Home Five Lessons from Egypt and the Arab Spring
Home Five Lessons from Egypt and the Arab Spring

Five Lessons from Egypt and the Arab Spring

1. Don't Believe Anything You Hear

Egyptian liberals allied with the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow Mubarak and challenge the military. In those heady Tahrir Square days, they ridiculed the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood was part of the protests and that Mubarak's overthrow would benefit it.

Now those same liberals have teamed up with the military to take down a Muslim Brotherhood government that they told us would never come to power. But don't be surprised if a year from now, after the military develops too crushing a grip on power, they don't run back to the Muslim Brotherhood and Tahrir Square repeats itself a third time with the banners and fireworks and chants about the will of the people.

And when it does happen, neither the liberals nor the Muslim Brotherhood will ever remember the time when they were deadly enemies. Instead they will pretend it never happened, the way that Egyptian liberals once pretended that the Muslim Brotherhood wasn't part of the protests.

Middle Eastern politics is reality-selective, it's conspiratorial and it's based around shaky alliances between mortal enemies that are constantly falling apart.

The chaos in Egypt would have been entirely predictable by imagining Lebanese-style democracy transplanted to Egypt. And that is roughly what happened. And it's why everything you hear coming out of Egypt is meaningless. Egyptian politics is completely cynical and completely unaware of its own cynicism. Everyone manufactures their own propaganda and conspiracy theories.

It's why you shouldn't believe anything you hear. The messages from the region are as worthless as the cheerful prognostications about waves of reform from Western media men who know little of the Middle East beyond its waiters and airports. Not only does no one there mean what they say, but they don't even know that they don't mean it.

The same liberals holding up signs denouncing Obama for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and cheering the military will be back in Tahrir Square a year from now denouncing Obama for supporting the military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. It's not that they're consistently inconsistent, it's that there are no standards.

Middle Eastern politics is about doing whatever is necessary to achieve short term victories. That's why the Muslim Brotherhood has done so well; it's one of the few factions to practice long term thinking. Everyone else just thinks as far as winning the next battle, getting to power and then letting the unambiguous genius of their vision and the adoration of the people carry them to their destiny.

And then it all falls apart. Again.

2.  It's Not Democracy, It's Permanent Chaos

Democracy in the Middle East is just another means of political change. It's not any different than mob action, a coup or an invasion. It's just a way that one government replaces another.

Beyond all the obvious critiques of exporting democracy, the voting booth depends on a sense of law and order. It carries very little weight in lawless societies. In Egypt, mass protests really are as legitimate a means of political change as the ballot box. Probably better. It's harder to rig rallies of millions of people than it is to fake millions of votes.

The New York Times and Washington Post scribblers insisted on pretending that the Arab Spring was moving somewhere. But the only place it was moving was to Islamist rule. And Islamist rule is not immune from the same petty squabbling, corruption and factionalism that plagues every other setup.

Structural change of the kind that they envision just isn't coming. It's not part of the system.

The Arab Spring represented political chaos in a lawless society, not social change or cultural enlightenment. Pundits and columnists fell to scribbling nonsense about the transformation of the region because they didn't understand that simple fact. They made the same mistake that Americans have been making with democracy promotion all along. Culture and society don't follow political systems. It's the other way around. Politics grows out of a culture and a society. Even tyranny. Or perhaps, especially tyranny.

Whoever runs Egypt will still leave it a corrupt place where family connections matter more than merit, where the poor struggle to get by, where everyone resents everyone else, where political alliances fall apart in the blink of an eye and everyone waits around for a tyrant to take matters into his hands and usher in some stability.

No matter who wins, that's where democracy leads.

3. Everyone Will Always Hate America

The one thing that everyone in Egypt can agree on is that they hate America. And this time around they almost have a valid reason.

Obama did help overthrow the Mubarak government which paved the way for the current mess. But both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian liberals wanted him to do it. They were happy to have him tamper with their politics to remove Mubarak. Now the Egyptian liberals blame him for aiding Morsi, but they were the ones who opened the door.

If they had insisted that Egyptian politics should be an internal matter and rejected external calls for political change, they might have a leg to stand on. Instead they, like every faction, demand that America overthrow a leader whom they hate and then blame America for interfering in their politics.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has been the beneficiary of unprecedented American support, is also denouncing America, even though the White House and the State Department are furiously working to rush through new elections and free Brotherhood detainees.

The reason why the Muslim Brotherhood is doing this is telling.

The Muslim Brotherhood hates America. Period. Not for anything we've done. This hatred is widely shared in Egypt. It will always be widely shared in Egypt. Denouncing America is one of the safest political positions to take. It's the Egyptian equivalent of motherhood and apple pie.

The Egyptian liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two factions most likely to benefit from the fall of Mubarak, hated us all along. They hated us before we helped them overthrow Mubarak. They hate us now. They will go on hating us, whether we oppose them or help them, give them money or bomb them.

Hating us is the default setting. The Muslim Brotherhood hates us and blames us for everything even though we brought them to power. And it also hates us because hating us is politically popular in Egypt. It's so popular that it can sometimes be hard to tell whether a political faction really hates us or just pretends to hate us to become popular. But it's usually safe to assume that both are true.

4. Fanatics and Democracy Don't Mix

One of the fondest myths of democracy promotion is that bringing terrorists into the political process moderates them. It doesn't.

