The Arab Spring’s Unappreciated Progress

POLITICAL PROGRESS IN LIBYA: Mohammed el-Megarif, the President of the Libyan National Assembly, eulogizes United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens on September 20th. The Arabic on the picture reads “Thank you, Chris.” Some of the more-ignorant and reactionary among us will tell you that violent protests in the Middle East means that the Arab Spring is a front for the march of radical Islamism; those who are actually paying attention see elected leaders decrying violence and promising the United States–and their own people–that they will enforce the law. Associated Press photo by Abdel Magid al-Fergany.

I’ve heard my fill of all the very solemn prognostications about the Arab Spring.  We have to take the long view, Conservative skeptics solemnly say; implicitly the long view is that the revolutions we have witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and still in process in Yemen and Syria are just way stations towards Iranian-style Islamic Republics.  Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), in an opening volley for an embarrassingly-short presidential campaign bid last year, warned us in early 2011 that failing to support Egyptian President-for-life Hosni Mubarak would deliver that country over to the extremist enemy.  In an odd bit of McCarthyism, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) told us there were Islamist radicals in the State Department; Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) featured prominently among the few in Congress sufficiently quagmatic in their ignorance to double-down on these suspicions.  Gohmert, for his part, saw fit to warn us following mid-September riots and the Benghazi militant attack that these events marked the emergence of “a new Ottoman Empire” in the Middle East, a hysterical narrative that won fittingly-epic derision from The Colbert Report last week.

At the very least, we need not listen to admonitions about taking the political long view from people who can neither observe nor imagine much difference between a dozen countries with millions of people apiece and a single very-different country 33 years ago, namely Iran in the twilight of the Shah.  These are Muslim countries in the midst of revolution, after all; to small minds the threat they pose is exactly the same–the absence of explicit anti-Americanism or an extremist religious figure remotely approaching the importance of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran notwithstanding.

After mid-September’s violent protests against an anti-Muslim video produced by a private citizen in the United States–and the militant plot in Benghazi, Libya that occurred under their cover–some have argued (rather obtusely) that the Arab Spring has devolved into Islamist mayhem.  These people exhibit a lack of historical perspective about such events.  The “Cartoon Riots” which followed the publication of mocking images of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper exceeded the scope of these protests; early this year in Egypt soccer riots in the city of Alexandria claimed 74 lives–followed by large protests in Cairo against the lack of security provided by the Ministry of the Interior.  But no, there were some protests against a video 2 in mid-September, so now those who always looked askance at the capacity of Muslims to form a government for themselves for reasons of ideology or prejudice conclude that Egypt is about to be submerged in a new Caliphate.

Then there’s Libya.  Initial reports of a riot killing US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, another member of his diplomatic staff and 2 Americans in diplomatic security at the US consulate in Benghazi–the power base of the 2011 Libyan Revolution–brought to mind that the revolution there was in fact some kind of a brilliant cover for al-Qaeda to seize power.  Now it appears the attack on the Consulate was the premeditated work of Ansar al-Sharia, a local terrorist organization, with the assistance of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate.  The elected Libyan government tipped us off to this finding itself.

The elected Libyan government: Less than a year after the Rebels killed the brutal Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi, Libyans elected a National Assembly in July that has appointed a new President, Mohammed el-Megarif.  In spite of the still-tenuous security situation, Libyans are forging a legitimate government for themselves.  Now that elected government is voluntarily taking on the militias that haven’t agreed to incorporate into a national paramilitary force.  Mohammed el-Megarif, the President of the Libyan National Assembly, spoke at a memorial service for Ambassador Stevens on September 22nd, and Libyans themselves took to the streets in open opposition to the country’s teeming militias, regarding them as a foreign body in the new Libyan body politic.  Again, Libya remaining unlawful militias, grumbling Loyalists and large chemical weapons stockpiles all remain serious concerns, but the people seem to have their hearts in the right place, and both the interests and the sentiments of their elected politicians tend towards accountability and diplomacy.  Last but not least, the government is gradually establishing a monopoly over military force, finally initiating a you’re-with-us-or-against-us policy towards the country’s many militias.

