Where the Rubber Hits the Road: The Arab Spring, Freedom, Jobs and Bread
John R. Bradley. After The Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked The Middle East Revolts. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 247 pages.
The Arab revolts which began in Tunisia in December 2010 are not about bringing democracy to the region but exactly the opposite. That is the argument of this book by a British journalist. Bradley is upset that the life which he has enjoyed in the small cafes on elegant Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis is being threatened, along with his ability to go into a bar and enjoy a beer. These delights are liable to be banned along with bikinis on the beach, the free-wheeling prostitution historically protected by the Ottomans, and the secular life in a country where the modernizing regime enforced a secular life. Tunisia has been a country where women were free to go about without a head scarf, but now all this will probably disappear. I too have pleasant memories of Tunis and these small cafes, a legacy of French rule in North Africa from my days in the US Navy.
Bradley sees this pleasant European atmosphere disapearing in Tunisia where secularism has deep roots. Even more bleak is the situation in Egypt and Libya. The Arab uprisings are swiftly bringing Islamist political parties to power and once they are in place, it is all over, as far as democracy is concerned. He believes that the Islamists will only use the new freedoms to come to power and clamp Sharia law upon society. Then there will be no more democracy for the secular minded.
He briefly mentions Turkey, where he sees a creeping Islamic totalitarianism emerging under the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now in power since 2002. Having lived in Turkey for the past fourteen years and in North Cyprus for several years before that, I can say that he is certainly correct about the direction of Turkey, although the situation is more complex than he suggests. It is exceedingly difficult to accurately predict the future.
Bradley’s argument is certainly correct from a secular point of view. The international journalists, as well as democracy loving liberals and leftists in the West, have almost certainly got it wrong, in the one-sided way they have presented this phenomenon to the world… the masses yearning to be free, the masses yearning to be outside the dictatorial yoke, the masses yearning to vote and elect those that they want to rule themselves, the masses up in arms against American imperialism. People want to be free, of course, but it is not exactly like this. Bradley is right. They mainly want jobs and bread. They are of course anti-American, but its generally more like “Yankee go home but take me with you.” Offer them immigration to the infedel land of the Great Satan America and how many would turn down the offer to take their chances in their newly emerging democracies? Hollywood has worked its magic.
In the West, a new liberal era is conceived as emerging where it will be a free for all, a veritable “marketplace of ideas,”and the masses of the Middle East will then enjoy the same freedoms enjoyed in Britain and the United States. They will be able to write and say what they want and be left completely alone. Intellectuals in the liberal democracies have been heartened by this outburst of revolt which has now toppled dictators. The intellectuals in the West are right to want greater freedom. But they have their own work cut out for them in the struggle to free their own countries from the iron grip of the billionaire corporations which own the so-called political processes lock, stock, and barrel and cram a new chimpocrat like George Bush down their throats every election to serve capital. In any event they need to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of societies in the Islamic world before seeing the Arab masses and village peasants as salivating for Western freedoms.
For Bradley, it is a dread of what is to come from the bearded Muslims who will enforce their own code of harsh and illiberal social code of morality upon society once they come to power.
In fact, both the fear of Islamism and euphoria about the emergence of a new liberal democratic era are oversimplicications of the actual historical situation and the process of change. It is natural that people want change. They are fed up with the situation in which they have to live. Where are the people not? Some who revolt are secular and some have ideas about how society should be more liberal. Some are hard-core Islamists who want Sharia law but most are just people who were born in a Moslem country and want a secure job and a better life. They want things to get better, not worse, but revolution always disrupts society in the near term and makes life worse for ordinary people for a period of time. A majority are certainly not radical Moslems, but as Bradley argues, a relatively small percentage of Islamists can bring radical Islamist parties to power and curb liberties for the broad society. Something similar has happened in Turkey, although most who vote for the Justice and Development Party are not voting religiously. They do not generally vote for the party because they are pious Moslems, as Bradley suggests. They simply see the policies of the JDP as in their best interests in improving their material situation.
