarian governments and to Islamic fundamentalists.

There are objections to Professor Cole’s optimism. For one thing, if you track the historical background to the “Arab Spring,” you can see a rising wave of public discontent. In early 2003, there were demonstrations opposing the American attack on Iraq; in 2006, came Youtube videos of Egyptian secret police abusing suspects in custody; in late 2008, there were demonstrations over the first Gaza war between Israel and Hamas; and in early 2011, video of Tunisian police firing on demonstrators started the ball rolling for the “Arab Spring.” The trouble is that these were equal parts anti-Western (US, Israel) and anti-authoritarian.

Second, the concept of rootless, estranged young people is an umbrella category. Estranged young people looking for a cause don’t have to choose left-liberal progressivism. Young people in the Thirties flocked to Nazism with as much enthusiasm (and in greater numbers) as they did to the International Brigades that fought for the Spanish Republic. Jihadists shelter under the umbrella just as much as do progressives. A familiarity with social media is no vaccine against Islamism. Both ISIS and Anwar al-Awlaki could master modern social media as well as can the progressive young people of the Middle East.

Finally, faced with a choice between Islamists governments elected after a “revolution,” and a return to the old order under the auspices of a military-economic elite complex, the progressive young people celebrated by Professor Cole seem to have opted for the latter. Now that the old order is back in power, the young progressives appear to have come in for as much repression as has the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, the real question is not what mistakes were made by the young people studied by Professor Cole, but what they have learned from those mistakes. They will get another chance. The fighting in Libya will—eventually—burn itself out. The al-Sisi government doesn’t appear to have any solutions for the deep social and economic crises of Egypt. ISIS is going to give radical Islamism a bad name in many quarters. The older generation will gave way to the younger generation. Time is on their side.

[1] Juan Cole, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).