(/sites/default/files/uploads/2013/09/tunis-islamist-protest.jpg)The Arab Spring was born in Tunisia. It died in Tunisia. Its funeral was attended by the same violent flag-waving protests as its birth.
The ruling Islamist Ennahda party has agreed to step down. Ennahda’s move came after months of violent clashes and even murders. The Islamists had held out against the protesters, swapping out governments, but Morsi’s example frightened them into backing away from a final confrontation for fear that their movement might suffer the same punitive outlawing as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt and Tunisia were the two great victories of the Arab Spring. Now both of them have been undone.
The picture doesn’t look any brighter for the Islamists elsewhere. The Muslim Brotherhood in Morocco faces rising protests. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood bit off more than it could chew with its attempted coup and risks plunging the country into a civil war with no NATO warplanes to bail its fighters out.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign to capture Syria is collapsing as its Free Syrian Army fighters lose to the more suicidal Jihadists of Al Qaeda and the superior firepower of the Syrian military. Its only hope in lay in Western military intervention and that hope died with Cameron’s parliamentary defeat in the UK and Putin’s outmaneuvering of Obama.
In Syria and in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, with its army of infiltrators and foreign agents, had bet everything on Western support. But Obama couldn’t save Morsi and it doesn’t look like he will be able to save the Free Syrian Army. The Brotherhood’s decades long effort to build influence in the West may have proven to be worthless, helping them topple weak regimes, but unable to keep them in power.
Obama was at once their greatest gift and their greatest curse. He gave the Islamists an American leader who was overtly sympathetic to their cause, but who was also too weak to protect them. Obama may have rolled over for the Muslim Brotherhood, but he also rolled over for Russia and Saudi Arabia. And when the dust settled, so did the hopes of the followers of Qutb.
The Arab Spring was designed to move the Muslim Brotherhood into power. Now it’s dead and an identical combination of factors; a sympathetic American leader, global economic depression, regional turmoil, terror fears and European immigration integration panic, may never come around again. More than anything else, the Islamists were undone by the same economic problems that allowed them and their leftist allies to topple their former governments.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda made the mistake of assuming that their political victories would allow them to implement their religious agenda before producing actual economic improvements. That was the opposite of the Turkish model where Erdogan’s economic shell game produced enough gains to allow him to arrest political opponents and wreck the rule of law in order to implement Islamic law.
Another reason that Ennahda may have been more willing to step down was that Tunisia’s economy is approaching a critical point. Economic growth in Tunisia fell 2% after the Arab Spring, its currency fell 10%, the budget deficit doubled and external debt is approaching 50%. Ennahda may have gambled that its best bet was to leave before its economic policies were completely discredited.
If the Muslim Brotherhood had been a little more pragmatic, it might have come to the same conclusion. Egypt’s economy was a disaster and the new government has resorted to higher subsidies to hold on to its popularity. Those subsidies had to be cut by Mubarak and Morsi because Egypt couldn’t afford them. And despite the flow of UAE and Saudi aid and investment money into Egypt, that hasn’t changed.
Even Sudan’s bloody butcher, President Omar Al-Bashir, was forced to cut fuel and cooking oil subsidies leading to violent riots.
In Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood’s subsidy cuts are touching off waves of protests, alienating its liberal allies and pitting it against the rival Islamists of the Justice and Spirituality Organization. With the left and even its own Islamists turning on the Moroccan Brotherhood, its political prospects are dim. But like Sudan, it can’t afford to keep up the subsidies which cost billions.
Western support for Islamist regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco came with the expectation of the IMF that they would make the hard decisions of economic reform. Morsi had trouble committing and his attempts to cut subsidized fuel use only further enraged the Egyptian public. Morocco’s Brotherhood is finding out the dangers of touching fuel subsidies after mass outrage over an 8% fuel price increase.
But the successful counterrevolutions against Muslim Brotherhood rule may have actually salvaged its reputation.
Had the Brotherhood gone down in complete economic disaster, it would have been obvious that it was not only brutal and tyrannical, but also incompetent at everything except setting up front organizations and infiltrating other movements. Instead the Brotherhood has been able to play the victim. Instead of being seen as a failure, it has reinvented brutal power-hungry thugs like Morsi as revolutionary martyrs.
Imagine if the Bolsheviks had been forced out in the 1920s. Millions of lives would have been saved, but Stalin would have been remembered as a political martyr, instead of as a monster. Communism would not have been discredited in the stark economic terms that the slow collapse of the Soviet Union, its growing indebtedness to the United States and the defection of its allies into the Capitalist camp did.
The Muslim Brotherhood was forced out before its Caliphate experiment could become as great a disaster as the Soviet Union and its ideas have not been completely discredited. Discrediting it however might have proven as costly in human lives as the discrediting of Communism. As the Russian scientist Pavlov once said, if Communism were an experiment, he would not spare a frog’s hind legs for it.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s experiments in the Middle East deserve even less than a frog’s hind legs.
The real story of the Arab Spring is not that the Muslim Brotherhood failed as a political movement, but that it was not up to the task of dealing with the economic turmoil. Like the Communists, it excelled at organizing its core activists, but proved incapable of actually running a country.
The Arab Spring was born out of economic discontent and it died because of economic discontent. The Muslim Brotherhood did not lose the battle for the soul of the Muslim Middle East.
It lost the battle for its wallet.
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