After the Arab Spring

How Islamists hijacked the Middle East revolts.

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.

To give one example: There is no law in Egypt that says Muslim women must wear the veil, and until the 1980s most didn't. But following a campaign of intimidation by the radical Islamists and the spread of Saudi-funded Wahhabi propaganda, which claimed that unveiled women were essentially prostitutes and should be shunned and harassed as such, almost all Muslim Egyptian women are now covered. To give another example: until the Jasmine Revolution, there were legalized and government-regulated red-light districts in every city in Tunisia, which was the most secular, progressive, and modern Muslim country the Islamic world has ever known. After the revolution, the Salafis firebombed them all, and so now there are none. Again, there has been no change in the law, and the mainstream Ennahda party, which obviously is against legalized prostitution, has condemned the violence, while obviously welcoming the consequences of it.

The closest parallel to the odd combination of highly organized structure and denial of responsibility this defines the tactics of the “moderate” Islamists in their first step to gaining power through elections is the European far right. Both groups are crypto-fascist in nature, neither have viable views on day-to-day policy, and both rely on a grassroots network of thugs of whose activities they can publicly wash their hands. Jean-Marie Le Pen of France never once admitted any connection with the skinheads who did his dirty work beating up immigrants and Jews, yet such politicians are quietly understood by the grass roots to represent them.

And now that the revolutions have created a security vacuum and clearly failed to alleviate the economic woes and human rights abuses that spawned them—indeed, in the case of Egypt, quite the opposite—the Islamists offer something seductive in the absence of meaningful solutions: a simple answer, Islam is the solution. The Islamists, in other words, offer solace in the face of insurmountable problems. The terrible price that the ordinary people of these countries will have to pay for that solace will only gradually become evident to them, as it did to the historically very liberal and tolerant Iranian people.

FP: What does all of this mean for Israel?

Bradley: At the beginning of the Arab Spring, Israel breathed a sigh of relief. Tunisia doesn't matter geopolitically one way or another, but Egypt of course does. And in Egypt there was a military coup. The Egyptian military is very pro the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and its army is funded, trained, and equipped by America. The triumph of the Islamists in Egypt's parliamentary elections last week doesn't change things much vis-a-vis Israel, at least not in the short term. The parliament has limited powers, and all this talk about the Muslim Brotherhood taking on the military to push them to hand over to civilian rule is nonsense.

With real power comes responsibility and accountability, and while the Muslim Brotherhood may be many things, one thing they certainly are not is stupid. Even with the cleanest, most efficient government the world has ever known, it would take a generation or more to cleanse the country of its corruption, brutality, poverty, illiteracy, chronic unemployment, nepotism, and so on. This is one reason the Brotherhood are more interested in forming a coalition with the liberal block in the new parliament than with the Salafis: that way, when the next elections come round, they can blame the liberals for the ills that still plague their nation. And the Brothers will avoid direct confrontation with the military because their first priority is not the defense budget or launching wars but imposing Islamist dogma on Egyptian society, and that is what will preoccupy them during the first parliamentary session.

More generally, Israel must be putting all its hopes on its undeclared and bizarre, but very real, alliance with Saudi Arabia, which despite spewing anti-Semitic venom of the kind not seen since the Nazis poses no military threat to the Jewish state, is aligned with Washington, and hates the Iranian mullahs like the plague. Along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia has led a region-wide counterrevolution, shoring up pro-Western Persian Gulf monarchies as well as those of Jordan and Morroco, and backing the Muslim Brotherhood and its franchises in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen. The question we can't answer at this stage is whether the Saudis, through their funding and Wahhabi doctrine, will be able to control the Islamist groups taking power everywhere in relation to their relations with the West and Israel, in the same way the House of Saud has more or less been able to control their own Wahhabi religious establishment.

FP: What isn’t the West doing right and what must it do in the future in facing this dire situation you describe?

Bradley: Unfortunately, the West just keeps making the same mistakes, over and over. After backing the Arab dictators in the name of stability, we're now as a result backing the Islamists that have replaced them in the vague hope that the latter will live up to their promises of moderation. There was a chance that in the decade leading up to the so-called Arab Spring, serious and sustained pressure from Washington and Europe could have forced Tunisia and Egypt, for instance, to introduce meaningful reforms. And this might have averted the disaster of Islamist dictatorship we're now seeing unfold throughout the region.

Washington's current strategy of backing the Saudi counterrevolution is, sadly, the only option available to the pragmatists. The problem with the pragmatic argument, however, is that history has a habit of making mincemeat of it. The pragmatists backed one vicious South Vietnamese regime after another, but still lost the war and handed the region to China on a platter. The pragmatists backed the shah of Iran and the revolution in that country swept to power Ayatollah Khomeini. The shah fled at first to Egypt. Two years later his host Anwar Al-Sadat--who had given the shah refuge and was Washington’s closest Arab ally after making peace with Israel--was assassinated by radical Islamists.

In the 1980s, the Washington pragmatists armed Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The pragmatists backed Al-Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, another willing Western stooge, and Egypt just witnessed an action replay of the Iranian Revolution. Then, to come back to the central point, there is Washington’s eight-decade-long “engagement” with Saudi Arabia, the regional superpower--whence came Bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on September 11.

By backing the Islamist hijacking of the Arab Spring, Washington proves only that it has learned no lessons from the past, and the consequences for the future of the Middle East, not least where pluralism and the fight against extremism are concerned, are dire. Washington should wake up to the fact that “moderate Islamism” is a myth. Islamism is a political ideology that takes a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran as a master plan for society: Islamic law, the segregation of the sexes, the subjugation of women, the submission of the masses to clerical authority. You are either an Islamist or you are not, in the same way that you cannot be a little bit pregnant.

As my new book shows, the only fundamental differences that exist between different brands of Islamism, whether Shia or Sunni, is in the speed and strategy with which they hope to achieve their aim of establishing an Islamist theocracy and the actual system of governance used to implement it. While we focus on short-term stability, foolishly putting our faith in so-called moderate Islam, the Islamists are more wisely putting their faith in the long term.

FP: John R. Bradley, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

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