After the Arab Spring

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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is John R. Bradley, the author of the new book After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts. He has been reporting from the Middle East for more than a decade. Fluent in Arabic and a frequent contributor to The Daily Mail, The Jewish Chronicle and The Spectator, his previous books include Saudi Arabia Exposed (2005) and Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (2008), which uniquely and accurately predicted the Cairo uprising.

FP: John R. Bradley, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Bradley: Thanks, Jamie. It’s nice to be back. The last time we chatted was back in 2008, when yours was one of the only media outlets that took my prediction of an imminent Egyptian uprising seriously.

FP: Thanks John, so let’s begin with your prediction of the Egyptian revolution.

Bradley: To be honest, it didn’t seem so much a prediction to me back in 2008, more like a statement of fact. I think I had a pulse on the reality because, firstly, I don’t have a TV, and I haven’t had one for more than two decades. So I’m not exposed to the dominant media narratives about the Middle East, which from what I can tell from watching the occasional clip on YouTube remain for the most part as shallow and pointless as they ever were. And in more than a decade of living and reporting in the region I’ve never met another Western foreign correspondent or Western diplomat.

Instead, in Egypt especially, I lived for years among ordinary locals in poor neighborhoods, speaking to them in Arabic and sharing their daily routines and life stories. A decade later, it was perfectly obvious to me when I published Inside Egypt that a revolution was going to happen very soon in that country. The Mubarak regime had consumed itself, and the impoverished and tormented masses had lost all hope that meaningful reforms would ever be introduced. What surprised me was not so much that the revolution happened pretty much as I predicted, but that until it did all the so-called “experts” on the region poured scorn on my idea that it was about to happen–the very same “experts” incidentally who again mocked me as an alarmist when I published articles at the beginning of the year warning that the Islamists would hijack the Arab Spring.

FP: Expand for us on the Arab Spring and the blind enthusiasm we saw in the early days that “democracy” in the Arab Middle East would somehow drain corruption, extremism, poverty and authoritarianism from the region.

Bradley: There was some cause for hope at the beginning, because there were indeed liberals among all those protestors from the outset, and the Islamists in early stages shunned the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. These liberals are mostly young people who want greater freedoms and a secular state. And they do still look to the West as a model for their future. For them, freedom and pluralism are enormously attractive ideas, and their hopes and dreams are easily understandable and translatable in the West.

But it was misplaced hope, and now that they have failed to materialize these dreams look implausible in the Middle East to the point of madness. Collectively, the liberals are an ever-dwindling minority in the Arab world. We should remember that even during the revolutions the biggest demonstration in Tunisia drew just 50,000 to the streets, this in a country of 10 million. Some estimates put the largest gathering in Tahrir Square of Egyptians, of whom there are some 84 million, as low as 300,000.

These figures show that while the progressives had enough support to topple the dictators, mainly because they were able to bring the economy to a standstill, they didn’t have the massive popular support needed to fill the chaotic aftermath. In contrast, the Islamists can and do draw much vaster crowds. And the Islamists possess the ruthless political skills, and the simplistic campaign slogans, needed to gain power. They speak a language the masses instantly understand and relate to, especially in a country like Egypt where a large percentage of the population is illiterate.

In both Tunisia and Egypt, moreover, the young, tech-savvy revolutionaries had foolishly declared their revolts leaderless, having learned nothing from history about how revolutionary movements lacking a vanguard are crushed by more entrenched and better-organized forces in the aftermath of massive social and political upheaval. Most self-destructively, they had learned nothing especially of the 1979 Iranian revolution, likewise in its early stages drawing people from all walks of life but then hijacked by the Islamist mob. Essentially, Egypt is an action replay of the Iranian revolution, as I warned very clearly in Inside Egypt it would be.

More to the point: in the contemporary Arab world, the liberals have even less of a constituency than that which existed in 1970s Iran. The vast bulk of the protestors knew nothing of secular political ideology, Islamism being the only one on offer for popular consumption for decades. Polls have consistently shown that demonstrators were brought into the streets, not by a burning desire for free and fair elections, but by the awful economic circumstances in which they lived. For that they blamed their corrupt regimes, Israel, and, yes, the West, too, as they had long been accustomed to doing.

The final nail in the coffin of the liberal Arab Spring myth was the excesses and abuses of secular regimes like those of Saddam Hussein, Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, Ali Abullah Saleh, and Hosni Mubarak. They only succeeded in giving secularism itself a bad name and, by extension, giving credence to the Islamist argument that godlessness was the cause of all their country’s problems. For decades, these regimes failed to nurture the imagination of young people with anything but dim-witted propaganda. The result was that fundamentalist Islam grew from the obsession of a few thousand straggly-bearded crackpots a few decades ago into the sole respectable political alternative many, perhaps most, Arabs are now capable of imagining.

FP: Share with us how Islamists exploit the chaos and fill the vacuum.

Bradley: The Islamists work on two levels. There are the so-called “moderate” groups, who claim to gullible Western journalists that they embrace democratic principles and secularism and freedom of expression. They claim that they do not want to impose strict Sharia law. This is the song sung by mainstream Islamists in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, where they have triumphed in recent elections. But they work in tandem with more radical Salafi groups, sometimes officially and sometimes implicitly, who get their huge funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar and who busy themselves by terrorizing the population into submitting to hardline Islamist dogma. The “moderate” front groups, in other words, don’t need to introduce Sharia to achieve their goal of an Islamist theocracy.

