Egypt and the Arab Spring

Egypt Arab SpringRecently on LA Progressive I noted the paradox, not only in Egypt but in the Arab world and the greater Middle East, of illiberal democrats versus undemocratic liberals.  Here I probe the matter further.

The contemporary political order in the Arab World and the Greater Middle East (also including the non-Arab Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) is the direct or inidirect legacy of the reorganization of the region under Western hegemony after World War I.  The victorious British and French carved up the defeated Ottoman Empire, leaving only the Anatolia and Istanbul to become the Republic of Turkey.  The French received a League of Nations mandate to rule present-day Lebanon and Syria.  The British received mandates for Iraq and Palestine (the latter including present-day Jordan, Israel, and Palestine).  The British already had predominant influence in Iran and Afghanistan, and colonial control in Pakistan (as part of British India).  The British also wielded strong influence in the Arabian peninsula. The French already had colonial control in Algeria and predominant influence in Morocco.  The Italians controlled Libya.  Thus, the First World War resulted in the massive expansion of West European control in the Middle East.

While direct colonial control was the objective in a few cases (Algeria and Pakistan in particular) in most cases the Europeans chose to set up client rulers.  These were most often styled as kings (Saudi Arabia, the smaller Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Morocco), but in a few cases circumstances dictated non-monarchical arrangements (most prominently, Lebanon), or hybrid setups (the Palestine mandate).

Invariably the Europeans sought to bolster the imposed order by establishing modern armed forces destined primarily for internal policing.  Provided with a Western, modernizing education, military officers frequently found themselves in tension with both the colonial powers and with the more traditional, Islamic elements of their own societies.  They tended to view the latter as the principal obstacles to modernization.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Arab nationalist military movements overthrew the client regimes in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and expelled the French from Algeria.  They thus found themselves in positions similar to that of the Turkish military after Atatürk: authoritarian defenders of modernization against the more traditional elements of their societies.

After World War II, with decolonization and the Cold War, the United States and its European allies tended to support conservative authoritarians like the Shah of Iran and the Saudi monarchy, while the Soviets preferred nationalist dictators like Nasser in Egypt or Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  Deeply flawed democracies evolved only in the special cases of Israel and Lebanon.

As modernization proceeded, either under the nationalist military or more conservative modernizers like the Shah of Iran, significant minorities of civilians also acquired Western education and were thus exposed to Western liberal ideals.  This was particularly the case in major metropolises such as Cairo, Tehran, or Baghdad.  But among the less educated urbanites, as well as most of the rural population, traditional devotion to Islam and resistance to modernization were the rule.

In 1979, an Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran and replaced him with an Islamic Republic.  The revolutionary movement had overwhelming popular support throughout Iran, but more urban and secular Iranians (including the military) soon fell away.  The revolutionary regime is thus based on continuing support from  less educated urban sectors as well as the more traditional rural population.  Importantly, the modernizing military were systematically replaced by officers committed to the Islamist project, even while seeking technical modernization of their forces.  The result is that Iran is the only country in the region to have transcended the tension between military modernizers and Islamic traditionalists.  The latter have achieved hegemony in Iran.

During the 1980s, Islamists emerged as a powerful force throughout the Arab world, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  With a strong base among the more traditionalist sectors, they posed a mortal challenge to both nationalist and conservative modernizing regimes everywhere.  Regimes that could (like Saddam in Iraq and Mubarak in Egypt) repressed the Islamists, but their popular support remained.

With the end of the Cold War, a massive wave of democratization started in Eastern Europe, and finally arrived in the Middle East in the last few years.  Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt less than two years ago.  Qaddafi was torn to pieces by a mob in Libya.  The long-standing modernizing dictatorship in Tunisia was overthrown.  The nationalist regime in Syria is fighting for its life in a civil war.

In Egypt, the first free elections in the country’s history brought the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power with Mohammed Morsi, just a year ago.  Although metropolitan liberals were very prominent in the agitation against Mubarak, they were decisively defeated in the elections.  The Brotherhood showed that it had the rural and traditionalist masses.  And in the intervening year, they have shown that they believe in a majoritarian, authoritarian democracy with very limited minority rights.  The massive popular protests that elicited the recent coup were led by the same metropolitan liberals who brought down Mubarak.  Only this time they were not calling for democracy, but rather for a coup.

john peelerThere cannot be democracy in Egypt, or elsewhere in the Middle East, unless the Islamists are brought in, and eventually brought around to accepting that electoral victories do not confer absolute power.  To get to that point, the military must stop being a cat’s paw for liberals who haven’t figured out how to build a winning electoral coalition.

John Peeler

Friday, 5 July 2013


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Author’s conclusion: ‘There cannot be democracy in Egypt, or elsewhere in the Middle East, unless the Islamists are brought in, and eventually brought around to accepting that electoral victories do not confer absolute power. To get to that point, the military must stop being a cat’s paw for liberals who haven’t figured out how to build a winning electoral coalition.’
    Sounds cool, but raises many questions.

    Exactly how is the military now a ‘cat’s paw’ for liberals, and exactly how is it supposed to ‘stop’ being so? Affirmatively, who is supposed to do what?
    Unlike recent centuries in Christendom, in the Islamic world it remains true that the first duty of Islam is to impose its supremacy in a fusion of religion and state. The very essence of Islamism is getting absolute power to impose various practices and restrictions in the name of Islam (whatever version the given Islamist party subscribes to). It’s difficult to see how you can safely ‘bring in’ Islamists – except for those who somehow change their mind and no longer are really Islamists.

    Erdogan’s example in Turkey shows us one way in which the Islamists were naively ‘brought in’ – and then proceeded to utterly de-claw the military. His Turkish version of Islamist ‘democracy’ has a better economic cushion than did Morsi’s in Egypt, but already more reporters are jailed in Turkey than anywhere else.
    Should we really hope for more such ‘democracy’?

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