Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. The ongoing enthusiasm of the Western elites for Islam, in general, and for the misnamed Arab Spring, in particular, is a case in point. The bitter fruits of the latter—simultaneously visible but differently manifested in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria—are rooted in the character of the former.
The common political denominator of most “democracy activists” in North Africa and the Middle East is not a devotion to the model of governance provided by ancient Athens and her Western heirs. It is not the sense of common “Arab” destiny either. The common denominator is Islam. Sensing opportunities not imaginable in decades, they now feel more emboldened than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate after the Great War. Their slogans, specific ambitions, and geopolitical designs vary, but they are invariably hostile to the American interest.
Paradoxically, whether holding power or plotting to grab it, they were and still are supported by the government of the United States (with Britain and France toeing the line) and lionized by the agitprop machine on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Arabic the process of uprisings and rebellions that started in the winter of 2010-11 is called the Arab Revolutions (al-Thawrat al-‘Arabiyyah). The “Arab Spring” is a Western invention that invokes the short-lived Prague Spring of 1968, when nonviolent Communist Party reformers briefly dabbled in “socialism with a human face.” The experiment soon ended with Soviet military intervention, without a shot being fired. Implicitly equating the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood with Aleksandar Dubcek legitimizes the former as gentle, peaceful moderates.
It is misleading to talk of the series of revolts as a single phenomenon. They reflected specific social, political, and economic tensions and dynamics, different in each of the four cases. Likewise, there were revolutionary uprisings all over Europe in 1848, but that does not suggest that Magyars and Prussians, Italians and Germans, Frenchmen and Poles were of the same stock.
Under the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia was arguably the most civilized and least oppressive Arab country. Since coming to power in 1987, Ben Ali had instituted economic reforms that turned Tunisia into an “African lion.” During his tenure the country’s per capita GDP more than tripled from $1,200 in 1986 to $4,000—a remarkable result for a country devoid of significant oil or gas reserves. Booming tourism, strong agriculture, and robust foreign investment resulted in Tunisia being ranked first in Africa and 32nd globally by the Davos World Economic Forum in 2010. Tunisia was the most literate Arab country with the best standards of public health.
Under Ben Ali Tunisia pursued a moderate foreign policy and was strongly opposed to Islamic radicalism at home and terrorism abroad. While based in Tunisia in 1982-93, the PLO adopted a more cooperative attitude to the peace process than either before or after that period—as the 1991 Madrid Conference and the 1993 Oslo Accords demonstrated. Ben Ali’s swift collapse, after only two weeks of protest and at the cost of a hundred lives, proves that he was an autocrat but not a despot.
Today’s Tunisia is a very different place. Since October 2011 she has been ruled by the Islamic Ennahda party, which did nothing to prevent the destruction of “blasphemous” works of art at the Printemps des arts exhibition by thousands of rioting Salafis on June 12. Quite the contrary: Two artists were arrested while rioters were burning their works. Among those destroyed was a painting by Tunisian artist Mohamed Ben Slama, Femme au couscous à l’agneau, which presents an undressed woman surrounded by bearded men. Far from condemning the barbarism, the Tunisian minister of culture condemned the destroyed works as “attacks against the sacred.” The country’s parliament also blamed the artists for the violence, invoking the new Tunisian constitution, which states that religion “is above all derision, irony or violation.”
Almost a year after the fall of Qaddafi, Libya is a Hobbesian nightmare and a jihadist haven. As oil exports decline and public services deteriorate, the country no longer enjoys the highest standards of living in Africa, as it did before the rebellion aided by NATO bombs.
More importantly, for over a decade preceding his downfall, Qaddafi presented no threat to American interests. Keen to rehabilitate himself with the Western powers, he accepted responsibility for the 1989 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am airliner by extraditing two accused Libyan nationals to a Scottish court in 1999 and paying $2.7 billion to the victims’ families. He was a determined opponent of Islamic extremists and was the target of an assassination attempt by them in 1996. He started providing counterterrorism intelligence to the CIA in the late 1990’s and issued the first arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden—in 1998. His Langley connection became so strong that by 2002 the CIA flew suspected terrorists to Libya under the “extraordinary rendition” program. He started dismantling his WMD program in 2003. The following year Tony Blair met Qaddafi and praised him as an ally in the “War on Terror.” In 2009 President Obama shook his hand at a summit in Italy.
