Rushing to an Arab Spring Judgment

The Western media likes its stories neat and tidy, enough time for correspondents to parachute in, do some stand-up reports and depart as quickly as the public’s attention span shifts. But a true understanding of events as complex as the Arab Spring may take years or decades to develop, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Lately there has been a lot of Western disillusionment with the Arab Spring. The cover of the current issue of The Economist poses the question, “Has the Arab Spring failed?” The usually insightful Patrick Cockburn starts a recent commentary with even stronger wording: “Has the Arab spring turned into a complete debacle?”

The sources within the Middle East of such dismay are numerous, but it is not hard to see the main triggers for these questions to be asked at this time. The course of the Syrian war, in terms of both bloodiness and setbacks to the rebels, is one. The military coup and surge of unrest in Egypt constitute another.

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose ouster was regarded as an important victory for the Arab Spring.

There is plenty of analysis yet to be done, on events in the Middle East yet to unfold, that can take the form of a balance sheet on the Arab Spring. But the fact that observers in the West are coming close to writing requiems on the Arab Spring also says some things about our own habits in looking at, and thinking about, this set of regional upheavals.

We tend to impose a short time frame on those events — too short to understand their significance fully. We like revolts and revolutions to be short and snappy. This is partly a matter of limited attention span and partly a yearning to wrap up a story and feel we understand its conclusion, without the bother of having to follow it and to keep reinterpreting it for years and years.

Of course, some of the Arab Spring events really have moved fast. But that is different from the time it takes to see all of the effects and implications. The Economist‘s Max Rodenbeck, in the feature article in the same issue, correctly notes that revolutionary upheavals sometimes take not just years but decades for all of the reverberations to be felt, and this might prove to be the case with the Arab revolts as well.

Apparently unsuccessful attempts at political change may loosen things up for more successful and long-lasting change to take root later. We have imputed too much uniformity to the revolts in Arab countries.

The use of the singular term “Arab Spring” misleadingly blurs the differences between what are very different situations in different Arab countries. There certainly has been a contagion effect; it otherwise would be too much of a coincidence for this many revolts to break out in a single region within this short a span of time.

But each country presents a different assortment of things that can go wrong. With many different things that can go wrong, many different things have gone wrong. This probably has contributed to the perception that the whole phenomenon is a failure if not a debacle.

We in the West naturally tend to use as a reference point past region-wide upheaval that is closer, physically and otherwise, to our own regions and own experience. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s is probably the most influential such reference point, whether or not it is referred to specifically as such.

The critical differences between that change and what is going on in Arab countries gets overlooked too often — especially the fact that Eastern Europe had a political culture that was largely shared with the Western half of the continent and that included past experiences with liberalism and democracy. There never was good reason to expect a comparably smooth and quick transition in the Middle East.

The very fact that we ask questions about whether the Arab Spring is a failure assumes that there are identifiable standards for success and failure in such things and that those standards are ones that make sense to us. The prime standard applied seems to be democracy. And clearly many people in Arab countries favor something that they call democracy. Exactly what they mean by that term is a different question.

What is meant varies from Arab to Arab, and what most Arabs mean by it is not necessarily what most Westerners mean by it. Moreover, standards of success and failure for Middle Easterners are likely to involve other values besides democracy. The most important values for many Arabs are not necessarily either democracy per se or the liberalism that most Westerns cherish. We have seen evidence of this in the most recent events in Egypt.

We certainly are entitled to ask — indeed, should ask — whether the events in the region are good or bad from the standpoint of our own interests and objectives, regardless of how differently people within the region may assess what is good or bad. But we are apt to disagree among ourselves on what those interests and objectives are. Even if we could agree, it is again far too early to compile a final balance sheet.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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One comment on “Rushing to an Arab Spring Judgment

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    What puzzles me is that anyone even takes seriously the notion of an “Arab Spring” in the first place. Many years ago, I fell asleep with the television on, then awakened in the middle of the night. In a puzzled, half-dreaming state, I was confronted by a late-night broadcast of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers”. For a moment, before my befuddlement gave way to horror, then incredulity, and finally a dawning awareness that this was a spoof, I thought I had descended into some kind of bizarre dystopian twilight zone. Happy times for the Third Reich! Stirring strains of, “It’s springtime- For Hitler- And Germany!”

    Anthropologists have mused that it is easier to change the genetic make-up of a population than its culture. Outsiders may be absorbed and contribute to the gene pool, but they will likely embrace more of the local culture than they contribute from their own…except for material culture. New weapons technology, better guns, more powerful bombs, etc., always seem to be readily accepted.

    Japan readily accepted democracy. They had been a racist, xenophobic hierarchical society with their own “untouchables” at the bottom of the heap and the emperor at the top. After being bombed and starved into a zombie-like state of total submission, they succumbed, cooperated, accepted aid, guidance and financial support. Today, they boast a democratic government and a society characterized by xenophobia, racism and untouchables. The Mikado (Emperor) of Japan today is Akihito, who took over from his defeated father Hirohito in 1989.

    In Germany, the situation was a little different. The Weimar Constitution between the First and Second World Wars was arguably the most democratic document of its kind that has ever existed. Descent into the chaos of economic collapse, years of poverty, unemployment and despair finally paved the way for a despotic Pied Piper and his psychopathic myrmidons. “Spring” came a little early in 1938, but people in the streets of Austria still found flowers to greet them. Despite being perhaps the best educated, most literate, technologically advanced and culturally prodigious society that had existed until 1933, democracy still didn’t come easy. They had to be bombed into oblivion after only twelve years of alternative politics.

    The Arab world, contrary to George Bush’s misstatement, named the stars. They gave the world mathematics, astronomy, modern concepts of medicine and anatomy, library science, poetry, navigation skills, and a host of other advancements, all of which abruptly stopped with the imposition of Islam at the point of a sword. Algebra became the “work of the devil”, and science became a “tool of the infidel”…unless it provided new weapons, which was then strangely acceptable.

    A ‘culture’ is akin to the software with which human populations process their collective informational data. If that software is flawed, or entirely perverted, the results are irrational behaviors leading to war, pestilence and disaster. Judaeo-Christian software isn’t much better, but remains functional in the modern world because it hasn’t entirely disavowed science. Our right-wing loonies are working on that. We don’t have the KKK anymore…or did they just stop wearing the uniforms? Sorry, but based on the most reliable cultural indicators, the “Arab Spring” is a myth. And our own freedoms seem perilously more fragile.