February 2, 2012

Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

Protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Habib Bourguib Av. in Tunis, in Sana'a, Yemen, and in Douma, Syria. - Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Michael J. Totten in the January/February issue of World Affairs:

The phrase “Arab Spring” is a misnomer. The political upheavals sweeping Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are concurrent yet different phenomena, and it’s premature to assume that any of them, let alone all of them, will bring their respective countries out of the long Arab winter of authoritarian rule. In the medium term, the number of genuinely liberal democracies to emerge in the Arab world is likely to be one or zero.
I’ve been to all three countries that overthrew tyrants last year—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—and I rented an apartment in Lebanon while the government of Syria, which may well become fourth on the list, waged a murder and intimidation campaign against Lebanese journalists and elected officials. The only things these countries have in common with each other is that they’re in turmoil and that they are Arab.

Take Tunisia and Egypt:

Large parts of Tunisia appear so “Westernized,” at least on the surface, that visitors might think they’re in Greece or even in France if they didn’t know better. Egypt is an ancient and crushingly poor nation ruled, as it has been more often than not, by a military dictatorship.[…]
Most Tunisian women in the cities eschew the headscarf and dress like Europeans. Alcohol is widely available and consumed more by locals than tourists. The economy is almost as advanced as those of southern Europe, and large parts of the cities actually look like southern Europe. The Mediterranean is a recognizable place despite the civilizational boundary that separates its northern and southern shores. Tunis, on the coast, has more in common with Provence than with its own Saharan interior. And its vineyards produce wine that is almost as fine.
Imperial France left a powerful imprint on Tunisia’s cultural DNA, as did Rome long ago. “The explanation for Tunisia’s success,” Robert Kaplan wrote in the Atlantic in 2001, “begins with the fact that modern Tunisia corresponds roughly to the borders of ancient Carthage and of the Roman province that replaced it in 146 B.C., after a third and final war between the two powers. ‘Africa,’ originally a Roman term, meant Tunisia long before it meant anything else.” This little wedge of a country in central North Africa has been at least partially oriented northward for most of its history ever since.
Egypt is, in so many ways, the anti-Tunisia. Almost every woman who goes out in public wears a headscarf. I see more men in just one single day with bruised foreheads—acquired by hitting their heads on the floor during prayer—than I have seen in all other Muslim-majority countries combined in almost a decade. The country is, as far as I can tell, the most Islamicized place in the world after Saudi Arabia. It used to be oriented more toward the Mediterranean, as Tunisia still is, but that was more than a half century ago.
Cairo was once a must-see city like Paris and Rome and Vienna, but today it’s a crowded, polluted, and grinding third-world megacity animated by reactionary and authoritarian politics. Its liberal epoch is over.

Libya and Syria, in turn, have their own peculiarities. But what do these four countries have in common? In the Middle East almost all secular governments have failed spectacularly in the modern era. As a result, Radical Islam looks good on paper to millions... The full article is worth a read.

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