John Kerry headed out on yet another peace process mission is a reminder of the futility of such thinking.

Fanatics don't compromise because their goals require purity. They feint compromise only long enough to get to power. And then they turn on their former allies.

The Muslim Brotherhood's goals were obvious from its motto. "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope."

Nothing about that provides any room for compromise. It's an unambiguous list of cold standards. It doesn't conclude with political change. Instead like most fanatical creeds, its great ambition is to demonstrate its commitment to total ideological purity through the death of the fanatic.

The political process did not moderate the Nazis or the Communists. There was even less hope that it would moderate the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization whose spokesmen have a talent for pitching its message to Western audiences, but which is utterly committed to the absolute tyranny of its objectives.

5.  The Muslim World Has No New Ideas

The Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that so many Western diplomats and journalists invested their hopes in, has a lot of modern polish, but underneath is the same old message that Mohammed came roaring out of the desert to deliver.

Despite the social media and memes, the Arab Spring unrest was part of a familiar cycle that begins when empires, whether it's Rome or Great Britain, withdraw from the area leaving the local fanatics, intellectuals and military men to begin squabbling over how to put their perfect society into place.

There's no progress being made. All the new things that were injected into the process come from outside and are used to serve ancient goals. The election machine and the social media account are new tools being used to settle old scores.

And the outcome of the struggle is a reversion to the old familiar patterns of a broken society. A society with no healthy old ideas and no new ideas is doomed to reenact the same drama on new stages.

Think of a film adaptation of Shakespeare shot in 3D with avant garde sets and lots of experimental theater trimmings. Underneath all the modern trimmings is still the same old script. And that's true of the power struggles in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world. There may be skyscrapers, nuclear plants, social media feeds and a thousand other modern elements in the mix, but they are all the set design for an old script and for all the old wars.

Western experts became very excited by the innovative staging and forgot to read the script. If they had, they might have realized that it's the same old dialogue shoehorned into a new production.

The three options are still military rule, strongman or theocracy. There is no fourth option. The Arab Spring tilted the rule of strongmen and soldiers toward theocracy. That outcome was as modern as the Caliphate. Now the military has once again stepped in. Eventually there will be a strongman. Or a theocracy. Or a junta. And they will go on overthrowing each other

Everything else is only window dressing or a disguise for where the power actually goes.

Where there are no healthy ideas there can be no positive outcomes. Democracy, contrary to its enthusiastic proponents, is not a new idea. Nor are constitutional guarantees of human rights. Those are processes by which a society implements healthy ideas about sharing power or the rights of others.

Expecting societies that lack such healthy ideas to use those processes wisely is as senseless as giving a small child a power drill to play with.

The Muslim world cannot use processes from more advanced societies until it accepts the social and moral premises behind them. Elections are only a process. Their outcome, both short term and long term, depends on the society. Laws are also a process. They can either be the implementation of deeply felt beliefs or just words on paper.

The Arab Spring pretended that introducing new processes into societies that lack new ideas would fill the cultural gaps and humanize them. That plan predictably failed. Reforms don't begin with processes. They begin with moral and intellectual struggles. Only once a consensus has formed, can the process be introduced to implement that consensus.

Without new ideas, new processes are doomed to fall into the old cycles and patterns. That is how the Arab Spring became the Islamist Winter and the Army Summer.


  1. Since the Egyptians can only manage to grow half their food one wonders if any of these leaders has considered hiring Agricultural experts to try to improve agricultural production. It seems to me that until a government can fed the people they will keep failing and falling.

  2. Anonymous5/8/13

    Very interesting - spot on i think.

  3. "And the outcome of the struggle is a reversion to the old familiar patterns of a broken society. A society with no healthy old ideas and no new ideas is doomed to reenact the same drama on new stages."

    Recently, I saw an article on the fall of communism and the reuniting of East Germany with the West. For decades, East Germany was ruled by the Nazis and then by the Communists. (Can it get any worse?) Yet eventually, the Berlin Wall came down.

    I don't hold the same hope for positive change in the Islamic world because in my view, Islam consists of primitive, old, almost ancient, ideas straight, undiluted, from the Middle Ages. At least Europe experienced the Enlightenment.

    lgude - It seems to me that there is an almost mathematically direct correlation between freedom and feeding people.

    Look at the deterioration in food production in communist Russia and in many African countries as they went from their (relatively free although certainly not ideal)colonial period, at which time many exported food, to the virulent unwavering socialist/military tyrannies which followed, in which even their own people are starving.

  4. Anonymous5/8/13

    Well said Sultan!

    I agree with the Egyptians on one point. I too have come to hate this country. Leftest socialists, a dole dependent electorate and a spiraling out of control economy has sapped my love for the nation.

    I'm afraid it is going to worse.


  5. Anonymous5/8/13

    Are we celebrating the arrival of the "Arab Autumn"?

    We should for the people of Egypt. Egyptians should know by now, that liberal democracy is not for people of an Islamic bent.


  6. Anonymous6/8/13

    The best thing that could happen to Egyptians is that they would be converted from Islam to Christianity. Then they would gain some moral values.


  7. Anonymous7/8/13

    @ Promethea,

    They'd better turn atheist, Christianity is just as morally devoid as Islam.


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