The Muslim Spring
As 2011 began, much of the world's population contended with growing anxiety about the future. This distress was caused by a continuing and unresolved economic downturn, and financial crises afflicting the leading governments. In America, Europe, and Asia, whole communities and many individuals experienced a "great fear." Discontent over perceived injustices and inequities, along with irrational belief in conspiracies, spread far and wide. An atmosphere of desperation, and even a kind of madness, was aggravated by uncertainty on the part of national leaders, and produced new expressions of anti-elite protest. For Westerners, the threat of radical Islam, if not an aversion to the whole body of Muslim believers, or Islamophobia, was an additional source of insecurity.
Then, the weakest links in the chain of the global order snapped. Revolutions erupted in the Muslim lands of the Middle East. These countries were all burdened with dictatorships or absolutist monarchies, flagrant in their corruption. The masses of the downtrodden, voiceless, and underemployed assembled in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, with a single, common word on their lips: "freedom." This series of events had not been anticipated by the overwhelming majority of observers, either elite or ordinary, anywhere on the planet.
First Tunisia, followed by Egypt, drove dictators from power, each of who had manipulated the apparatus of the state, without any restraint on their whims and patronage, for decades. Zine El Abedine Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia autocratically for 23 years, since 1987, and Hosni Mubarak had dominated Egypt for 30 years, since 1981. The protests of the "Arab Spring," as they were soon titled collectively, spread to Yemen and Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Oman, Algeria and Morocco. The "Arab Spring" was a misnomer, and the movement might better have been named the "Muslim Spring," since Iranians are not Arabs, but Iran is crucial to the new political direction of the Muslim lands. In all of these countries, the "chain of revolutions" made its first appearance with peaceful demonstrations, met by differing degrees of repression and accommodation. The abstract call for freedom evolved toward explicit appeals for Western-style democracy, based on civil society.
In Yemen, where Ali Abdullah Saleh had ruled for 33 years, since 1978, and in Bahrain, historic rivalries between Sunni and Shia Muslims distorted the movements for political reform. Democratic activism in Bahrain was mainly driven by the grievances of the Shia majority against a Sunni monarchy. Saudi Arabia, joined by the United Arab Emirates, occupied Bahrain with soldiers and police to maintain the status quo. Iran incited the Bahrain Shias to confront their Sunni rulers. But, recalling the huge "Green" opposition that shook Iran in 2009, Tehran locked up protest leaders on its own territory. The Iranian regime had already banned public expression of "solidarity with the Egyptian revolution."
At the same time, the Tehran rulers described the Arab Spring as a radical Islamist upsurge emulating the Khomeini Revolution of 1979. But reformist currents were quickly stalemated in Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman – not unlike the standoff in Iran since 2010. In that year, both the Iranian the "Green" reformists and the clerical dictatorship of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his deranged front man, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had summoned their forces to march in the streets, but neither could prevail over the other.
In Saudi Arabia itself, the popularity of King Abdullah, considered by all Arabs and Sunni Muslims a sincere reformer, along with his promises of economic betterment, deflected the force of "rage" – as the protest impulse was labeled by some of its protagonists. In Oman and Algeria, the desire for democracy burned at a low flame. Echoes of the Arab Spring were heard elsewhere in Africa, in Turkey, as well as in China, a country in which Muslims are a minority but government has been no less dictatorial than in the Arab states.
With the fall of autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, on their eastern and western borders, the people of Libya rose up against the psychotic Muammar Al-Qaddafi, who had controlled the country for 42 years, since 1969. The Arab Spring took a new turn. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt had represented an "innocent" period in the regional crisis, largely nonviolent and evoking recollection, for those with a long memory, of the "people power" uprising that overthrew Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Libya, however, inaugurated a second stage in the Arab and Islamic convulsion: a revolt by a people in arms, facing a tyrant prepared to kill every one of his subjects if they did not maintain their loyalty to him. The era of "peaceful transitions," during a quarter-century of political turbulence – in the Philippines, South Korea, Chile, most of Eastern Europe, Indonesia, and Mexico – had ended at Tahrir Square in Cairo. The "soft landings" enjoyed by the Tunisians and Egyptians would not, it seemed, be repeated. The globalization of media and personal communications, which led many observers to see the "social media" of Facebook and Twitter as engines of transformation in the cycle of Islamic democratization, extended the audience for immediate news from the revolutionary zones to the most isolated villages and even to wandering Bedouins. But in Libya, "social media" – the weapons of criticism – gave way to a criticism based on weapons.
The atrocious character of Al-Qaddafi's effort to suppress the liberation struggle in Libya seemed to propel the world backwards, to the insurrectionary events seen in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and even earlier, to the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. The Egyptian protestors had been "leaderless," but the Libyan rebels, while equally spontaneous and unorganized, were psychologically prepared for armed conflict. Eastern Libya, surrounding Benghazi, where Al-Qaddafi had never been accepted as a legitimate ruler, became an alternative power center, without establishing a stable, parallel authority to challenge the dictator. Al-Qaddafi's bloodthirsty threats, and the probability of wide-scale massacres in the country, stirred U.S. president Barack Obama to abandon his electoral and administration rhetoric of disengagement from military alternatives in the Middle East.
