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.

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.