The Pillars of Arab Despotism

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Reuters
A militant Islamist fighter during a parade to celebrate the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, Raqqa province, Syria, June 30, 2014

Not long ago, I spent an afternoon in a half-empty Cairo café with Ziad el-Elaimy, a left-wing Egyptian lawyer and one of the core group of young activists who helped plan the protests that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Elaimy was injured by regime thugs in Tahrir Square, and went on to win a seat during the parliamentary elections later that year. He is a remarkable man: insightful, brave, and funny, free of the strident narcissism that afflicts so many self-appointed revolutionaries.

When I asked how he felt about Egypt’s relapse into repression and violence over the past year, he told me that the Egyptian Revolution had begun long before 2011, and would continue long after. He and his friends, he said, had begun imagining a different Arab world a decade ago. They were more aware of the outside world than their parents had been, and less tolerant of the Arab world’s paternalist taboos. “We Arabs grow up with this idea of the Big Man, in religion, in politics, but I think this pattern is now breaking,” Elaimy told me. “We don’t want any more Big Men to tell us what to think. My generation was lucky: we had the Internet, and this helped us discover that the world is bigger than us. That we are not the best, but we must try to be the best. The Revolution was our effort to start that.”

It was inspiring to hear those words, especially from a man who has repeatedly risked his life to defend his democratic principles. But it was painful to be reminded of how much had changed since our first meeting in January 2011. Elaimy and his friends, who were held up for a brief moment as the leaders of a new and more enlightened Arab world, now seem more like outliers. Egypt is once again jailing dissidents, under a new regime—led by the former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—that is in some respects more repressive than Mubarak’s. Beyond Egypt’s borders, sectarian hatred is on the rise, and bloody conflicts rage in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and the Gaza Strip. Young people may have made the revolutions of 2011, but they also played a large part in the violence and mayhem that followed. The images of Arab protesters peacefully calling for their rights have faded, and been supplanted by video clips that suggest a wholly different reality: teenage Arab jihadis holding AK-47s and shooting blindfolded prisoners, or burning their passports and declaring allegiance to an “Islamic State” that now lays claim to vast areas of Iraq and Syria.

Was the flowering of liberal Arab youth an illusion? Juan Cole, a prominent liberal blogger and scholar of the Middle East, thinks not. In The New Arabs, he argues that the upheavals of 2011 were the product of a new generation of activists that has already wrought deep social changes, and is likely—eventually—to reshape much of the Middle East in its own image: more democratic, more tolerant, and more secular. This perspective may look defiantly optimistic at present. But Middle Eastern politics are notoriously mercurial. Taking a longer view is wise, assuming one knows which way to look.

The Western preoccupation with Arab youth arose well before 2011, largely because of their numbers. The millennials—Cole defines them as those born between 1977 and 2000—now make up most of the Arab world, where in some countries the median age is twenty-four. Before the uprisings this youth bulge had been seen as a looming cloud of unemployment and anarchy. But the millennials are also more literate and more connected, to one another and to the outside world, than their predecessors. In 1980 about half of Arabs could read and write. By the year 2000 that number had risen to 61.5 percent, and among people fifteen to twenty-four, it was about 80 percent. In the past few years, cell phone and Internet use has risen dramatically among young people. In the year 2010 alone, the number of Arab Facebook users rose from 11.9 million to 21.3 million, according to one study.

Cole describes a dedicated and influential group of Internet activists who came of age in the early years of this century in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya (his book excludes other Arab countries where uprisings took place, conceding that young people had less impact there). Focusing especially on the Internet’s liberating effect, he traces figures like Lina Ben Mhenni and Sami Ben Gharbia in Tunisia, and Wael Abbas, Shahinaz Abdel Salam, and Amr Ezzat in Egypt. These young activists were less ideologically inclined than their elders, more willing to work with Islamists, and eager to form links with labor. Ahmed Maher, the charismatic and principled cofounder of Egypt’s April 6 movement, appears frequently throughout Cole’s book, as a kind of model figure of the “revolutionary youth” who helped focus the discontents that produced the 2011 uprisings.

Cole may be right that these people will continue to press for democratization, and that “as the millennials enter their thirties and forties, they will have a better opportunity to shape politics directly, so that we could well see an echo effect of the 2011 upheavals in future decades.” The memory of 2011, and the glimpse of unity and civility it offered, can never be taken away, and surely it will inspire many young (and old) people in years to come. One line of thinking, often heard among liberal revolutionaries, holds that the current chaos across the Middle East is the result of a doomed, desperate ploy by the various Arab anciens régimes to cling to power and forestall the inevitable triumph of a new order. Like many others, Cole invokes a parallel with the European revolutions of 1848, suggesting that something like France’s relatively liberal Third Republic, established in 1870, is around the corner for the Arab world.

