May 15, 2012

The Failure of Arab Liberals

AP  Photo
Everybody knows what happened soon after the heady first days of the Arab Spring. The first omen of what was to come was when, on February 18, 2011 (the Egyptian revolution’s “Victory Day”), the people filling Tahrir Square looked very different than those that had been seen in that very square at the height of the uprising.

 Sohrab Ahmari in Commentary Magazine:

Islamist activists, with their distinctive Salafi-style beards and stern expressions, were the ones dominating Tahrir, not smartphone-wielding young dissidents in Western outfits. They listened intently as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s beloved televangelist, back in Egypt after years spent in exile, called on Egyptians to “liberate” occupied al-Quds (Arabic for Jerusalem). Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who came to embody the revolution for Western audiences, was barred from addressing the Square that day.

Islamist forces have since scored one triumph after another. In Egypt, the Islamist bloc composed of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi al-Nour party has won overwhelming control of both houses of parliament. The rise of Islamist parties has been accompanied by ever worsening violence against Coptic Christians, assaults on the Israeli embassy, and threats to nullify Anwar Sadat’s peace. In Tunisia, the Brotherhood-linked Ennahda party has won a decisive plurality, a once tolerated gay and lesbian community has come under severe attack, and the country’s robust secularist and feminist traditions have been on the retreat amid growing anti-Western sentiment. In Libya, some rebel forces have traded their NATO flags for al-Qaeda’s black banner; others have targeted the country’s vulnerable black African and Amazigh minorities. Torture is reportedly rampant in the prisons of free Libya.

Clearly something went wrong with the Arab Spring: basically what went wrong was the Arab liberalism, the moral and cultural crisis of which, says Sohrab Ahmari, is serious:

It threatens nothing less than the future of freedom in the Middle East. Yet, as daunting as it may seem in light of recent developments, there really is no other path than the freedom agenda as far as U.S. policy should be concerned. After the Arab Spring, the U.S.-led order in the region is frayed, but it still stands. If it is to persist and thrive, that order must be decoupled from classical Arab authoritarianism.

Our liberal allies in this fight are deeply flawed. Disengaging from the region and adopting a “humble” posture, however, will only leave them more vulnerable to the Islamists—and to their own worst urges. As a number of writers have already suggested, the Middle East today is desperately in need of an ideological plan similar to the Marshall Plan deployed in postwar Europe. But to make the investment worth its while, the United States should not hesitate to assume the role of the democratic teacher, as it did in Europe, to shape and articulate a Middle East liberalism that is at peace with Israel, that refrains from anti-Western rhetoric and prioritizes individual and minority rights over the whims of demagogic mobs. There is no other cure for the Algiers syndrome.

Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American journalist and nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. He is also co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, a new anthology of essays by young Mideast dissidents (Palgrave Macmillan). H/T John Podhoretz.