Five Lessons from Egypt and the Arab Spring

And what they mean for the Middle East's future.

koran-egypt1. Don't Believe Anything You Hear

Egyptian liberals allied with the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow Mubarak and challenge the military. In those heady Tahrir Square days, they ridiculed the idea that Mubarak's overthrow would benefit the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now those same liberals have teamed up with the military to take down a Muslim Brotherhood government that they told us would never come to power. But don't be surprised if a year from now, after the military develops too crushing a grip on power, they don't run back to the Muslim Brotherhood and Tahrir Square repeats itself a third time with the banners and fireworks and chants about the will of the people.

And when it does happen, neither the liberals nor the Muslim Brotherhood will ever remember the time when they were deadly enemies. Instead they will pretend it never happened, the way that Egyptian liberals once pretended that the Muslim Brotherhood wasn't part of the protests.

Middle Eastern politics is reality-selective. It's conspiratorial and it's based around shaky alliances between mortal enemies to achieve short term victories. That's why the Muslim Brotherhood has done so well; it's one of the few factions to practice long-term thinking.

Everyone else just thinks as far as winning the next battle, getting to power and then letting the unambiguous genius of their vision and the adoration of the people carry them to their destiny.

And then it all falls apart. Again.

 

2.  It's Not Democracy, It's Permanent Chaos

Democracy in the Middle East is just another means of political change. It's not any different than mob action, a coup or an invasion. It's just a way that one government replaces another.

The voting booth depends on a sense of law and order. It carries very little weight in lawless societies.

In Egypt, mass protests really are as legitimate a means of political change as the ballot box. Probably better. It's harder to rig rallies of millions of people than it is to fake millions of votes.

The Arab Spring represented political chaos in a lawless society, not social change or cultural enlightenment.

Whoever runs Egypt will still leave it a corrupt place where family connections matter more than merit, where the poor struggle to get by, where everyone resents everyone else, where political alliances fall apart in the blink of an eye and everyone waits around for a tyrant to take matters into his hands and usher in some stability.

 

3. Everyone Will Always Hate America

The one thing that everyone in Egypt can agree on is that they hate America. And this time around they almost have a valid reason.

Obama did help overthrow the Mubarak government, but both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian liberals wanted him to do it. They were happy to have him tamper with their politics to remove Mubarak. Now the Egyptian liberals blame him for aiding Morsi, but they were the ones who opened the door.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has been the beneficiary of unprecedented American support, is also denouncing America, even though the White House and the State Department are working to rush through new elections and free Brotherhood detainees.

The Egyptian liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two factions who benefited the most from the fall of Mubarak, hated us all along. They hated us before we helped them overthrow Mubarak. They hate us now. They will go on hating us, whether we oppose them or help them, give them money or bomb them.

 

4. Fanatics and Democracy Don't Mix

One of the fondest myths of democracy promotion is that bringing terrorists into the political process moderates them. It doesn't.

Fanatics don't compromise because their goals require purity. They feint compromise only long enough to get to power. And then they turn on their former allies.

The Muslim Brotherhood's goals were obvious from its motto. "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope."

Nothing about that provides any room for compromise. It doesn't conclude with political change. Instead, like most fanatical creeds, its great ambition is to demonstrate its commitment to total ideological purity through the death of the fanatic.

The political process did not moderate the Nazis or the Communists. There was even less hope that it would moderate the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization whose spokesmen have a talent for pitching its message to Western audiences, but which is utterly committed to the absolute tyranny of its objectives.

 

5.  The Muslim World Has No New Ideas

The Muslim Brotherhood has a lot of modern polish, but underneath is the same old message that Mohammed came roaring out of the desert to deliver.

Despite the social media and memes, the Arab Spring unrest was part of a familiar cycle that begins when empires, whether it's Rome or Great Britain, withdraw from the area leaving the local fanatics, intellectuals and military men squabbling over how to put their perfect society into place.

There's no progress being made. All the new things that were injected into the process come from outside and are used to serve ancient goals. The election machine and the social media account are new tools being used to settle old scores.

And the outcome of the struggle is a reversion to the old familiar patterns of a broken society.

A society with no healthy old ideas and no new ideas is doomed to reenact the same drama on new stages. Western experts became excited by the innovative staging and forgot to read the script or they might have realized that it's the same old dialogue in a new production.

There may be skyscrapers, nuclear plants, social media feeds and a thousand other modern elements in the mix, but they are all the set design for an old script and for all the old wars.

The three options are still military rule, strongman or theocracy. The Arab Spring tilted the rule of strongmen and soldiers toward theocracy. That outcome was as modern as the Caliphate. Now the military has once again stepped in. Eventually there will be a strongman. Or a theocracy. Or a junta. And they will go on overthrowing each other.

Where there are no healthy ideas, there can be no positive outcomes. Democracy is not a new idea. Nor are constitutional guarantees of human rights. Those are processes by which a society implements healthy ideas about sharing power or the rights of others.

The Muslim world cannot use processes from more advanced societies until it accepts the social and moral premises behind them. Elections are only a process. Their outcome depends on the society. Laws are also a process. They can either be the implementation of deeply felt beliefs or just words on paper.

The Arab Spring pretended that introducing new processes into societies that lack new ideas would fill the cultural gaps and humanize them. That plan failed. Reforms don't begin with processes. They begin with moral and intellectual struggles. Only once a consensus has formed, can the process be introduced to implement that consensus.

Without new ideas, new processes are doomed to fall into the old cycles and patterns. That is how the Arab Spring became the Islamist Winter and the Army Summer.

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