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  • Alvaro

    Good article and very good analysis, until I read this:

    "In the 1980s, the Washington pragmatists armed Osama bin Laden and the Taliban."

    First of all, the "Washington pragmatists" armed the Mujahedeen, not Osama bin Laden. The latter belonged to a group of America hating foreign fighters who would rather drown in their own blood than being lackeys of Washington.

    Secondly, the Taliban did not even exist during the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. It only surfaced years after the war had ended, being created by the Pakistanis to etablish control in Kashmir.

  • Larry

    Stop calling them Islamists.

    They are not Islamists, they are devout mainstream muslims, nothing more, nothing less, and are following the dictates of the koran.

    Until that sinks in, that they are not radicals, they are not fringe dwellers, they are the mainstream of the muslim ideology, we will continue to fail in our approach to dealing with them.

    • ziontruth


      Additionally, they didn't hijack anything. The revolts produced exactly the result hoped for by the Wilsonians (heirs of Woodrow Wilson): Democracy, ballot box representation of the will of the people. It just so happens the will of the majority in the Muslim world—a world that is basically unmodified from what it was in the Middle Ages, never having undergone anything like the 18th-century Enlightenment—is shariah rule and jihad against the infidel.

      There are not just a few bad apples. The tree is the problem here.

  • StephenD

    If they only want to cut of your hand instead of your head, are they "Moderates?" We're going to see a continued and deepening headlong march straight into the 7th century for all of these people. Some of those poor and innocent victims will be just that, victims. We cannot save them. What we must realize is that we cannot "change hearts and minds" either. Let’s do business with them and keep them at arms length. Make it clear that ANY aggression toward our friend Israel is toward us and will be dealt with harshly. When we speak in terms they understand (brute force) they'll at least cooperate for their own survival. This is the best we can hope for while Islam is still on the earth.

  • MethanP

    The Islamists have "not" hijacked anything. When are we going to realize that this is the true face of Islam!

  • mrbean

    Hijacked? Dr Glazov knows full well that it any conflict it is always the more consistent and the more ruthless that always win. So-called moderate Muslims are ultimately impotent against the Jihadists for the struggle for power in today's world.

  • Ben

    Obama lost in the deep analysis. Conservatives are sure that Muslims in the west support Islamists,so it`s strange to hear that islamists are "hijacking "Arab spring".

  • Irandissident

    A Good article and a proper analogy with the Iranian revolution. However:

    1- the fact remains that neither revolution was "hijacked" by the Islamists, from early on, every observer could have detected the dismal presence of women in the Tahrir square ( also the mal treatment of women- some televised) as well as the Friday (prayer) surges within the movement, and should have concluded that THIS was what the future Egypt would look like: an islamist country with all its NATURAL attributes.

    2- As in many other "velvet" revolutions organized actively for several years by certain Western powers, the modernist upper middle class intellectuals and youth are organized and brought onto the scene AS SOLDIERS and as the face of the movement, while parallel arrangements and deals are made with deeply entrenched traditional social phenomena (like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or their Shiite affiliates and clones in Iran like Khomeini's Mullah factions ) to enter the scene in the process.
    The likes of the same Americans who openly called for the ouster of Mubarak by "high noon", also destroyed the Shah's dictatorial regime from within, only to replace it with a worse kind of dictatorship. The same people caused the switching of the Army's loyalty in both countries. The same people who called the Muslim Brotherhood as "Moderates" (remember?), called khomeini a "Saint" ( long before Khomeini was called an Imam in Iran itself!!!). The same people provided billions of dollars of free global propaganda, tens of millions of dollars for actual activities ( as in the Green movement in 2009 Iran) and trained youth leaders for "non-violent" revolutions, only to drop them in favor of islamists in the end.
    Where is the support for secularism and the separation of "Church and State"? Where is the support for human rights which are clearly incompatible with Shari'ah Laws ( as repeatedly declared and announced as such in Islamic countries)?

    In case any secular/liberal Egyptians are reading this, they should know that it took more than two years for Khomeini to impose Shari'ah laws of Qissaass, enforce the Hijab and similar Islamic laws. Stoning came later and the destruction of pre islamic Persian sites, relics and culture assumed a gradual form rather than the original attempt at Bulldozing the Persepolis which was physically stopped by the people in 1979.

    In Egypt, these will probably happen much faster. The seculars should know that democracy without secularism will be extremely repressive in Islamic countries where the masses identify with religion more than anything else. In such societies, the religious masses will vote for religion. Democracy should not be only about a majority vote but about human rights in general. Democracy should not be about the rights of a temporary majority to destroy minorities ( political minorities, social or religious….).
    The romantic and idealistic era in Egypt is over. The Tahrir square fervor has resulted in a dark age that will last for decades ( more, if the seculars do not unite in an anti islamist front to separate religion from government).
    Be patient but do not waste any more time on anything else. The sooner you realize you have NOTHING in common with Islamists of all shades and colors, the better off you will be.

    • Anamah

      What women are thinking there? Are they able to think? I can not understand how normal humans tolerate those arrogant psychopaths stature haranguing the masses towards destruction of minorities. There are people there realizing how despicable offensive and retrogrades their leaders are and how dangerous is the direction Islam is pushing them?

  • esperantominoria

    And the West will continue to believe the Islamists are "MODERATE",they can't be like the Taliban or Saudis.One who is in DENIAL is QUEEN RANIA of JORDAN:
    "Queen Rania of Jordan says the Koran does not Subjugate Women,she has Apparently Never Read It"