ELECTORAL GAINS of the Muslim Brotherhood, most recently in Egypt and Libya, suggest that the Arab Spring came in like a lion and went out like a lamb to slaughter. Democracy, having conquered the Arab world, has yielded to Islamist autocrats its spoils.
Something like the preceding is the prevailing trope in North America, where you’ll find evidence of resignation and an unspoken conviction — in polite company, at least — that there is indeed an “Arab world” and that it prefers enslavement to freedom. Rudyard Kipling had in mind the Germans when he decried the “Lesser breeds without the Law,” in a poem titled “Recessional.” (This work, composed to mark Queen Victoria’s 1897 jubilee, replaced a previous effort, “The White Man’s Burden.”) Nonetheless, when it came time to ask Why? of the German descent into race enslavement and industrialized mass-murder, many were able to cite the Treaty of Paris, hyperinflation, and the fact that citizens had exhausted the alternatives before tossing in with the NSDAP.
In fact Hitler was not elected a German leader, but rose to Chancellor and Führer through a combination of intrigue, alliances and deception — a strategy which culminated in the faked Communist torching of the Reichstag and the subsequent imposition of martial law. Fascism, which has no regard of a higher law, does not arrive by means of democracy. In much the same way, the emergence of Islamic variants of fascism has a messy background in which necessarily feature corruption, economic stagnation, illiteracy, fraud and the long suppression of civil society.
Egypt had already undergone by the time of the Victorian jubilee a failed grassroots revolt against colonialism’s burdens, principal among which is the convenient fiction that the local conditions are bettered when determined from afar, democracy being incompatible with the indigenous political cultures of the orient. The idea persists in subtle forms, and has evolved to flatter the many incursions of empire. Within Islam itself there is a broad division of the faithful into two camps, one asserting that the Islamic state must be imposed by men and immediately, the other by the Almighty and in the next world. In this debate are sidelined the many moderate Muslims, non-Muslims and even non-religious citizens who nonetheless will be greatly affected by the protracted and likely bloody work of sorting out the disagreement.
Collusion between local despots and their distant partners could still be the surest way to gather liberal democracy’s benefits (rule of law, stability, good business environment) while evading the costly, inefficient work of establishing credible governments and formal mechanisms to mediate rival factions. The Iraqi and Syrian Ba’athists, Mubarak and Ben Ali — all these and more were a previous era’s solutions, and we may credit them with having retarded and distorted the development of civil society for years and even decades to come. In the meanwhile, Arab Spring is, like the term Jewish state, a way of begging the making of necessary distinctions. A Jewish state, or a state for the Jews? A government of Islamists, or Islamic Government? There’s an enormous difference between the two, and wherever there are people who would prefer not to have their citizenship and their rights determined by a ruling creed or sect this difference will be vigorously asserted. Don’t underestimate the number of people on the liberal side of the present debate, nor the willingness of those on the other to use intrigue, alliances and deception in service of the lie that democracy is not among “their” values.