Perhaps. But the educated young Arab liberals who make these arguments are anything but representative figures, even within their own age group. A number of polls have suggested that the attitudes of young people in the Middle East largely echo those of their elders. For all the slogans about “revolutionary youth” and the generational divide, some Arab academics argue that economic class is a far more potent indicator of attitudes than age.

This was the sad secret in Tahrir Square: it was the middle-class kids who were chanting for civic rights. The poor—young or old—were more likely to be there because they wanted bread. And while there is no direct relationship between poverty and religious radicalism, the fact that economies are shrinking (and many schools have been forced to close) amid the Arab world’s post-revolutionary mayhem does not bode well for the liberal project there.

Even among those who helped foment the 2011 protests, Cole paints a somewhat idealized picture. “Something like Scandinavian social democracy seems to have been the common ideology of the youth revolutionaries,” he writes, with a bit of Nordic mist in his eyes. The Islamists, most of them also young, were essential to the protests in Cairo and elsewhere, though it is true that they did not lead the way. Without the Muslim Brotherhood’s numbers, organizational skills, and bravery in the face of violence, the protests in Egypt might never have succeeded in ousting Mubarak. Cole clearly sympathizes with the secular youth who tried to reassert their “revolutionary legitimacy” against the Islamists in 2012 and 2013. But it is easy to forget that the Islamists had an electoral mandate and were understandably impatient with young liberal protesters who—with few credentials, little experience, and no real social base—arrogantly insisted that they knew what was best for the country.

Cole is also a bit too quick to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the turmoil that led to last summer’s military coup in Cairo, and he underplays the massacres of Islamist protesters that followed. In one important oversight, he criticizes the Islamist former president, Mohamed Morsi, for releasing dozens of former Islamist militants from prison, failing to note that the military council that preceded Morsi released more than eight hundred. Cole suggests that, in the period after Morsi’s election, the youth—and much of Egypt—revolted against the Brotherhood’s religious conservatism and helped forestall a descent into Iran-style theocracy. He seems to see this episode, despite its regrettable violence and the subsequent reimposition of military tyranny, as a sign that Egypt is moving toward a more secular future.

This hoped-for evolution elides an essential fact. Morsi’s Islamist agenda was not the main reason for his downfall. As Shadi Hamid writes in his excellent study Temptations of Power, the Brotherhood came under attack in 2012 and 2013 largely because of “the group’s secretive decision-making process, its tendency to put organizational self-interest above nearly everything else, and the authoritarian tendencies of President Morsi.” The Egyptian public has long favored by wide margins the idea of Islamic government in some form. Hamid cites a Pew survey conducted in March and April 2012 in which Egyptians said that they preferred the “model of religion in government” of Saudi Arabia to that of Turkey by 61 to 17 percent. These numbers may well have changed somewhat during and after Morsi’s catastrophic presidency. But the Islamist trend is much deeper than the Brotherhood or any other single group; its obituary cannot be written yet, no matter what the latest polls say. New Islamist forces will surely emerge, and they will inevitably clash with secular authoritarians.

The broader point is this: the educated youth who kicked off the revolutions of 2011 are not necessarily the vanguard of a new and more secular Middle East. They are one party in a bitter conflict over fundamental issues of identity and social order, a conflict whose outcome is far from certain. I have met many young Arabs who share Ziad el-Elaimy’s views, but I have also met plenty of others over the past three years who remain deeply loyal to Bashar al-Assad and his regime in Damascus, or to Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, or to Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran. Many of the young Gulf Arabs I know view the uprisings of 2011 with horror, and have become more convinced in their belief that the region is not ready for democracy anytime soon. Many of them are also just as passionately sectarian as their parents.

It is often said that the recent flaring of sectarian anger is a largely artificial product, deliberately stirred by Syria’s Assad and other cynical rulers who need to justify the mailed fists that protect their thrones. It would certainly be wrong, as in Bosnia, to dismiss the region as a bubbling vat of “ancient hatreds” that admits of no modern remedy. But after three years of mayhem, this distinction has become somewhat academic. The rulers who helped waken the sectarian genie (with a big assist from the United States in 2003) have enough oil and weaponry to keep it going for a long, long time. Iran and Saudi Arabia have become the poles of a region-wide rivalry that reinforces all the patterns—political, religious, and economic—that the liberal protesters in Tahrir Square hoped to overturn.

