Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday August 18th, 2013

By Barrie Dunsmore  

It was imprecise. But somehow the phrase “Arab Spring” caught on as a way to describe the revolutions which began to roil the Arab World in the early months of 2011. For many, both inside and outside the Arab World, the word “spring” conjured up the idea of renewal and hope after so many decades of repressive military dictatorships. For us old Cold Warriors the Prague Spring came to mind. That was the spring and summer of 1968 when liberals in Czechoslovakia dared to question the domination of the Soviet Union - only to have their incipient rebellion squashed when the Russian tanks of August rolled into Prague.  As someone who covered that story- the joy of its beginning and the tragedy of its ending – I watched the Prague Spring become a bitter disappointment to those millions behind the Iron Curtain which then divided Europe, yearning to be free.  

Why would the Arab Spring succeed where Prague had failed? Well for one thing Arabs seeking freedom were not facing a superpower like the Soviet Union, determined to keep its empire intact. The early successes of the Arab Spring- the overthrow of despotic regimes that had been in power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya for a collective total of more than 120 years – seemed to hold a genuine promise of better days ahead. Some progress was made, particularly in Egypt, where a democratically elected government took office. 

Then this past week virtual civil war exploded in Egypt. In a single day security forces killed at least 525 and wounded more 3000 supporters of the deposed government, which the military had ousted last month. Things appear worse now than before the revolution of 2011. The Arab Spring seems not so much a joke as a cruel hoax.  

Yet much of what has happened in Egypt in the past two plus years could have been foreseen.  It was inevitable that the Muslim Brotherhood would emerge as the most powerful political force because they had been organizing underground for more than 80 years. Most secular Egyptian liberals and the students didn’t have a clue about how to form coalitions and win election campaigns. 

But the reality is that democracy is not simply a product of elections. It needs democratic institutions, the rule of law, freedom of religion, speech and the press – and these can’t be instantly created. Also, in a pluralistic society such as Egypt, power must be shared between Islamists and secularists and this is where Egypt’s first try at democracy failed. The elected former President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government, refused to share power with the secularists- who then cheered when his Islamic government was overthrown by the army. 

It was also inevitable that the Egyptian Army was not going to allow the Muslim Brotherhood government - democratically elected or not- to destroy the Egyptian economy. That economy was imploding due in part to incompetent management but mostly because of political turmoil. The tourism industry, which historically has been one of Egypt’s greatest moneymakers, had dramatically fallen off because tourists were not keen to visit an on-going revolution. Although it is not widely reported, the Egyptian tourist industry is substantially owned and operated by- guess who? -the Egyptian military. In fact, over the years the Egyptian military has taken over all kinds of normally civilian enterprises (much as in China.) This has made many high ranking military officers very, very rich. As those who study the Egyptian military predicted, the generals would do whatever was necessary to protect their perks and privileges. And as we have seen this past week they weren’t shy about doing so. 

It would be easy to feel nothing but doom and gloom about Egypt’s immediate future. But if you look at the important revolutions of the past few centuries - the American, the French, the Russian, the Chinese and the Iranian – they have all had different motivations and outcomes. But the one thing they have in common is that they went through different phases which often took many years to play out. I’ve told this story before, which I first heard from Henry Kissinger, but it’s worth repeating.  When China’s Mao Tse Tung was in power, for much of the time his number two was Chou En Lai. Chou was considered an erudite man and a genuine intellectual. When asked for his opinion of the French Revolution, his response, some 200 years after the fact, “It’s too soon to tell.”  The Chinese take the long view of history, which seems wise. Consider for a moment, what Mao’s revolution looked like in the 1960’s compared to what China is today.  

Revolutions rarely survive in their original form.  Over time they get hijacked - by the Bolsheviks in Russia or the Reign of Terror in France.  In the 21st century, when the main feature of our new technologies is instant gratification, this point is easily lost. In the world of Twitter, people want immediate answers and solutions. There was a revolution in Egypt in February and it’s already March - why no democracy yet? Obama fails again! I suspect that many of the young people who joined the protests in Tahrir Square to drive out former dictator Hosni Mubarak also expected instant democracy. But as we know from history, it doesn’t work that way.  

It is in that context that I believe we have not seen the end of Egypt’s revolution – or even some form of Egyptian democracy. The secularists can not be frozen out of the process as they were in phase one. But neither can the Islamists be excluded in phase two. If political accommodations can be reached (a big if I concede in present circumstances) and a relatively stable political system follows, that will encourage the generals to go back to their barracks to clip their coupons.

But if the Arab Spring is replaced by an Arab Winter- meaning a future without hope- that will have consequences far beyond Egypt.




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