Egypt seems to be in a scarier state of disorder, but the signs from its elected parliament and from Mohammad Morsi, its elected President, are similarly if not equally encouraging.  It’s certainly worth mentioning that Morsi was elected President on the Muslim Brotherhood’s party line; among his noteworthy political maneuvers were calling the Egyptian Parliament back into session after a questionable attempt by the country’s highest court to invalidate the recent parliamentary elections, the appointment of a generally-boring cabinet, a successful demand of some high-profile resignations from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the reversal of an earlier decision to loosen controls on the border with Gaza and the launching of a campaign against Islamist and separatist militants in the Sinai Peninsula region.  Far from the fanatical vanguard of some emerging pan-Islamic what-have-you, these measures suggest that President Morsi is a low-key nationalist and a democrat.  Islamic Conservative though he may be, the evidence suggests that he is trying to consolidate, not hijack, Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

While the Presidents of Egypt and Yemen called for restrictions on the freedom of expression that some publics find offensive, they nonetheless renounced violence in the name of their religion and implied that they were taking as liberal of a political stand on the issue as they could at the time. Governing nations trying to break free from quagmatic despotism, their renunciation of violence and expressions of even qualified sympathy for free expression on behalf of their people already give the lie to the most-pessimistic accounts of the political sentiments of their countries. Left, New York Times photo by Chang W. Lee; right, Associated Press photo by John Minchillo.

It’s true that Morsi and Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the new President of Yemen, just called for curbs on free speech at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.  This call is not likely to have much of an impact on the domestic policies of other nations, nor should it.  Salman Rushdie’s understandable concerns about a chilling effect aside, the recent and heavily-broadcast outrage of citizens of historically-unfree countries over the provocative private acts of citizens in free countries has not reduced the pace of such provocations; it seems to have increased it.  Modern technology has made the adjudication of what counts as impermissably-offensive speech and whom is answerable for it under which jurisdiction a problem of almost irreducible complexity.  But leaders like Morsi and Hadi are doing in this case is communicating the position of a broadly-held sentiment within their societies.  I am not saying this out of some cultural relativism but to excuse the leaders of those new governments–whatever their motives may be–the moment’s political caution.  Defense of free speech at home and abroad, oddly, may be both the more-principled stand to take and the only politically-practical position in the long run…but for now the only political tack towards this event that will build legitimacy for the new governments of Egypt and Yemen is to plead “cultural sensitivity” towards their own publics.

Even the reason why this is so indicates why democratic government should be strongly-preferable for their societies today.  With the anti-Muslim video recently produced by an Egyptian-American, as with offensive drawings of the Prophet Mohammed published by a private Danish newspaper, protesters in Muslim countries have interpreted images that offend their sensibilities as the policy of governments.  Their demand that the offending expression be outlawed reflects their experience with an oppression even deeper than outlawed forms of speech: Many of those in the Middle East who protested the offending art actually think that these provocations were the product of the governments in question themselves–or at least that they received government pre-approval.  This naive assumption is a vestige of the dictatorship which is the only form of government most of these societies have ever known.  While he railed against what he called “hateful speech,” President Morsi–the political leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s 1st truly elected President–denounced the violence committed in the name of his religion, and offered a qualified defense of “freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.”  While this position is too compromised in principle for those of full Liberal sentiment, it represents as great of an acknowledgment of our fuller freedom of expression as Morsi had the political space to give.  In context, it is unprecedented.

In Tunisia the elected moderate-Islamist government, through Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem, apologized for damage done to the US Embassy and the American Cooperative School in the capital Tunis.  He also apologized for threats made to the US Ambassador.  He said his government would pay for any damage incurred to US Government property in the country during the riots, and reaffirmed that it was the responsibility of the host country to protect the diplomatic assets of foreign governments.

Just 2 days ago, hundreds of people went on strike out in a province in central Tunisia–not to protest the anti-Muslim video but rather a lack of economic development in the region since last year’s democratic revolution.  The protesters spoke-out against the country’s Islamist government–over bread-and-butter issues.  While the ongoing protests and lack of economic progress may be frustrating or disconcerting, the very fact that protests continue under the new government is a compelling repudiation of the suspicion that these countries’ democratic transitions have somehow been coopted by Islamist dictatorship.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly 4 days ago, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s President who himself hails from a moderate-Islamist party, warned that a small group of Salafists–he estimated a few thousand in a country of 10 million–wanted to enforce their mores through violence and were bad for business.  Salafist violence is bad for business: If this sort of Islamist becomes president of an Arab country through democratic means, we should not view this with suspicion but with relief–and encouragement.

It’s equally encouraging that, during his address at the United Nations General Assembly, President Marzouki said that “dictatorship is a disease.”

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One thought on “The Arab Spring’s Unappreciated Progress

  1. Pingback: Live-Blogging 2012 Presidential Debate #1: In Denver, with Jim Lehrer | The Liberal Ironist

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