Deserts are funny things. A big wide open space in which nothing moves can play tricks on the mind. Spend enough time looking at a desert and you will see things moving in it because your mind needs to believe that there is life in it. Look hard enough and you will see democracy, progress and change.
But when you close your eyes and open them again, you will see that there is only a desert. And that there only ever was a desert.
Everything else was a mirage.
Egypt has gone back to what it was before the Arab Spring. It is now once again a country ruled by the military and bureaucratic institutions that are the legacy of British colonialism. Mubarak will not return to power again, but there are plenty of other military men to squat on top of a bankrupt oligarchy that lives on foreign aid and pride.
The mirage of Tahrir Square, the fireworks, fires and social media protesters brandishing smartphones and throwing down with riot police, is fading away. There will be more riots and fires and rapes. But that false sense of history being made will never return.
The truth about the Arab Spring is that it never existed. The term was coined by Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor, who had spent years urging engagement with Hamas and championing the role of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “firewall” against Al-Qaeda “radicalism.”
This Arab Spring had nothing to do with democracy or freedom. It was a scheme to split the Islamist ranks by turning over the Middle East to political Islamists. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Green Belt strategy practiced on a grander scale than Iran. Instead of Jimmy Carter hoping that the Ayatollah Khomeini would checkmate the USSR, there was Barack Obama counting on Muslim Brotherhood election victories to make the practice of international terrorism passé.
The Arab Spring was a cheerful brand, a shiny media package, covering up an ugly truth. The optimistic implications of its name kept many from looking at the list of ingredients and finding out that the only things inside were Islamists and more Islamists.
The pyramid scheme would keep investing in new Islamist governments and they would pay us back by discrediting Al Qaeda’s campaign of terror and that, the liberal foreign policy mavens insisted, would allow us to bring an end to the War on Terror.
Egypt was where it was all supposed to come together. It was the most powerful Arab country standing and its political system was a legacy of European colonialism. The Muslim Brotherhood had been born there and Al Qaeda, in its own way as well, with ambitious Egyptian Brotherhood members like Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s current leader and former grey eminence, using Bin Laden as a hand puppet.
That was why Obama went to Cairo. His new beginning had its biggest implications for Egypt. This was where the Muslim Brotherhood was supposed to turn his Post-American foreign policy into a success.
Not only didn’t the Arab Spring do what it falsely promised; open up closed societies, expand freedom and reform the region; but it didn’t even do what its backers wanted.
The Arab Spring was supposed to bring stability, but it made Egypt more unstable. It was supposed to work economic miracles by fusing devout Islam with free market capitalism. Western useful idiots told Morsi to use Turkey as a model. He did. The real Turkey is a paranoid oligarchy in debt up to its eyeballs.
Finally, it was supposed to neuter Al Qaeda. Instead it only encouraged it. Islamists taking power by winning elections was supposed to convince Al Qaeda members that it was time to trade in the bomb for the ballot box. Instead the Muslim Brotherhood used Al Qaeda to play a game of “Good Terrorist” and “Bad Terrorist” with the United States the way most Muslim countries do.
The traditional Egyptian authorities, the old oligarchy, disliked the Muslim Brotherhood businessmen financed by Qatari cash and propagandized by its Al Jazeera megaphone, even more than Mubarak’s son. They knew that given time, Morsi would take their posts and business monopolies and hand them over to his supporters. The issue for them wasn’t Islam; it was power and money.
They knew that there was no Arab Spring. This was a regime change operation. Washington had decided that its old allies were no longer getting the job done and decided to trade them in for the Brotherhood. And they waited, giving the Brotherhood and Obama enough rope to hang themselves with. The same type of manipulated popular revolt that had brought them down would bring Morsi down too. And did.
The Muslim Brotherhood went down, denounced as thieves, murderers, terrorists, Zionists and American puppets. Only 3 out of 5 of those charges are actually true, but the other two are the only ones that matter.
Assassinating Sadat was a minor matter. That sort of thing happens in the Middle East. But becoming a tool of American regime change is treason.
Mubarak had kept the Muslim Brotherhood around to demonstrate to the United States that pushing him to democratize was too dangerous; stepping on it just enough to keep it down, but not wipe it out. It took him too long to realize that Obama not only would not stop pushing for elections out of fear of a Muslim Brotherhood victory, but would actually welcome a Muslim Brotherhood victory.
Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and many Muslim countries, had used Islamic terrorism as a counter. Either the United States would support the “moderate” and “responsible” authorities committed to occasionally fighting terrorism or the terrorists would take over. It didn’t expect an America insane enough to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood was the moderate and responsible alternative.
The fury and hate directed at the Muslim Brotherhood comes out that deep sense of betrayal. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political judo trick of flipping its dreaded image as a threat of violence into a gatekeeper of violence should have been anticipated, especially since that is the whole purpose of terrorism, but change comes slowly to the region. And it usually comes from outside.
Egypt’s ruling authorities were shaped by a British colonial patronage whose roots were in a former century. The Muslim Brotherhood was politically influenced by modern transnational movements like Nazism and is far more flexible and light on its feet. And unlike its leftist opposition, which is mainly clever when it comes to making memes, it understands how to seize power.
Obama’s Cairo pivot gave the Muslim Brotherhood its best shot at power in Egypt, but it may have also destroyed it. The Muslim Brotherhood’s continued existence is no longer an asset that keeps American calls for democracy at bay. It has become a Damocles sword of regime change hanging over their necks. And that means it may have to be destroyed. In the peculiar politics of the region, success may be the only thing that can destroy terrorists.
But destroying the Brotherhood is a big job. The authorities would prefer that the Muslim Brotherhood accept its place and return to the way things were. And that is what everyone really wants. Not hope, change or revolution. Only the past. Even the Islamists only long for a return to an ancient status quo.
The desert is a barren place. It’s not a place of life, growth or change. Western travelers, bored with the lifelessness, squint and think that they can see a revolution coming that will transform the region.
And then they open their eyes and see that there is nothing there.
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