Obama was called a "born-again neoconservative" as the U.S. led armed operations, beginning with a "no-fly zone" over eastern Libya, and continuing with air attacks on Al-Qaddafi's forces. Republican U.S. Senator John McCain reciprocated by referring to the Libyan resistance as "my heroes" and dismissing concerns that the rebels might be infiltrated by Al-Qaida. Europeans, especially Italy and Greece, were terrified by the possibility of a Libyan refugee influx across the Mediterranean.
Iran and its sympathizers among non-Iranian Shia Muslims launched a propaganda campaign seeking to equate the bloodshed in Libya with the minor clashes in Saudi- and UAE-occupied Bahrain, since Iran's main goal in the Muslim world is to discredit Saudi Arabia. But after the Libyan upheaval, the fully revolutionary character of the second stage of Muslim revolts was confirmed by demonstrations and massacres in Syria. There dictatorship had been imposed since 1963, by the Ba'ath party of Hafez Al-Assad, father of the current oppressor, Bashar Al-Assad. The Syrian Ba'athist clique had endured in power 48 years, the longest reign by any of the non-monarchical Muslim despots. The Al-Assad clan was supported by a minority elite of Alawite Muslims – a sect long considered so heterodox as to be almost un-Islamic.
Syria is like Libya; the hatred of its people for Al-Assad cannot be channeled toward nonviolence and abdication by the dictator. And in Syria, the revolutionary elan of Arab democratic protest draws nearer the main theatre of reform in the Muslim world: Iran. The ruling Syrian Alawites had been "confirmed" as Muslims by the Shia clerics of Iran and Lebanon, and the Tehran state acted to support Bashar Al-Assad against his people. This came about because Syria assumed a key role in the supply of weapons and political assistance to Iran's main surrogate against Israel, the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah. An overturn in Syria may inevitably revive the Green movement in Iran and bring about the fall of the Tehran religious oligarchy. With the end of Iranian Islamist authoritarianism, Iran's recent partner, Turkey under the "light" fundamentalist Justice and Development party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as Pakistan's radicals, would be seriously undermined. Pakistan and Afghanistan are Iran's eastern neighbors, and while claimants to the mantle of Sunnism dominate the terrorist milieu in South Asia, Pakistani and Afghan Islam is more Persian than Arab in culture.
Throughout the so-called Arab Spring, Iran has been the real prize. Iranians are a literate and sophisticated people who have passed through a phase of radical Islamic rule and are clearly anxious to see its end. Notwithstanding mutual Iranian-Saudi resentment of one another, or perhaps because of the rivalry between them, a democratization of Iran could also prove a powerful incentive for more complete reforms in Saudi Arabia. Social change in the Saudi kingdom could include disestablishment of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, inspirer of Al-Qaida and its allied terrorist groups, as the Saudi state religion.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan, if they were to take the road of democratization, would leave radical Islam behind them. Egypt, however, after the fall of Mubarak, seems ready for a leap into the void. Having never experienced dominance by the radical Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or its more-extreme rivals, the Wahhabi activists who call themselves "Salafis," Egypt faces a narrow and risky path to the realization of the freedom for which its people so eloquently advocated.
The immediate options for Egypt's governance, unless it produces a strong democratic alternative based in the entrepreneurial middle class, would seem to be either the Brotherhood or a new incarnation of military rule, with the real possibility of a civil war against the Wahhabi/"Salafis." A civil conflict in Algeria in the 1990s, following a democratic opening by the country's nationalist military rulers, had pitted Wahhabi/"Salafi" terrorists against the state. Ordinary Muslims who did not share the radicals' fundamentalism were also targeted, and 200,000 Algerians died.
The MB and the Egyptian Wahhabi/"Salafis" stood aside from the main protests in Cairo and Alexandria, and all the mass movements in the chain of regional uprisings have been notable for the absence of anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-Western slogans from their ranks. But Egypt's power vacuum has encouraged the MB to step forward and assert its claim on power. The "Brothers" are the best-organized force in the country, drawing on support from frustrated sectors of the country's overeducated and underemployed professional class. Since many of the MB's religious followers are also attracted to the Wahhabi/"Salafis," the latter also saw opportunities too good to ignore in the Egyptian political flux. The Muslim Spring seems to have become a race between the radical Islamists, in countries like Egypt that have not experienced fundamentalist ideology in power, and the "anti-radicals" in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Whether the radicals or the anti-radicals will win cannot be easily predicted.
Because simple conjectures about the outcome of the Muslim Spring cannot be made, the global policy elite has been left speechless as much by the first phase, of reformist demands in Tunisia, Egypt, and the minor Arab countries, as by the second phase, of civil war in Libya and conditions leading to it in Syria. History has sped up, and left most Western politicians, experts, commentators, and their like behind, as it did when Soviet Communism disintegrated at the end of the 1980s.
But if many Westerners are at a loss about how to analyze the new Muslim revolt, most of them, especially after Obama's commitment to action in Libya, remain unwilling to credit Muslim democratization to the initiatives taken by the administration of George W. Bush in pursuing his Freedom Agenda. The world, in great part, stands silent and gawking at the struggle of the Libyans and Syrians, as well as other Arabs, Iranians, and other people on other continents, to rid themselves of despotism. But as Syria's turn is consummated, another, third phase may begin, like a force of nature, in Iran.