Commentary Magazine


The Failure of Arab Liberals

Lamenting the illiberal fruit of the Arab Spring has become a favorite pastime of the Western commentariat. A year and a half after the movement’s outbreak, pundits from across the political spectrum compete daily for valuable editorial real estate to announce, in so many words, “We told you so.” For the left, Islamist ascendance across post-revolutionary North Africa provides ample evidence of the limits of American influence and the need for a foreign policy even more humble than that espoused by the Obama administration. On the realist right, the rhetoric differs, but the underlying message—that America must finally abandon global democratization as a core element of its national strategy—is very much the same.

Developments on the ground since the heady first days of the Arab Spring have indeed been dismaying. The first omen came on February 18, 2011, dubbed the Egyptian revolution’s “Victory Day.” On that day, the Egyptian masses filling Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square looked markedly different than those that had taken to the square at the height of the uprising. Islamist activists, with their distinctive Salafi-style beards and stern expressions, were the ones dominating Tahrir, not smartphone-wielding young dissidents in Western outfits. They listened intently as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s beloved televangelist, back in Egypt after years spent in exile, called on Egyptians to “liberate” occupied al-Quds (Arabic for Jerusalem). Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who came to embody the revolution for Western audiences, was barred from addressing the Square that day.

Islamist forces have since scored one triumph after another. In Egypt, the Islamist bloc composed of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi al-Nour party has won overwhelming control of both houses of parliament. The rise of Islamist parties has been accompanied by ever worsening violence against Coptic Christians, assaults on the Israeli embassy, and threats to nullify Anwar Sadat’s peace. In Tunisia, the Brotherhood-linked Ennahda party has won a decisive plurality, a once tolerated gay and lesbian community has come under severe attack, and the country’s robust secularist and feminist traditions have been on the retreat amid growing anti-Western sentiment. In Libya, some rebel forces have traded their NATO flags for al-Qaeda’s black banner; others have targeted the country’s vulnerable black African and Amazigh minorities. Torture is reportedly rampant in the prisons of free Libya.

While its extent has been shocking, the Islamist threat to the Arab Spring was clear all along. What we are witnessing in North Africa today is a rerun of the dreaded “Algiers syndrome”—the tragic reality that free and fair elections in the Middle East more often than not yield Islamist power. The term was first coined in the early 1990s, when the jihadist Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front) won the first round of a relatively free election in Algeria. In response, the fiercely secularist Algerian officer corps cancelled the second round and reimposed military rule, triggering a brutal and oft forgotten civil war that claimed roughly a quarter million lives.

Long before the Arab Spring, many in the West—neoconservative thinkers above all—blamed the region’s autocrats for the persistence of the Algiers syndrome. By effectively suffocating all forms of secular dissent, the reasoning went, the autocrats had left mosques and Islamist organizations as the only available outlets for channeling opposition. This is still the best account of why liberalism has failed to take root in the Middle East and North Africa and why Islamist politics have made such significant inroads among the Arabs. Other accounts, which rely on religion and culture to explain the perennial fragility of Arab liberalism, are not entirely without merit. But in elevating Islamism to the status of an inherent, immutable, and permanent characteristic of Arab polities, such accounts betray one of the central premises of liberalism itself: universality—the notion that all people are endowed with and aspire to the same fundamental rights, which all states have an obligation to protect.

To place the blame for the Algiers syndrome solely at the feet of the autocrats, however, is equally mistaken. The region’s self-proclaimed liberals and democrats must be held accountable for having articulated an Arab liberalism that is inchoate and incoherent and that often betrays liberal first principles in the name of political expediency and opportunity. The tactical and ideological shortcomings of Arab liberalism have been on full display for months now, and there are no signs that Middle East liberals are adapting to the new realities on the ground. If there is any hope of reversing the Arab Spring’s current trajectory toward more stagnation, obscurantism, and demagoguery, these weaknesses must be systematically confronted and their root causes addressed—tasks that only engaged, combative, and even heavy-handed U.S. leadership in the region can help achieve.

“The word liberal is a word primarily of political import,” Lionel Trilling wrote in the famous preface to The Liberal Imagination. “But its political meaning defines itself by the quality of life it envisages, by the sentiments it desires to affirm.” At its noblest, the Arab Spring was propelled by a Trillingian version of liberalism. Most of its young protagonists, who risked death to defy some of the world’s cruelest regimes, did not appreciate liberalism as a complex, philosophical commitment to popular dignity and individual rights. Yet, intuitively, they aspired to something better than the suffocating repression and corruption that had surrounded them since birth under the rule of entrenched dictators. If beneath the rage on the streets the Arab Spring contained a liberal kernel, it was very much a liberalism of sentiments.