Western reports on the so-called Arab Spring have largely missed the point, which tells much about the mentality and the political consciousness of the people. These societies are not liberal. They cannot be compared to Western societies in that sense. There is no historical tradition of liberal political thought. Whoever has had the power has had the authority to enforce the rules and apply them and people are expected to buckle down. That is the way it has been under rule for centuries. It is a misconception that people generally yearn for a liberal pluralistic society. The concept of liberalism, generally is simply not there. One comes to realize that this is the situation in Turkey. To live and let live, believe and let believe simply does not exist in the mindset. It is my observation that there are very few with a liberal mind set who have not lived in politically liberal societies in the West. Most simply do not get the idea of liberalism. Even university students generally do not express their ideas for fear of being punished. They learn what they have to say and generally accept it.
So Bradley’s point that people are not yearning for Wesern liberalism is well taken. However it is also too one-sided to simply say that the Islamists are coming and all will lose the social privileges they have enjoyed under secular regimes. They may well lose some, but there will also be a political struggle. The human urge for freedom is a dialectical struggle. Some gain some freedoms, some lose, and the struggle continues. In the short run, of course, there will be less freedom in the social realm.
It is true that if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt, some Muslims with feel like they have gained new freedoms, while some secularists will feel that they are losing their valued freedoms. One has seen this bitter struggle played out in Turkey under the Erdogan era and it continues and grows even more bitter today. But this is part of the dialectical struggle of history. Freedom for the Islamists is dialecticaly linked to the crushing of the freedoms traditionally enjoyed under an authoritarian secularism. Both struggle to crush each other. The old secular elites see it a fascistic. The European Union hails it as democratic. The Islamists bask in the new admiration of the west, while cynically pursuing their clandestine anti-liberal underground agendas. Sometimes pretending to hate the values of the West, while greedy and grubby to learn more Western tricks to get as rich and powerful as those they hate socially. A dirty and false hypocracy is thick on the ground among many Islamists. They grab more and more power and use it to take revenge upon those they hate because their enemies are not feudal-minded like themselves and are intellectuals and culturally more advanced. They are totally unaware of how closely they resemble Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. However one chooses to analyse the situation, it is far from liberal. It is closer to a clash of competing fascisms than liberal democracy. Different brands of fascism, each one seeing their own brand as freedom. Those in the West who see it as emerging democracy are both ignorant of the situation and fools. They will only wake up when it hits them, themselves, in the face as is starting to happen in some cases in Europe. Witness the French election.
A similar dialectic can be seen in the French Revolution and Bolshevik Revolutions. It would be foolish to argue that there was no gain in freedom because of the ensuing Thermidor in both cases which resulted in dictatorship. There is always an ebb and flow in history. One is forced to roll with the historical waves, the rising and sinking tides of history.
Dictatorships which may, true to what Bradley fears, be imposed by Islamic radicals are but a mirror image of secular dictatorships such as Kemalism in Turkey.
Whether revolution is always good in history, even if it leads to dictatorship, is a difficult question. Seeing dictatorships toppled, autocrats thrown out, well, I must admit that it does me good to see them toppled. Left, right, center, topple them all. Just as well be hung by a new thug as an old one.
Bradley believes that toppling the autocrats and giving the Islamists the opportunity to come to power will be bad for society in general. From my own political perspective, I could agree with him, as far as it affects me. However, it is really not so simple. In some cases, it is simply one group of fascists replacing another. Why is religious dictatorship worse than a secular dictatorship? It is worse for me, but it just depends upon whether one is religious or secular.
Bradley mentions Turkey but to some extent gets the politics wrong. He believes that the Justice and Development (JDP) gets the votes in Anatolia because of the pious nature of the polulation in the vast hinterland. This is wrong. The peasants out there in Kayseri are not generally voting in a religious way, but simply for the material benefits they are getting from the fairly successful economic policies of the regime and the populist programs that help them. These include cheap new housing, roads, free school books and computers, school uniforms, and food subsidies. Radical religious parties which depended upon religious voting, but did not deliver the material goods, fell to one percent of the vote or less in recent elections in Turkey.