It is all very different today, as illustrated by this selection of news reports from a two-week period in June: On June 18 Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced he will visit Libya to push for the release of International Criminal Court staff, including an Australian lawyer, who were detained by a militia group in the town of Zintan.
On June 17 the U.N. envoy in Libya, Ian Martin, voiced his concern at renewed fighting between members of different tribes in several localities. He had earlier complained that 4,000 alleged Qaddafi supporters still languish in private jails run by different militia groups.
On June 16 the ineffective interim government declared three mountain towns in the west of the country a “military zone” and called for an immediate cease-fire, which it has no power to enforce.
On June 14 Islamic extremists vandalized the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Benghazi for the second time in four months. More than 200 graves were desecrated in February, when armed men used sledgehammers to destroy the Cross of Sacrifice. Not one such incident occurred during Qaddafi’s rule. Britain’s ambassador to Libya was later attacked by rocket-propelled grenades while driving into the city, and two of his guards were wounded.
On June 13 NPR—enthusiastically supportive of the “Arab Spring”—reported that a vehicle carrying its team in Benghazi was surrounded by truckloads of men with machine guns waving black flags and shouting “Allahu akbar!” As NPR’s Steve Inskeep reported, they were demanding the imposition of sharia, riding in “scores of honking pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns welded to the beds.”
On June 7 CNN announced that the United States had commenced flying surveillance missions with drones over suspected jihadist training camps in eastern Libya, because of rising activity by Al Qaeda. Abdulbasit Azuz, leader of a like-minded group operating in the city of Derna, had claimed that a U.S. drone strike targeted his training camp in May.
On June 6 a bomb detonated outside the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Explosions have also targeted offices of the Red Cross and a U.N. vehicle.
Despite all this, the resolution issued at the end of NATO’s summit in Chicago on May 21 commended “the Libyan people for the progress achieved to date on their path towards building a new, free, democratic Libya that fully respects human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The political crisis in Egypt was triggered by the decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court on June 14 to disband the country’s parliament because it was elected unconstitutionally. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is determined not to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to take undisputed control of Egypt’s key political institutions. The court also ruled that ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, was qualified to compete in the run-off presidential election on June 16 and 17 against the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. The Brotherhood deemed the moves a coup and called for street protests. Crowds of demonstrators gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the scene of the revolt that brought down Mubarak.
The Western media were unanimously critical of the court’s ruling, ignoring the sound legal basis for its decision. The electoral law had set aside one third of the seats for independent candidates not affiliated with any political party. Those nominal independents subsequently revealed their true colors as supporters of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party or the Salafi Nour Party. The extremists thus controlled almost three quarters of the legislature. They used that majority to demand the introduction of sharia and a ban on alcohol and swimsuits. The Brotherhood also packed a parliamentary panel tasked with writing a new constitution.
Now that Mohamed Morsi has won the presidency, there will be a standoff. The generals are certain to hold on to power beyond the July 1 deadline that they had set for handing the authority over to a civilian president. This will set the stage for prolonged strife and a possible civil war.
In the meantime the United States has successfully helped reignite the civil war in Syria, which will result in another victory for radical Islam if Bashar al-Assad falls. This may not happen, however: The Russians have had enough. “We often hear from our Western partners that we should put ourselves on the right side of history, but . . . this advice comes from the people who . . . simply forget what they were saying a few months ago,” Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov said recently. “They change affiliations on a daily basis. Our Arab friends are conscious of the fact that we simply don’t betray our old partners with whom we had been building relations for years.”
The Obama administration has betrayed our old partner Mubarak, as well as the harmless Ben Ali and the repentant Qaddafi, with predictable results. The only rational explanation is that the purveyors of the myth of the Arab Spring in Washington want to see the Arab world unstable, fragmented, and ruled by Islamic hard-liners so that the United States remains permanently engaged in the region.