But it must be remembered, Trilling was writing in an American context in which liberalism was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” Liberalism anywhere, moreover, is about more than sentiments and intuitions. In the final analysis, it is a political ideology that must be vigorously defended, especially in a Middle East climate that is naturally hostile to individual liberty, gender equality, and the rights of minorities. At this most basic, tactical level, Arab liberalism has been woefully deficient. Social media may have offered effective tools for mobilizing youth against authoritarian figureheads such as Mubarak and Ben Ali.

But they did not and could not offer the right resources for seizing the postrevolutionary aftermath. Liberal manifestos could not be developed and articulated using 140-character tweets and homemade YouTube videos; party cadres did not form out of Facebook groups. By contrast, the Islamists could rely on well-established, non-virtual networks—not to mention the financial generosity of Gulf petrol-patrons eager to co-opt the revolutionary moment and prevent the emergence of genuine freedom—to advance their message.

Even more damaging have been Arab liberals’ frequent deviations from liberal first principles and their mimicry of Islamist discourse. Consider the Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahawy. Next to Ghonim, the Google executive, Eltahawy is undoubtedly the Egyptian revolution’s most visible representative and a self-proclaimed Muslim liberal. When the Egyptian revolution broke out, the former Reuters correspondent, having justly earned plaudits for her courageous stance against the burka and other forms of female subjugation in the Muslim world, was already a superstar among Arab journalists. Since Mubarak’s ouster, Eltahawy has been traveling frequently to Egypt to report on postrevolutionary developments there and to join her compatriots in calling for a speedy transfer of power to civilian institutions.

One would think that this sequence of remarkable life experiences—both before and after the Arab Spring—would immunize Eltahawy against populist demagoguery. Yet, sadly, as Egyptian politics have turned ever more anti-Western, so has Eltahawy’s rhetoric. Take, for example, her reaction to last May’s killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces. The demise of the jihadi mastermind responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and Muslims complemented perfectly the renewal of genuine politics in the Arab lands. Eltahawy, however, took to the pages of the Guardian to decry the throngs of jubilant young people in New York City she witnessed celebrating bin Laden’s death. “The scene at Ground Zero was like a parody of Team America, the film created by the South Park team to parody Bush’s America gone wild on nationalism,” she wrote. Americans should not have permitted themselves this “frat boy” moment: “One man has been killed; dozens courageously staring down despots are slaughtered every day.”

But bin Laden wasn’t just any one man. He was the leading ideologue and practitioner of a nihilistic ideology that for decades has wreaked havoc across the Middle East and that threatened to hijack the Arab revolts. Rather than turn her critical energies against bin Laden’s ideological brethren in Egypt—the Muslim Brotherhood, with which al-Qaeda shares intellectual roots—Eltahawy set her sights on alleged American jingoism.

As the summer gave way to fall and the Brotherhood began flexing its political muscles in earnest, Arab liberals remained in a state of practical and ideological disarray. Rather than gearing up to defeat Egypt’s version of the Iranian ayatollahs, they continued down the path of misplaced hatred, primarily against the West. Thus, when an epidemic of riots and wild looting—with no discernible political objective other than illicit acquisition of flat-screen televisions—broke out across England, Eltahawy heard an echo of the Arab Spring and saw a replay of Mubarak-style repression in the Cameron government’s response. “Compare…[British and Egyptian] leaders’ uncannily similar reactions to what they perceive as crises,” she lectured in another Guardian column. “It’s enough to make you wonder if Mubarak is moonlighting as a consultant on the most effective ways to chip away at civil liberties around the world as he awaits the next session of his trial for murder and corruption.”

In fewer than 700 words, Eltahawy placed her own compatriots’ inspiring, grassroots movement for change in one of the world’s most militarized societies on the same moral plane as a senseless bout of rioting in the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy. Meanwhile, the Islamists quietly prepared the way for a massive electoral thumping that will take secular forces years if not decades to recover from. Late last March, the Brotherhood announced plans to field its longtime deputy supreme guide, Khairat el Shater, as a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections—breaking repeated pledges not to contest the presidency and all but guaranteeing an Islamist takeover of post-Mubarak Egypt.

