Is the Arab Spring a Failure?

I have been puzzling over Year Two of the Arab Spring. The signals remain mixed. The imposition of Sharia would be a colossal step backward and consign women to a new Dark Ages. If that is the fate of the Arab Spring, it is a grotesque failure.
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I have been puzzling over Year Two of the Arab Spring. The signals remain mixed. The apparent power of the Muslim Brotherhood and others of similar fervency is frankly worrisome. The economies of these countries -- Egypt particularly -- are in the doldrums and don't look like they will escape soon. The specter of civil war hangs over Libya. Syria is in a civil war. Yemen and Bahrain remain in turmoil, among rumblings elsewhere. And Tunisia, the first and most benign transition, is also enthralled to some tendencies toward extreme political Islam.

For a time, the two peaceful transitions in North Africa looked like they might follow the much-touted "Turkish model," the remarkably successful cohabitation of Islamic practice in society but largely secular and democratic governance. Turkey has a booming economy, political freedom, and increasing influence from Morocco to Central Asia. (It also has badly handled its large Kurdish population, which is a model of how not to promote political pluralism and respect for minority rights.) Several leaders of the Arab Spring have spoken warmly of Turkey's exemplary mixture of faith and democracy.

But lip service to the Turkish model is not being put into practice. And there are plenty of worrying signals that run in the opposite direction -- namely, toward the imposition of Sharia Law, repression of women, and continuing marginalization of minorities.

A report about Tunisia issued last week by a team of women activists in Washington (who are colleagues of mine) underscores the momentous challenge of these Arab transitions. The situation in Tunisia, they say, reflects what is happening more broadly:

Tunisia, like its neighbors Libya and Egypt, is witnessing the sudden burgeoning of conservative Islamists, particularly Salafis, as a political force. To many Tunisians they are neither indigenous nor representative of the mass democratic movement that ousted Ben Ali. People believe they are financed by regional actors, such as the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, and are pushing an ideological agenda that counters Tunisia's more tolerant history. "We ask them 'where were you?! Who are you?!" says one activist, implying that the Salafis were not part of the popular protests, but now are taking advantage of the open space to assert dominance.

Indeed, one of the most worrisome aspects of the violent uprisings in Libya and Syria, and possibly elsewhere, is how the most extreme Islamists--the fundamentalists Salafis--may be getting crucial support from the Saudis, whose interests are many but among them is promoting Wahhabism, its brand of conservative religion and politics.

The concern about the fate of women in the Arab transition states has been gradually gaining force. A year ago, the only article I could find about the fate of women in the Arab Spring was by Shahin and Juan Cole. Now, many more are speaking out -- notably, women in these very Arab countries, like the remarkable tirade by Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy in Foreign Policy, "Why Do They Hate Us?"

"An entire political and economic system -- one that treats half of humanity like animals -- must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future," Eltahawy writes. "Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun."

The lack of attention to women's rights by the Western powers that have cheered on or enabled the Arab uprisings has come in for some mild criticism--too mild, too infrequent. There's a tendency in Europe particularly to mistake cultural relativism for diplomacy. The imposition of Sharia in these countries, which is promised (or threatened) in various ways by all the current leaders, would be a colossal step backward and consign women to a new Dark Ages. If that is the fate of the Arab Spring, it is a grotesque failure.

The same might be said for some ethnic or religious minorities, who feel threatened by the rise of more extreme Islam. Exhibit A is the Coptic Christians in Egypt, about one-tenth the population. Another is the Berbers of Libya, non-Arabs who suffered under Gaddafi but whose political future appears bleak. Respect for minorities in many Muslim societies has been scant for many years: Christians are harassed in "free" Iraq, the Baha'i are ruthlessly persecuted in Iran, and Jews have been sent packing from many places. The West has its own deplorable record on minority rights, so it's difficult to cast stones. Like the rights of women, however, minorities are protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a foundation document of the United Nations to which all these countries are member states and have turned to for support at various times.

At a recent workshop I co-organized in Istanbul, several analysts from the region mentioned the retreat of America from the Middle East. It was said casually, as if a given. It derives from the withdrawal from Iraq mostly, but also the absence of U.S. pressure on Israel (to put it charitably), and the helplessness with respect to Syria. The other absence, however, has to do with the Arab transitions in North Africa. President Obama handled the events of last year in Tunisia and Egypt about as well as could be expected, given their suddenness and the sheer popularity of the revolts. But one wonders how engaged he is now, especially how much pressure he's exerting to ensure that human rights are protected.

There seems to be a kind of laissez-faire attitude toward these transitions that is now looking like foolish passivity. For sure, a heavy hand cannot be applied, for anti-Americanism is strong. But if these countries end up like Iran, we will rue the day we didn't exert a little hegemonic muscle.

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