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.


The Islamic Brigades 1.

Why do young Muslim men go to fight in foreign wars? The “Afghan Arabs” were a feature of the resistance to the Soviet Union, then of Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States. Arabs went to fight in Chechnya in small numbers, and now in Syria in larger numbers.[1] What draws or drives these young people to take up arms for a non-national cause?

There is a sensitive discussion of one case in the New York Times.[2] Islam Yaken (1993- ) grew up in a middle-class family in Cairo. Conservatism and modernity co-existed in his family. His mother and sisters wear the veil, yet his parents sent him to a French-language private school, and then on to university. Like many young American men of his age, Yaken fell in love with body-building. He got “ripped” by any standard. He imagined himself as a future fitness instructor. Yet he had not abandoned religious faith.[3]

Obstacles barred his path. For one thing, the conservative cast of contemporary Islam disparages physical pleasure.[4] Both sex and body-building are physical pleasures. Yaken Islam desired women, even talking of emigrating to find a career and a “hot” girlfriend.[5] For another thing, in Egypt or America, it is hard to turn personal training into a decent livelihood. Yaken failed to break into an established gym, and had to make-do with private lessons in smaller gyms.

Leaving Egypt for greener pastures entered his mind.[6] Go where? Make a start how? The answers seemed impossible. A return to the conservative religious values in which he had been raised also entered his mind. Like the 17th Century English Protestant writer John Bunyan, he excoriated himself for “sins” that others would hardly notice. He grew a beard. Still Shaitan tormented him—in the form of girls in Levis and ballet flats.

In early 2012, when Islam Yaken was 19 years old, the Muslim Brotherhood came out in the open as a result of the fall of the Mubarak regime. After years of repression by the Sadat and Mubarrak governments, the Brotherhood had survived. Apparently, they had triumphed over their enemies. Their intransigent defense of strict conservative religious doctrines—something to believe in when secular society offered nothing to believe in—may have seemed like an explanation. They were in full throat. Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Yacoub preached before huge crowds of followers in a Cairo mosque. Yaken Islam became a follower. Religious commitment did nothing to assuage the terrors that haunted him. If anything, they worsened.

In July 2013 the Egyptian military regime re-asserted itself. A heavy hand fell on the Muslim Brotherhood. By August 2013 Yaken Islam had decided for jihad in Syria. He went to Turkey, then crossed the border to join the ISIS fighters. For a year-and-a-half he has been a soldier, physical training instructor, media personality for ISIS. He has found “a life free of [sins].., a greater cause, an Islamic state.”

He was young, foolish, sexually frustrated, living in a puritanical society with little economic growth or political freedom. All true, but not everyone seeks the easy path. There is a lot of will-power and striving in a six-pack.

[1] For example, there are at least 600 Egyptians fighting with ISIS, probably many more than that.

[2] Mona El-Naggar, “From Cairo Private School to Syria’s Killing Fields,” NYT, 19 February 2015.

[3] He used a mat in his room both for prayer and for crunches.

[4] “Suppose a young man falls in love with a girl in college. He doesn’t touch her or talk to her or send her messages. He doesn’t even look at her. That’s still fornication!”—Sheikh Muhammad Yacoub, video imam.

[5] The attitude toward women is not so different from that of many American men of his age (regardless of generation).

[6] Apparently this is common talk among young people. If it ever starts, the tide of Egyptian boat people will vastly out-number the Libyan one.