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Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi aboard the guided missile cruiser Moskva, Sochi, Russia, August 2014

To some extent, Iran’s effective suppression of its own short-lived Green Revolution movement in mid-2009 may prove something of a parallel in miniature for the events of the past three years in the Arab world. Change may come in Iran, but that brief explosion of liberal hope—with a similar trumpeting of youth’s secularizing role—has been replaced by a much more guarded, dour view of the future.

The secular youth movements of 2011 seemed so powerful and prophetic largely because they managed, briefly, to unify their efforts with those of Islamists and labor movements: a synthesis made possible by the catastrophic misrule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and Mubarak, among others. (Several young people in Tahrir Square in 2011 told me earnestly that they were grateful to Mubarak for causing them to reconcile with their ideological rivals.) The fissures reappeared soon afterward. But many remained optimistic because of a belief—more widespread in the West than among Arabs—that attaining power would necessarily moderate political Islamists, reining in their ambitions to impose sharia. What came to be known as the “pothole theory” was famously articulated a decade ago by George W. Bush, among others: being responsible to constituents makes you focus less on ideology than on day-to-day governance.

This hopeful doctrine, Hamid argues, is largely refuted by the experience of recent years. Islamist parties in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia grew more moderate over the past two decades during a period of renewed government repression, not democracy. “There was never any reason to believe that this process of moderation would continue indefinitely under an entirely different set of circumstances,” Hamid writes. “Some Islamist parties, such as in Tunisia, are more willing to come to terms with liberal democracy than others. But all Islamist parties, by definition, are at least somewhat illiberal.”

In fact, Islamist parties were pushed toward more conservative positions during the democratic opening that followed the fall of Mubarak and of Ben Ali in Tunisia, mainly because of the need to distinguish themselves from their rivals. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood faced strong competition on its right flank from the newly unleashed and arch-conservative Salafi parties. And while many Brotherhood figures—notably the parliamentarian Mohamed Beltagy—argued for loyalty to the partnership with liberals forged in Tahrir Square, others demanded a rightward move.

This competitive pressure also led the Brotherhood to its most catastrophic mistake: the decision to run a presidential candidate in the 2012 elections. The Brotherhood’s leaders had long adhered to a gradualist approach, warning that any move toward a dominant political position would unify their enemies and bring about a repeat of the disaster of 1954, in which Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president, banned the group and drove it underground. But in 2012, faced with the possibility of a more conservative Salafist presidential candidate taking the helm and wresting control of the Islamist project, the group’s older leaders won a narrow internal vote in favor of nominating a candidate. It took little more than a year for the old fears of the Brotherhood to be realized.

In Tunisia, Islamists have behaved with more restraint. In part, as Cole argues, this was because they faced formidable rivals, including an energized secular youth movement that successfully made alliances with parts of the country’s powerful trade unions. Much credit is also due to the seventy-three-year-old Rachad Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Renaissance Party, a far more open and conciliatory figure than many of the country’s younger Islamists. When liberals and labor groups protested in large numbers after the assassinations of two revered leftist politicians in 2013, Ghannouchi counseled compromise.

But the Renaissance Party’s subsequent agreement to step down in favor of a cabinet of technocrats, and its approval of a new national constitution early this year, are not quite the deliverance many have taken these developments for. Ghannouchi and his followers are not so much moderate as they are patient. Decades of secularism in Tunisia have forced Islamists there to take a long view, but their avowals of belief in popular sovereignty conceal a deep belief in the need to Islamize Tunisian society until it is ready for their vision. Tunisian liberals know this, and it feeds their own anger. As Hamid writes, even if the Renaissance Party “did all the right things, it wouldn’t be enough: the problem wasn’t just a matter of politics but of irreconcilable worldviews.” It is too early to declare a happy ending in Tunis.

On the other end of the spectrum, ISIS has captured the world’s attention with a bold new take on the relationship between ideology and governance. Although better known for its gruesome beheadings, the group often advertises its ambitious administrative efforts—including improved electricity, water, and policing—in Raqqa, the Syrian city it now calls the capital of its reestablished caliphate. This investment in institutions marks a striking shift in jihadi strategy, and appears to be rooted in a tract published online in 2004 under the title “Management of Savagery,” by the ideologue Abu Bakr Naji. ISIS now recruits young Arabs online with a curious new blend of messages: you can die in a blaze of glory, and you can live a pleasant life in a well-managed Islamic state (though looming US air strikes on the group’s Syrian bases could make some recruits think twice).

