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. Yet 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 percent 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 al-Assad falls, the Brotherhood will almost certainly inherit power. Jordan could well be next. And the Brotherhood’s Palestinian wing (Hamas) already controls Gaza.
What does this mean? That the Arab Spring is a misnomer. 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 Baathists, Iraqi (Saddam Hussein) and Syrian (the Assads) — as the reactionary antithesis to Arab modernism.
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 repression.
Hence the Arab Spring, serial uprisings that spread east from Tunisia in early 2011. Many Westerners naively 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 elections.
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 Islamic neighborhood).
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 norm.
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.