From the Republican period in Turkey beginning in the 1920s, there was forced secularism, as under Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia. The elites in Turkey marginalized and discriminated against the peasants and common people. They looked down on them as rustic fools from the countryside, lacking in education and culture. This is a historical fact. When left opposition to the regime rose in the l960s, the regime and the Turkish Military promoted state-controlled religion as a tool to crush the left. There was never a liberal democracy, so why should one expect that an Islamic party would come to power and be liberal today? There is simply no liberal tradition, but rather a tradition of ruling from the top-down, and so this continues under a new dispensation. The secularists howl. They scream bloody murder. But they understand it very well. They are used to cramming it down the throats of those country bumpkins they do not like but think that they should not get it crammed down their own throats, being culturally superior, and having the tradition of being the ruling elite. All that historical grandeur makes them feel so smug. They hate to see it go. They remember the cities of Turkey being such nice places in the past, when the peasants stayed in their villages and just grew potatoes and left them alone. Now they have come to town and vote and that is hell.
Many of the old secular elites would like to see the continuation of authoritarian tactics by the military to ensure against the Islamists. Each side defines its own Jacobinism as “democratic,” similar to what is likely to now happen in the societies of the Arab Spring.
The post-modern era has seen the rise of religion in politics. It was not so many years ago in the l960s that it was believed that political and economic development along modern lines would diminish the religious element in society. Socialists and communists once believed they were on their way to the future classless and plentiful society. The fascists tried to get there with a dictatorship and nationalism. The liberals too thought they would reach it via the market. Fukuyama declared they had reached it in the l990s, much as Joseph Stalin declared that the Soviet Union had reached socialism in the l930s. But all were Gods that failed and the people suffered. Now, free to be struck by Lightening, struck by Neoliberalism and struck by the Bankers, struck by Technocrats, struck by the IMF. And now to be struck by the Islamists. When the West tried to push this old worn-out machinery onto the rest of the world, it would not sell very well. Sure, many versions were tried in emerging post-colonial societies, but all of these secular-nationalist, socialist, and so on, panaceas ran out of steam and turned back upon themselves. They delivered the goods only to those at the top and were rightly condemned as banktupt. This has happened in the make-shift regimes of the Middle East set up to serve the interests of the West. With their failure, where do people turn?
Post-modernism is just a valueless drift. It does not give people any hope of something to believe in. Lets get some morality back into politics, people say. They think that the way to do that is through religion. Its a sad illusion, but who can blame them?
It is not enough that society affords freedom for the elites and wealthy, the educated to enjoy the beaches and their secular life. It must deliver the goods for the masses. So-called socialism foundered on a dictatorship, hogging the resources for a few, capitalism foundered on accumulation, hogging the riches for a few. In Turkey, the old Islamist Refah Party (Welfare Party) used to say, “You have tried all the others, now try us.” Well, people did, and they did not deliver the goods. The military kicked them out, but today the Islamists are having a second chance and playing a more clever game. They know where the rubber hits the road, and it is not Islam, but jobs, bread, houses, and butter. When they deliver, they get the votes.
Bradley sees the time when the Islamists come to power after an Arab revolution as a sort of Islamist thermidor. Tunisia was the most secular Arab regime, the most socially liberal, the most progressive and a bulwark against Wahhabi Islam, but now the Islamists have taken power. He sees Syria as similarly threatened.
Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was in power for more than two decades after seizing power from Habib Bourguiba in a coup in 1987. Tunis had a vibrant night life. The regime was authoritarian, but socially liberal. Bourguiba championed women’s rights, outlawed polygamy, funded education liberally, and did not subjugate the people morally. Bourguiba ruled from l956 to l987, an autocrat, but loved by the people. People did not mind the dictatorial tendencies, according to Bradley. Tunisia had close ties to the West. The rule of Ataturk in Turkey was very similar.