No issue, however, tests Arab liberals’ commitment to liberal first principles more than Israel’s right to exist and live in security in its neighborhood. As anti-Semitism exploded out of post-Mubarak Egypt, with soccer mobs openly demanding a second Holocaust and popular calls for abrogating the Camp David accords, the liberals had a real opportunity to take a principled stance and serve as a tempering influence. After all, Israel remains the region’s only genuine liberal state and a model for what a Mideast democracy should look like. Alas, in many cases, liberals took the lead in demonizing Israel and calling for violence against the Jewish state.

The most remarkable case of such moral abdication was that of the Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany—justly renowned for his magnificent portrait of Mubarak-era decline in The Yacoubian Building. When, last August, Israeli forces accidentally killed Egyptian troops while chasing Palestinian terrorists across the Sinai, al-Aswany took to his blog on the website of World Affairs to advocate war. “Outrage at Israeli aggression is commendable and legitimate,” he claimed:

Egyptians feel that it’s now time for the insulting treatment they suffered from Israel in Mubarak’s time to end. Israel must understand that Egypt has changed, that its ally Mubarak is on trial for felonies, and that the Egyptian people will not allow the murderers to escape punishment when its citizens are killed.

To respond to Israeli “aggression,” al-Aswany recommended, Egypt should “expel the Israeli ambassador from Cairo and recall the Egyptian ambassador from Israel”; “review or repeal all the agreements between us and Israel”; amend the Camp David accords “in a way that allows Egyptian forces to deploy throughout Sinai”; and, most ominously of all, support the armed forces so they “can devote themselves to their combat mission and Egypt can set out towards the future it deserves.” Never mind that instigating such a war against the Jewish state is the surest way to doom liberal reform in Egypt and across the Arab world for a generation or more. For al-Aswany, Eltahawy, and dozens of other liberal intellectuals, the urge to maintain “authenticity” and “credibility” in the new Arab landscape—not to mention feeding the angry Twitter mobs—trumps fidelity to liberal values any day.

When, last February, Khader Adnan (a West Bank baker and spokesman for the Iranian-funded Islamic Jihad who is kept under administrative detention by Israeli authorities) became the latestPalestinian cause célèbre, the new Arab Spring liberals jumped at the chance to chest-thump. Adnan, they insisted, was the Palestinian equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi. The fact that Adnan had been captured on video urging young Palestinians to blow themselves up in Israel did not give his supporters among Arab liberals the slightest pause. If anything, it impelled them to ratchet up the shrillness of their rhetoric. Sultan al-Qassemi, a celebrated liberal writer for the United Arab Emirates–based National took to Twitter, for example, to condemn the United States as a “fake democracy” for its bipartisan support of Israel—quite a charge coming from a columnist for a newspaper owned by the feudal UAE regime.

Some of these figures may privately concede that their pan-Arab posturing is purely tactical in nature, driven by the need to position themselves as sufficiently anti-Western in a difficult political environment. They could not be more mistaken. As the experience of Iran’s 1979 revolution demonstrates, liberals are already suspect when it comes to their anti-American and anti-Israel bona fides; Islamists and other radicals will always “out-compete” them on the anti-Western front. Liberals do themselves no favors by seeking to placate illiberal impulses—however popular they may be—and hoping to tame them further down the road through the electoral process. If liberal values are worth fighting and dying for when it comes to confronting autocracy, they must be guarded more jealously against Islamists, who hate liberalism even more than did the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali.

The moral and cultural crisis of Arab liberalism is serious. It threatens nothing less than the future of freedom in the Middle East. Yet, as daunting as it may seem in light of recent developments, there really is no other path than the freedom agenda as far as U.S. policy should be concerned. After the Arab Spring, the U.S.-led order in the region is frayed, but it still stands. If it is to persist and thrive, that order must be decoupled from classical Arab authoritarianism.

Our liberal allies in this fight are deeply flawed. Disengaging from the region and adopting a “humble” posture, however, will only leave them more vulnerable to the Islamists—and to their own worst urges. As a number of writers have already suggested, the Middle East today is desperately in need of an ideological plan similar to the Marshall Plan deployed in postwar Europe. But to make the investment worth its while, the United States should not hesitate to assume the role of the democratic teacher, as it did in Europe, to shape and articulate a Middle East liberalism that is at peace with Israel, that refrains from anti-Western rhetoric and prioritizes individual and minority rights over the whims of demagogic mobs. There is no other cure for the Algiers syndrome.

About the Author

Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American journalist and nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, is co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, a new anthology of essays by young Mideast dissidents (Palgrave Macmillan).




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