Sunday, 15 December 2013

Five reasons the Arab Spring has not failed

So much for the Arab Spring. In Egypt, history appears to have completed a bloody full circle. The country is back to a “temporary” martial law that will probably last for years.
Given the breadth and depth of the fissures that run through Middle Eastern society, it is tempting to conclude that democracy is bound to fail there. Sooner or later, the pessimists now argue, the countries of the Arab Spring will revert to the old kind of harsh rule by “strongmen.”
Yet I am not quite so pessimistic as to expect a complete restoration of the old order. The Arab Spring may appear to have failed, but in five important respects the Arab world has been changed irrevocably.

1. Less tribalism

The institution of tribalism is not as strong and cohesive as it used to be. Individuals within a tribe or clan have developed other loyalties and can defy traditional forms of authority in ways that were unthinkable a generation ago. The combined factors of urbanization, young demographics, displaced peoples, and emigration will further erode tribal and clan loyalties.

2. Radical Islam’s waning appeal

The appeal of radical Islam is beginning to wane. This trend is paradoxical because Islamists continue to enjoy considerable grassroots loyalty. However, after what people have experienced in countries where Islamists have come to power – notably in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran and the Taliban’s Afghanistan – it is no longer self-evident that sharia is the answer to all the problems of modernity.

This is the key to the backlash against the Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. Islamists thrive in opposition and in chaos but fail miserably in government.

3. Connection to the West

The effects of globalization have changed attitudes toward the West. Thanks to migration and telecommunications, Arabs in particular and Muslims in general are now physically and virtually connected to Europe and the US as never before. They may not approve of everything they see in the West, but they nevertheless are seeing how Western political institutions of freedom actually work.

4. Rise of oppressed groups

The emergence of hitherto oppressed interest groups cannot be reversed. Women, religious minorities, and even homosexuals remain highly vulnerable in the Middle East and North Africa. But such groups are gaining strength through organization. If you are a woman who has been raped, you are better off going to a women’s group than to your local despot. Feminism, in particular, has been one of the surprise winners of the past three years in Egypt.

5. Less US and European support

The attitudes of Americans and Europeans have changed. In the past, any despot in the region worth his salt understood how to present himself as strategically vital to Western interests. For better or for worse, that game is now almost over. Rulers who cannot credibly claim to have popular legitimacy can no longer count on being propped up by Washington, London, or Paris.

Significantly, the restored military regime in Egypt is counting on the Gulf states, not the US, to bankroll it. President Obama has canceled joint US-Egyptian military maneuvers. The minority of Americans who still care about the Arab Spring are urging him to go further. But even if he further cuts US aid to Egypt, it won’t make much difference. Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates can more than compensate.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of “Infidel” and “Nomad.”

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