When the revolts broke out, the Western reporters saw Tunisians as wanting political pluralism, tolerance, free expression, representative government, and western liberal values. The Arab Spring label suggested a moving toward democracy. And many seemed to assume that democracy would be an enemy of Islamism. But this was not the case, from Bradley’s experience. The regime broke down due to the two major factors of an economic downturn and the family corruption of the Ben Ali family. Shortly after the revolution, young rabble rousers appeared on the streets demanding that women wear the veil. They created chaos in the streets. Then the Islamists won the elections held in October 2011.
It is the new freedom, democracy, the Arab Spring, precisely, which opens the way for the Islamists to seize power through ballots and not bullets. This is a widespread phenomenon by now. In Morocco the Islamist Peace and Justice Party is increasing its votes in every election. Hamas took power in Gaza through democratic elections. In Bahrain, the Sunni block took control some ten years ago. In Yemen, the Islamist Islah (Reform Party) is the main opposition. Now Hezbollah controls the Lebanese Parliament. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, while officially outlawed, won twenty-five percent of the seats in parliament though independents. Now they are set to take over through open elections. Bradley views this as a reactionary trend whereby society is to be Islamized from below.
There is much talk about regime change. In fact, neither the old regimes in Tunisia or Egypt have been overthrown. The liberals launched the revolutions, while the Islamists held back. Now that the autocrats have been overthrown, the Islamists have made deals behind the scenes with the old regimes and have strenghtened their control while the liberals are losing out. This is similar to what happened in Tehran in 1979.
From the US side, once it was clear that Ben Ali and Mubarak could not survive the uprisings, the Americans capitulated and pretended to be on the side of the revolutionaries. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Americans are backing a Saudi-led counterrevolution, a sort of Saudi Thermidor to keep the status quo and salvage as much of the autocracy as is possible. The Islamists have made deals in both Tunisia and Egypt with officials of the old regime to continue business as usual to the greatest extent possible. This is actually nothing new in US foreign policy. For those who were genuine revolutionaries and bucking for political freedom and pluralism, they are certain to be drowned in the melee. Marginalized, and largely silenced.
In recent years, Tunisia did well economically but the bane of the regime was family corruption and crony capitalism. Today one sees a blosseming of this in Turkey and in how many other regimes?
In l992, Ben Ali married Leila Trabelsi, said to be a hair dresser. Some of her family were merchants in the local bazaar. The fact that her family came from Libya did not endear her family to the Tunisians. She was able to set herself up in business and her brothers and other relatives divided up the economy among themselves. They were seen as crude, lacking education, social status, and engaging in conspicuous consumption, but in the flood of new money. The family came to own banks, telecommunications firms, real estate firms, and car dealerships. They came to be hated by the people and this helped to bring the revolution. This pattern of crony capitalism reminds one of many countries today, including Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.
Once the jig was up, Ben Ali fled with his family to Saudi Arabia. How much gold was smuggled out on the planes has not been determined, but it poisons peoples’ minds as to the family’s inordinate greed.
Enter the Ennahda (Awakening) Party of Rachid Ghannouchi who compares himself with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. The party, similar to the JDP, has roots in the working class and in rural areas. Ghannouchi is a Salafist and dedicated to the “organized harassment of secular intellectuals and artists.” This exact same thing is going on today in Turkey pretty much flat out. Bradley believes that since the Party has not worked out its economic policies in detail, it intends to let the liberals run these programs, while the Islamist ideologues Islamize the country.
With Ben Ali gone, secularists, artists, and unvelied women are now being attacked by thugs. Brothels and bars are being torched. In October 2011, in Sousse, Salafis threatened a professor with machetes and sticks because university officials refused entry to a student wearing the niqab. When elections were held the same month, some 80 percent of the registered voters came to the polls. But only 50 percent of eligible voters were registered. Ennahda got 41 percent of the vote. So the Islamists were able to come to rule with a little over 16 percent of the votes of those eligible to vote. This is the pattern that is likely to be repeated as the Arab Spring unfolds. It does not, in fact, present a very democratic picture.