In the rest of the Middle East, the Arab millennials are more divided than ever. Ahmed Maher, the activist Cole admires so much, has taken a principled stand against both the Brotherhood and the new military-led regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and he is now in prison as a result. But his is a lonely voice. Many other secular youth openly supported the violent dispersal of the Brotherhood sit-in that left at least 638 dead in Cairo a year ago. Libyan youth form the foot soldiers in that country’s archipelago of contesting militias. Liberals survive, but they are not necessarily young; many of the prominent figures who opposed the Libyan militias—including some who were murdered for their brave stand—were older people who came of age long before the millennials.

Many younger members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and allied Islamist movements have tried over the past year to push the movement to learn from its mistakes, and to adopt a more open, less rigid approach to politics. This has not been easy, since the group’s top leadership remains in prison, many of them facing death sentences. Those who escaped, mostly living in Doha and Istanbul, have released internal memorandums acknowledging that they should have paid more attention to their younger members, who tended to argue for greater concessions to liberals and a joint effort to dismantle the remnants of the Mubarak regime. Some of these younger figures have begun trying to reconstruct a common ground with more liberal and secular forces, mostly outside of Egypt. They have had no real success thus far.

For the moment, the Brotherhood is still controlled by rigid elderly men who insist that Morsi remains Egypt’s president, that no compromise is possible with “the coup regime” in Cairo, and that the Brotherhood cannot admit any mistakes of its own until its rights are restored. Many of the group’s younger members, deeply frustrated, have told me in recent months that this kind of rigid talk alienates potential allies, and that they dream of taking over and leading the group in a more “revolutionary” direction. But these younger Islamists now confront the dilemma identified by Hamid: the more flexible they become, the more they lose touch with the religious roots of their movement and the sources of its street appeal (not to mention the financial backing of some of its conservative Gulf-based donors, who do not like “revolutionary” talk).

At some point, the principle of popular sovereignty is bound to collide with the belief in divine guidance. The Egyptian Brotherhood and its sister movements, such as Tunisia’s Renaissance Party and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, have spent years insisting to outsiders that their belief in democracy is fundamental, that they could never impose sharia principles on society unless the people demanded it. But this was always something of a ruse; hiding behind their proclamations of majoritarianism was a conviction that the people would demand such principles. If not, why bother with politics in the first place? The Brotherhood, after all, originated as a grassroots effort to Islamize society, and has never had a very consistent or focused political and economic program.

It is possible that the Sisi government’s campaign against the Brotherhood will succeed, at least in a narrow sense. Driven underground, with its members divided between a rigid old guard and an impotent younger generation, with many in prison, the Brotherhood could slowly fade away. Or so I was told in June by Ahmed Nashar, a young Islamist who worked for Morsi during his year in power and now lives in Istanbul. “Many youth groups are talking about a revolution inside the Brotherhood,” Nashar said. “But at the same time, they haven’t found a clear alternative. I think this is the most difficult situation the Muslim Brotherhood has ever faced. The leaders are in prison, and at the same time, there is a serious internal challenge to the mindset that always ran the organization.”

Even the rise of ISIS as a radical alternative, which might seem at first to vindicate the Brotherhood’s relative moderation, has mostly underscored its weakness. Although the Brotherhood’s leaders have openly denounced ISIS’s barbarism, they are—to some extent—competing for the same public, and their comments often hint at a tacit continuum of Islamist sentiment. This has only encouraged some in the Sisi camp to lump all Islamists together, and may even help some angry moderates drift toward a jihadist mindset.

So far, the Brotherhood faithful are showing remarkable patience, and scarcely any seem to have endorsed violent retaliation, even among those who lost relatives in last summer’s massacres. There has been a low-level campaign of subversion in Egypt during the past year, so far mostly aimed at burning police cars, with quiet encouragement from some in the Brotherhood. That could accelerate, especially as the gap widens between an absent leadership and a discontented base.

Meanwhile, from Yemen to the Levant to Libya, states are weak and insurgent groups of all kinds are on the march. Unemployed Arab millennials are easily used as cannon fodder in this chaotic drama, vulnerable to appeals based on sectarian rancor, separatism, or even anarchy.

The dramatic jihadi conquest of northern and western Iraq in June, made possible by the support of less radical but equally angry Iraqi Sunnis, has only fueled the eagerness of many young people to take part in the Caliphate that was declared soon after. ISIS may not pose a direct threat to anyone outside of Syria or Iraq at the moment. But eventually, many of its fighters, and those in similar groups, are likely to make their way homeward, including large contingents of Tunisians and Egyptians. They will be fearless and well trained, and, being young, they will have many years ahead of them.