On the Arab Spring, post-Islamism and other forms of wishful thinking

The descent of Syria into what looks more and more like a regional religious war between Shiites and Sunnis (comparable in some respects to the Thirty Years’ War in early modern Europe) and the military coup (How do you want to call it?) against the first democratically elected president of post-revolutionary Egypt may be interpreted by future historians as the end of the historical phase inaugurated by the Arab revolutions. These fateful developments invite us to revisit the narrative regarding the Arab Spring in a more sober manner and to reconsider some common assumptions about it.

“The Arab Spring was a democratic revolution”: There is little doubt that all revolutions are messy and stabilization takes decades. It can be argued for instance that it took France a century (until the fall of Mac Mahon) to reach a collective (and only relative) political consensus regarding the shape of its institutions. Yet, the rosy narrative of a democratic wave sweeping through the Middle-East, the prospect of seeing the Middle East catching up with western democracies seem more and more like wishful-thinking. The consensus (if ever there was one) was on collective discontent with the state of things, not on values. The idea of a somehow necessary progress of human freedom through history is a vestige of an Hegelian mythology that only distorts our understanding of contemporary events.

“Social Media promote liberal democracies”: Social Media (the famous so-called “Twitter-revolution”) seem to have favored more than anything else the rise of a generation of revolutionaries without real political program. Old power structures in the region (and across the globe) appear more and more vulnerable to these forces coming from a largely mythical global civil society. But the degree to which these global activists are representative of the larger society is at best doubtful (see the recent unrest in Turkey). The new strategies of collective disobedience seem to be inspired by an anarchistic imaginary, by nature unable to translate into a stable order. In this perspective, the difference between the (good) global activists and the (bad) jihadists may have been largely overstated. The two find their inspiration in the same unruly and romantic individualism that soon or later leaves the room for authoritarianism, be it secular or theocratic.

“The Arab Spring was part of an American, Israeli, Qatari (whatever you want) conspiracy”: Conspiracy theories, which have multiplied with the first disillusions regarding the Arab Spring, seem also less and less credible. The truth is that nobody is still in charge. Western powers in particular have lost most of their influence in the region and are mostly spectators rather than actors. There is in fact a foreign intervention in Syria … by Iran-backed Hezbollah. This decline of western influence can be traced back to the Iraq War. It seems also that the Obama administration has come to the realistic conclusion that the US can do little to channel the new political forces and prefers to retreat into a form of isolationism. I am not sure he should be blamed for this. A painful lesson from the Libyan war is that Western powers shall be deemed responsible for whatever evil comes out of a revolution they did not initiate but in which they intervened. The same who were stigmatizing Gaddafi as a tyrant massacring its own people, started to praise him as an anticolonial hero once his fate was sealed by the NATO bombings. Not to deny the share of historical responsibility of Western powers in the tragedies of the region but anti-imperialism should not be an excuse for collective schizophrenia, political incompetence and blatant hypocrisy.

“Islamists are becoming good democrats”: It was believed that the beginning of the Arab Spring created the opportunities for a Hegelian reconciliation between the discourse of religion and the discourse of freedom in the region. The apparent failure of the Muslim Brothers, the larger historical force representing political Islam in the region, and the revival of Jihadism (Mali, Syria and tomorrow Egypt) call into question the post-islamist hypothesis. The scenario of a conversion to democracy of local Islamist parties seems less and less reflecting the actual course of events. A few months ago the AKP was the model to follow but the recent unrest in Turkey even casts a shadow on the success of Turkish Islamo-conservatives. It is not Hegel who is winning but rather Carl Schmitt …

“Iran is the biggest threat to regional peace”: The US strategy in the region since the 2003 Iraq war has been to contain Iran at any cost, leaving even open the option of a military intervention to destroy its nuclear program. It cannot be denied however that in the regional context Iran, with its strong tradition of centralized State, appears more and more like a pole of stability in the midst of weak or rapidly disintegrating States (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in the West, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East). In the light of these geopolitical realities, Western powers should reconsider their posture toward Iran and opt for a more balance approach to the Sunnite/Shiite conflict in progress. As unpleasant as it may sound, Iran could play the role of a barrier against regional chaos and it is most certainly a key to any political solution in Syria.

Maybe I should leave the final word to an old reactionary though wise man, one immune to revolutionary enthusiasm: “The more one examines the apparently more active personalities of the Revolution, the more one finds something passive and mechanical about them. It cannot be too often repeated that men do not at all guide the Revolution; it is the Revolution that uses men. It is well said that it has its own impetus. This phrase shows that never has the Divinity revealed itself so clearly in any human event. If it employs the most vile instruments, it is to regenerate by punishment.” (Joseph de Maistre)

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