The Arab World’s Fourths of July

Young Americans followed the events of 2011 in the Arab world with great interest and remarkable sympathy, such that a real difference now shows up in polls between younger and older Americans with regard to their views of the region. As the heady days of expelling tyrants gave way to the hard task of transition to democracy and plans for its consolidation, interest dropped off. As it became clear that the young leftists and liberals weren’t going to be the main political beneficiaries of the revolution, American commentators often soured on the changes.

That Muslim religious parties did well in the Tunisian, Egyptian and Moroccan elections suggested that the region had moved to the religious right rather than toward liberalism or a European-style center-left direction. (Comedian Bill Maher said it was because the Tahrir young revolutionaries were unrepresentative and ‘they [Egyptians] are all nut jobs,’ i.e. religious fanatics. Maher is entertaining and I agree with him a lot of the time, but this KKK thing he has about Arabs is disturbing.) The continued role of old regime elements and, in some countries, the military, caused many to assert that there had been no revolutions at all. A troubling string of incidents of violence in Libya suggested that where a revolution really did take place, it simply led to instability.

Americans have given up too soon on the Arab Spring. They have bought into overly large generalizations, some of them purveyed by right wing American pundits who have their own reasons for defaming the Arab region. And they aren’t making the comparison to difficulties other societies have had in their transitions from revolution to democracy, including the United States. (France is the all-time champion of difficult transitions, what with the Great Terror, the Vendee, Thermidor, Empire, restored monarchy (then the July monarchy), Empire II, and five republics! Some 40,000 were killed in the Vendee peasant revolt in the 1790s, and rather a lot were guillotined in the Terror. Tunisia and Egypt have had a walk in the park in comparison.)

Let us take the issue of the religious parties. They aren’t the end of the world, as long as they a) commit to participating in regular elections and b) agree to respect the will of the people in any one election and on any particular issue. The evidence so far is that the Sunni religious parties have made these commitments.

We should remember that the Thirteen Colonies that made the revolution starting in 1776 were religious societies. They had undergone the Evangelical Great Awakening, and millenarian and anti-papal movements were rife. Religious Americans fought the British for religious as well as material reasons. While the framers of much Federal law and of the Constitution were most often Enlightenment Deists and relatively secular in outlook, the mass of Americans were otherwise. Even the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbade Congress to designate an official American religion, was considered solely a Federal initiative, and states often had Established religions. Massachusetts had an established church until 1833, and its constitution still mentions requiring state and local institutions to raise money for and support the Protestant church.

The Founding Fathers mostly wanted a separation of religion and state (Thomas Jefferson certainly did), and this aspiration won out in American law and practice over time. The people who deny this separation are being silly. I’m making a different point, that Federal constitutional law covered a relatively small part of society.

So, religious Americans fought for the Revolution, and the post-revolutionary states often used state resources to support Protestantism. Anti-Catholicism was an unfortunate enthusiasm of many of the revolutionaries, and King George III was often seen as having Catholic tendencies, because of the offer of religious freedom to Catholics in Quebec once it was added to Canada, and because high church Anglicanism was hated by American dissidents.

So if you are dismayed that the Muslim an-Nahda Party now dominates the Tunisian cabinet, you may as well be angry about bigotted Congregationaiists coming to power in some of the Thirteen colonies after 1776. (You could argue that the House of Representatives even today is highly religious; and the South Carolina state legislature is apparently a tailgate party for the Southern Baptist convention).

It isn’t just the revolutionary United States. Brazil moved away from military dictatorship via a diverse coalition of dissident groups that included the Catholic church. When I visited the Pontifical Catholic University in Sao Paulo last year, the students recalled for me the role their predecessors had played in defying the military. Nobody gets upset about Catholicism’s semi-revolutionary role in Brazil or Poland. Religion is more important than most secular American intellectuals are willing to admit, and in ignoring it they end up not even being able to understand change in their own society, much less ones abroad.

The other thing to say, though, is that the religious dominance in the revolutionary Arab states has been exaggerated. The religious party in Tunisia only got 42 percent of the vote for the transitional parliament. They got the prime minister position only because the leader of a secular party was willing to make a coalition with them. The secularists who got 58 percent of the seats could actually have formed a secular government if they had been able to put up with one another. Moreover, the leader of al-Nahda said that it would not try to put Islamic law in the Tunisian constitution. It is not even clear that the al-Nahda party will be able to repeat its success in the spring, 2012 elections for a full-term parliament. There has been a lot in the papers about the Salafis (hard line fundamentalists) in Tunisia, but as far as I can tell they are a tiny minority and just are good about making a scene and throwing public fits for publicity.

In Egypt, the religious Muslim parties did very well in the first parliamentary elections of November-December 2011. But by the time of the first round of the presidential election in May, 2012, the Egyptian public had clearly soured on the religious parties, and the secularists got over 60 percent of the vote. If the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Mursi, had had to compete with a more popular candidate than the old-regime former general Ahmad Shafiq, he might well have lost (he won by a 3% margin). In the first round of the presidential elections, the Labor Left and the liberal streams reemerged and claimed millions of votes. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt has been turned into a theocracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to do very well in the upcoming Libyan elections, but, again, that may say more about their role in opposing Qaddafi than about the popularity of their campaign platform. In Yemen, 80% of the electorate voted for a secular Arab nationalist successor to the deposed Ali Abdullah Saleh, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Much energy of the Yemeni state and army has been expended in defeating the radical fundamentalists of the Ansar al-Shariah or “Supporters of Islamic Law,” which has al-Qaeda tendencies. They have now been chased out to Oman, apparently. And while the fundamentalist Islah Party continues to be important, it had been in coalition with the old government! Religious politics was a feature of the old Yemen, and will be a feature of the new Yemen.