Bradley sees this as the Wahhabi counterrevolution. It is not so different from Turkey. But the JDP was able to come to power because all of the old parties were incompetent. The JDP promised a better performance and people voted for them mainly because they were so fed up with the old parties. While the Islamizing agenda is partially carried out clandestinely, packing the bureaucracies with untalented and backward obscurantists, changing the rules to marginalize the secular elites, intellectuals and creative artists, it is being carried out to the extent possible. But at the same time, the JDP has been much more successful in running the country, albiet through technocratic neoliberalism that enriches the new emerging class that wields the power and increases inequality. At the same time, the JDP peasantocracy has enjoyed relatively good economic times. Nevertheless, one must give them credit, when the old secular parties all failed so badly in the past.
Bradley discusses the current situation in several countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Today the US supports Saudi Arabia in their crack down on protesters in Bahrain where the US Navy has a regional home port. The proud Fifth Fleet. Bahrain, the new outpost of American post-war power, the American Ambassador in Manama declared just after the first Gulf War. The US supported President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen until he was recently forced into exile in Saudi Arabia. Elements supported by al-Qaeda are said to operate widely.
The Libyan operation was badly bungled by NATO, in the author’s view. Libya is now split along tribal lines and will only be reunited under the leadership of a tribal council. The West did not know who they dealing with in the war. The Eastern rebels included Islamist extremists, including some of al-Qaeda. The revolution there was complex, but had nothing to do with establishing western democratic principles. Religious and tribal animosity were the main driving factors. The jihadists wanted to take revenge on Moamar Gaddafi. The NATO tactics resulted in large numbers of civilians being killed and much of the infrastructure was destroyed. The research group, Stratfor, knew that the uprising would not establish democracy and the huge levels of support for Gaddafi in Tripoli was downplayed by the international media. The large rallies against Western aggression were generally not covered. As the war ended, Western companies rushed to plunder the oil. The result will be a victory for the Islamists in a now fragmented country. Who cares, as long as the oil flows, the country owes, and the profit grows.
In Syria, again, there is little information as to what is really going on except that many civilians are being killed daily, inspite of the UN Observer Mission. Syria is part of the Shia Axis (Iran- Hezbollah- Syria). Syria is one of the last remaining secular countries, being ruled by the Baathist Regime of Bashir al-Assad. The Assad family, along with the Army and security forces, are Alawites, some 15 percent of the population, and they were persecuted under the Ottomans. Some 70 percent of the population is Sunni and the rest Christians. The only alternative to Assad are the fundamentalist Islamists. In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood rose against Hafez al-Assad, with many killed, and today the opposition goes as the Reform Party of Syria. The Sunnis are getting arms from Lebanon and Turkey and a slogan has arisen: “Alawis to the grave and Christians to Beirut.” Syria is supported by Iran, since they use it as a way to get weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It is believed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is involved in the fighting in Syria to defend the regime. Turkey’s former good relationship with Syria has broken down and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for Assad’s resignation. It all adds up to a dangerous situation, along with the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq, where the US invasion and occupation has put the Shias into power.
Today the entire region from the Mediterranean shores of Morocco to the Indian border are being increasingly redicalized and Islamized. Islamist forces and parties are having a hay day in using the emerging political openings to take political power. Looking into the inroads and strategy of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey would be instructive. Instead, the Western press, including liberals and leftists are largely dreaming about the emerging of pluralist democracy in the region. In the same way that the European Union and the West was fooled by Turkey’s so-called “Islamic Democrats” the West is likely to experience a rude wake-up call when they realize that the revolution which they imagined has indeed been hijacked by the Islamists.
Over the long haul of history, of course, it is still too early to tell the future. It is clear that since the first Islamist revolution in Iran, the rise of reactionary religious parties and communalist parties have been on a historical roll and this continues today. Whether they can deliver the goods and rule in a way that the people will accept over the long haul of history no one can know. So far, the record of political Islam is not great. Religion is not likely to carry them much farther than crabbed communist ideology carried the now collapsed leftist regimes in the past. These historical forces are not being borne up by piety but rather by the thirst of the people, not only for freedom, but for jobs, peace, bread and a better way of life. In the long run, thats where the rubber hits the road.