Terra Incognita: The revolution wont' be democratic

There was never a second Arab Awakening as it was never bounded by ideas, not even the democratic-Islamic ones.

April 19, 2011 23:57
4 minute read.
Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square

Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square Cairo 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

There will be no great democratic revolutions in Egypt, Libya or Tunisia a year from now. What are the signs? Let’s start with the obvious. US President Barack Obama has wished the people of the Middle East a happy Passover. He claims that the story of Pessah is being relived today in the “modern stories of liberation” taking place in the Middle East: “This year, that ancient instruction is reflected in the daily headlines, as we see modern stories of social transformation and liberation unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.”

If Obama said it, there’s good reason to think it won’t happen. It isn’t because I don’t like Obama. Obama is great; a great orator, a crowd pleaser, a man who warms the hearts of many. But he tends to speak rather than do, in the apparent belief that history will record his words and forget that they were empty. Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize without doing anything peaceful. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay, and that didn’t happen (it would have been a real Pessah miracle if he had brought terrorist inmates from the American base in Cuba to trial). He talked about getting America completely out of Iraq and doing something about Bin Laden in Pakistan, and that hasn’t transpired either.

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But it isn’t just because Obama has been talking about freedom that we can be assured freedom is far away. If we go back and read the headlines about Egypt, we see that the usual good-natured, well-intentioned souls were telling us about how exciting it was to see what was happening in Tahrir square.

REMEMBER LARRY Derfner’s claim that “the incredibly brave people in Egypt inspire just about everyone in the world except us [Israelis].” Or Nicholas Kristof, of The New York Times, claiming that “a crude stereotype lingers that some people – Arabs, Chinese and Africans – are incompatible with democracy… [but] The record is that after some missteps, countries usually pull through.”

Let’s just put it mildly: those people who are inspired by the Egyptian revolution are the people I’d least trust to tell me which way the wind is blowing.

Why? Because they are so often wrong. Some of them are part of the same Michael Foucault dialectic that thought the Iranian revolution was going to produce progressive liberal democracy. Today’s Foucault – the anti-Israel University of California feminist philosopher Judith Butler – has claimed that “If the Muslim Brotherhood is elected to positions in [the Egyptian] government, and the elections are free and unconstrained, then that is a democratic outcome.”

The same progressive feminist philosopher has claimed “understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.”

If the Butlers and Foucaults are so often on the side of totalitarian religious fanaticism in the guise of democratization, then it is hard to believe that we will see democracy in the Middle East, precisely because totalitarian religious fanaticism is not conducive to democratic institutions. In fact, this is what people have missed in Indonesia, which has often been held up as an example of where the Middle East might go.

Indonesia is not a great democracy. It is a country where ethnic and religious hatreds are common. Just recently, pornography was banned – not anti-democratic in itself, but part of a larger conquest of the public square by moralizing Islamists. A 19th-century Islamic religious movement called Ahmadiyya, that has many followers, has been banned in parts of the country. Democracies, at least the good ones, generally don’t ban whole religious sects.

The New York Times has done some excellent reporting on what the masses of inspired people got wrong about Egypt. Michael Slackman documented in late March that “religion has emerged as a powerful religious force” in politics, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been “transformed into a tacit partner with the military government.”

It turns out that all those who shouted, like canaries in the mine, about the role of the Brotherhood are being vindicated.

THE LATEST actions of the military in Egypt, banning Mubarak’s political party and jailing a blogger who “insulted” the military, are not very democratic. The same is true in Libya. The Times reporter C.J Chivers noted on April 6 that Libyan rebels are “less an organized force than the martial manifestation of a popular uprising.”

Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera thinks “They are the worst army I’ve ever seen in the field, absolutely incompetent.”

How are things going in Tunisia? We don’t know. Syria? There, the nepotistic leaders are killing people, and neither Al- Jazeera nor the US State Department seem to care. Bahrain? The kingdom is on the brink of outlawing its Shia opposition, and is sending thugs house--to-house to roust them out. The failure of the revolutions in the Middle East is not the fault of all the well-wishers. It isn’t really the fault of the secular progressive youths, the rock throwers, the Islamists or the feeble boastful rebels in Libya with their bulging ammo belts. The fault lies in the fact that there was never a second Arab Awakening. It was never bounded by ideas, not even the democratic-Islamic ones that Judith Butler tells us we should embrace. Sometimes riots produce successful revolutions, witness the Boston Tea Party in 1770 or the bread riots before the French Revolution.

But rebellion without ideas is like mortar without bricks – just a bunch of grey crap.

The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.

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