WASHINGTON – Post-revolutionary Libya appears to have elected a relatively
moderate pro-Western government.
Good news, but tentative because Libya
is less a country than an oil well with a long beach and myriad tribes. Popular
allegiance to a central national authority is weak. Even if the government of
Mahmoud Jibril is able to rein in the militias and establish a functioning
democracy, it will be the Arab Spring exception. Consider: Tunisia and Morocco,
the most Westernized of all Arab countries, elected Islamist governments.
Moderate, to be sure, but Islamist still. Egypt, the largest and most
influential, has experienced an Islamist sweep. The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t
just win the presidency. It won nearly half the seats in parliament, while more
openly radical Islamists won 25 percent. Combined, they command more than 70% of
parliament – enough to control the writing of a constitution (which is why the
generals hastily dissolved parliament).
As for Syria, if and when Bashar Assad falls, the Brotherhood will almost certainly inherit power. Jordan
could well be next. And the Brotherhood’s Palestinian wing (Hamas) already
What does this mean? That the Arab Spring is a
This is an Islamist ascendancy, likely to dominate Arab
politics for a generation.
It constitutes the third stage of modern Arab
political history. Stage I was the semicolonial-monarchic rule, dominated by
Britain and France, of the first half of the 20th century. Stage II was the Arab
nationalist era – secular, socialist, anti-colonial and anti-clerical – ushered
in by the 1952 Free Officers Revolt in Egypt.
Its vehicle was military
dictatorship and Gamal Nasser led the way. He raised the flag of pan-Arabism,
going so far as changing Egypt’s name to the United Arab Republic and merging
his country with Syria in 1958. That absurd experiment – it lasted exactly three
years – was to have been the beginning of a grand Arab unification, which, of
course, never came. Nasser also fiercely persecuted Islamists – as did his
nationalist successors, down to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and the Ba’athists, Iraqi
(Saddam Hussein) and Syrian (the Assads) – as the reactionary antithesis to Arab
But the self-styled modernism of the Arab-nationalist
dictators proved to be a dismal failure. It produced dysfunctional,
semi-socialist, bureaucratic, corrupt regimes that left the citizenry (except
where papered over by oil bounties) mired in poverty, indignity and
Hence the Arab Spring, serial uprisings that spread east from
Tunisia in early 2011. Many Westerners naïvely believed the future belonged to
the hip, secular, tweeting kids of Tahrir Square. Alas, this sliver of
Westernization was no match for the highly organized, widely supported,
politically serious Islamists who effortlessly swept them aside in national
This was not a Facebook revolution but the beginning of an
Islamist one. Amid the ruins of secular nationalist pan-Arabism, the Muslim
Brotherhood rose to solve the conundrum of Arab stagnation and marginality.
“Islam is the answer,” it preached and carried the day.
But what kind of
political Islam? On that depends the future. The moderate Turkish version or the
radical Iranian one? To be sure, Recep Erdogan’s Turkey is no paragon. The
increasingly authoritarian Erdogan has broken the military, neutered the
judiciary and persecuted the press.
There are more journalists in prison
in Turkey than in China. Nonetheless, for now, Turkey remains relatively
pro-Western (though unreliably so) and relatively democratic (compared to its
For now, the new Islamist ascendancy in Arab lands
has taken on the more benign Turkish aspect. Inherently so in Morocco and
Tunisia; by external constraint in Egypt, where the military sees itself as
guardian of the secular state, precisely as did Turkey’s military in the 80
years from Ataturk to Erdogan.
Genuinely democratic rule may yet come to
Arab lands. Radical Islam is the answer to nothing, as demonstrated by the
repression, social backwardness and civil strife of Taliban Afghanistan,
Islamist Sudan and clerical Iran.
As for moderate Islamism, if it
eventually radicalizes, it too will fail and bring on yet another future Arab
Spring where democracy might actually be the answer (as it likely would have
been in Iran had the mullahs not savagely crushed the Green Revolution). Or it
might adapt to modernity, accept the alternation of power with secularists and
thus achieve by evolution an authentic Arab- Islamic democratic
Perhaps. The only thing we can be sure of today, however, is that
Arab nationalism is dead and Islamism is its successor. This is what the Arab
Spring has wrought. The beginning of wisdom is facing that difficult
reality.Charles Krauthammer’s email address is