Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Dry Arab Spring and the Lost Left

Sultan Knish

All it takes to understand why the Arab Spring was doomed to turn into an Islamic Winter is that Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa were being asked to choose between a Socialist left and an Islamic right. The left has consistently lost open elections in Europe and America, it lost the battle of ideas in Russia and China, and unsurprisingly it also lost the Arab Spring.

The left wields power in the West only because it has managed to seize control of political and cultural institutions. Those institutions are used to maintain a death grip on the national dialogue, to criminalize dissent and to feed money to its supporters who are often literally paid to continue supporting it, whether in government contracts, welfare checks or organizational benefits. If the left did not have its media, its unions and its flow of supportive immigrants then it would be just another bunch of cranks. The Western left expected that overthrowing the dictators would pave the way for their favorite leftists to take over. Instead it wasn't the bloggers or the twitter activists who are ahead, it's the Islamists. To be fair to the left, many of its key foreign policy people did know that this would happen but were lying about it. They aren't idiots, they're traitors.

I doubt that anyone at the State Department with a background in the Middle East didn't know that the Muslim Brotherhood would surge in Egyptian elections or that the organization had numerous affiliates waiting to exploit the Arab Spring. The same goes for all the ex-diplomats holding down organizational positions in groups dedicated to promoting democracy in the region or writing articles for foreign policy journals.

They knew that the liberal bloggers were an expendable way to sell the Arab Spring to the West, but that the final victory would belong to the Islamists. And they know it now even as they keep lying that the Islamists are moderate and that their victories are only a temporary phenomenon until the local left gets its bearings. Some are working directly or indirectly for the Gulf Arab states, but quite a few are following the Western left's methodology of using the Clash of Civilizations to bring down the "empire" of Western civilization.

How could anyone have believed that the Middle Eastern left would have won when it has absolutely nothing to offer?

El Baradei's Kefaya movement and the unacknowledged party of many of the twitter activists got its start protesting against America and Israel. How was it supposed to have anything to offer Egyptians beyond the same negative energy that the Muslim Brotherhood could do so much better. If you're an Egyptian who wants a war with Israel, are you going to trust a simpering puppet like El Baradei to get it done or are you going to cast your vote for the Brotherhood or the Salafis.

Kefaya was in the peculiar position of being the American backed Anti-American movement, its activists trained by the Western left, and with Western leaders demanding that El Baradei be appointed to run a transition government. Kefaya smelled a lot like a puppet regime that constantly denounced its puppeteers and that schizophrenic identity didn't give it much credibility as a revolutionary party.

All that left were economic reforms which are not exactly the left's strong suit and not very popular. The average Egyptian wants cheaper food and more jobs, but he doesn't want the process that would make it happen. The Russians quickly turned on the reformers who then turned over the country to the KGB. Netanyahu's reforms have been as unpopular as they were necessary, but the focus on terrorism and the implosion of the left, as well as the popularity of Sharon, allowed him to do what had to be done. Despite the rise of the Tea Party the reform proposals in America are not faring any better.

People like the idea of reforms, but they don't like giving up subsidies or the uncertainty and chaos of the transition to a truer free market system. And the Middle Eastern left are not exactly plausible candidates for economic reform. Had Gamal Mubarak and Saif Gaddafi ever taken power, it is likely that they would have opened up their countries more than any of their revolutionary successors will.

The old Arab Socialists could promise national greatness, but the New Arab Left which lacked the military uniforms or the example of the Soviet Union as a model for the region, had nothing of the kind on tap. All they could do was try to sell social justice minus Islam, but not in opposition to Islam and not as a rejection of Islam-- and that went over about as well as could be expected.

In the United States or Europe a contest between the New Left and the Conservative Right would have provided palatable political options. In the Muslim Middle East it meant a debate over who would offer more subsidies, hate America more and restore the lost dream of national greatness that bedevils the Muslim world.

The Middle Eastern left is not secular, it's not reformist, it's not populist-- it's not to put it bluntly much of anything except in the opposition. It was useful only as the opposition, it allowed educated men and women with a sense of humor and some culture to act as the ambassadors of the Arab Spring to gullible Western journalists who didn't seem to realize that the reason all these young people were so Westernized is because they are members of the upper classes and live in a bubble of imported Western culture and education. Now they've done their jobs and their only accomplishment was to pave the way for the Islamists to come to power. Despite their Western veneer many of them can live with that, particularly those who had personal or familial grudges to settle with the old regime.

The real problem with the Arab Spring has been the lack of any domestic alternative to the Islamists. For all the talk about exporting American democracy, all we really did was subsidize local leftist NGO's and fly out bloggers to talk about reform. Could we imagine NOW and DailyKos taking power in America in open elections, and if not then what were the odds that was going to happen in a Muslim country where people like that are much less representative than they are here.

America's way of life derives from a culture of personal independence that can't be exported along with its institution. It was a country built by farmers, merchants and rebels who had their fill of lords and laws. The conservative reflex in American politics derives from that culture and it creates a base of opposition to the left. Anti-Monarchism is to American conservatism what Monarchism is to European conservatism, and what Islamism is to the Muslim world. It's the memory that people reach for when they imagine the better way of life that used to be.

This was always the flaw in the neo-conservative program which imagined that the American reflex of independence was universal and that it derived from free and open elections, rather than from the culture of a nation built by people looking to escape oppressive governments.

Democracy does not mean freedom, it means the freedom to choose. What exactly was the Muslim world likely to choose and what choices did it really have? Its domestic left is a joke and its Islamist parties are polished liars who have the money and contacts to create temporary economic booms that allow them to become entrenched and purge their rivals.

The Arab Spring had dried up a long time ago. There were no palatable regional alternatives to the Islamists, no philosophy with a regional grip that could counter it, and even the left hesitated to be actual alternatives to the Islamists, fully embracing a secular vision for their countries. Everything that happened was inevitable and it will happen again so long as the region is so barren that even when there is the freedom to choose, there is still nothing worth choosing.

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