So the religious take-over has been exaggerated.

As for problems of governance and instability in the aftermath of the deposing of the dictators, actually what is amazing is that things are going so well everywhere but Syria and Bahrain. Tunisia pulled off the election of a constituent assembly, elected a prime minister and a president, and are crafting a constitution and electoral laws in preparation for new parliamentary elections next spring. There is currently a struggle between the president and prime minister over the extradition of a Qaddafi-era politician to Libya, but the problem is the lack of a constitution. Once one is drafted, such disputes can be settled more easily.

Egypt is having a rocky ride because of military interference in the political process. But some sort of transition is occuring, and there is now a civilian elected president for the first time, who over time is likely to be able to push back against the military. If a new constitution is drafted and approved, and new parliamentary elections are held late this year, things could settle down and the transition proceed.

Libya should have its elections in a couple of weeks, and the resultant government will have more legitimacy and authority to tackle the country’s problems. The separatist tendencies in Libya are not as strong as some Western observers have suggested. Some of the image of instability is created by very small groups, like the handful of al-Qaeda wannabes who have attacked the Red Cross, the US legation, and the British ambassador’s convoy in Bengazi. While all that is disturbing, actually the damage in all but the last incident was minor and it is not as if this is a social movement of any size.

Americans forget that in the 1780s the Articles of Confederation did not work very well, and there were problems of too little federal government. They forget the Rhode Island farmers’ strike, Shays’ Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the various slave revolts, the continued conflicts with Native Americans, etc., etc. Thomas Jefferson, less timid than our contemporary pundits, remarked after Shays’ revolt that ‘a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.’ You have a sense he wouldn’t be that alarmed by contemporary Libya.

They forget that 15 years after the constitution was written, the vice president of the United States killed the first secretary of the treasury in a duel.

So give the Arabs some time to sort out their new situation. Let them craft their new constitutions, hold their further elections, and begin their transition in earnest. It is early days. What had the United States accomplished by 1785?

The slogan at Tahrir Square was “Bread, dignity and social justice.” That sounds a lot like their version of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Liberty and democracy have been a central demand of contentious politics in the contemporary Arab world. Let us wish them well instead of always putting them down. After all, we’ve been at this for over 200 years and we still don’t have it down.

21 Responses

  1. What a wonderful way to celebrate July 4. Thank you Professor Cole for a brilliant, thoughtful & humane reflection on liberty & independence.

  2. Good article, however I thought the election in Yemen was a one candidate affair? As in the only candidate was Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

    • My point was that the turnout was 80% and that the opposition accepted Mansour Hadi rather than insisting on a religious figure.

  3. Television is the problem.

    What you have sketched-out doesn’t make for good TV, assuming people watch with any real attention in the first place. It just takes way too much bandwidth to get your head around all this unless someone has been educated to the essentials over the course of a lifetime; they then have to be critical enough in the present to appreciate what lies beyond the surface, when they have their own survival needs to address.

    As a recovering addict, it is simply amazing how your time, ability to concentrate, and appreciation for complexity and nuance, all open-up once the TV is gone. It’s like coming out of a medicated fog.

    For better or worse I suppose.

  4. Hello Professor Cole,

    Sometimes an outside voice can really help illuminate the issues. Today’s post on a date that can be rallied around is a good idea. To this outsider, only one date can unreservedly claim its place and that is the day Mohamed Bouazizi’s terrible sacrifice, 12-17-2010, captured and then, curiously freed the imaginations of the ordinary Arab. Certainly not the first or only action giving rise to the extraordinary and long overdue events of the recent past, but his single act of courage appears to have been the catalyst.

    As we celebrate the birth of our freedom loving country, I am heartened to know, that the revolutionary spirit so beautifully remembered every 4th of July, is alive and well in the beating hearts of other nations still yearning to breathe free. Bouazizi’s bravery, in my opinion, mirrored the qualities of those first Americans and that is something I respect. In reverence of that, a date of 17th December as Independence Day seems obvious.

  5. Agreed. Let’s wish them well. But this is still early and there are (too) many moving pieces to accurately predict what’s going to happen tomorrow. For the time being, I remain cautious & concerned. As a general rule, I do not welcome religious parties into politics. No matter what their apologists claim, their cultist obsessions, biases and deep insecurities have contributed mightily to a couple milennia of bloodshed & injustice.

  6. Your view of Egypt is too rosy. The military is firmly in control and your ifs are very big ifs. The Brotherhood made a pact with the devil in order to get the presidency but the military made sure to strip the presidency of all power before it would countenance a Brotherhood president. Once the people see they’ve been duped again, the protests will resume. The Brotherhood will be seen as compromised. There won’t be real change until the military is uprooted and disposed of. Is that possible? A lot of blood will have to be spilled but that’s what it’ll take, a very bloody true revolution. It may not happen because the U.S. wants the military in control. It’s the hidden hand. A real revolution could still happen as it did in Iran in 1979. The Egyptians are too enamored of their military still, but they need to see it for what it is. A wholesale change in their thinking is needed before they can change their society, but the military and the perceived order it brings is a very powerful current to contend with.

      • 100% right. Turkey’s military interfered with coups three times and it was anyone’s guess when civilian rule would ever take root. But that was then and this is now. One can argue with some of Erdogan’s policies but it’s clear that Turkish democracy has sunk deep roots. That’s a feel-good story which does not get enough play.

    • That would be my reaction as well, since cynicism is what we fall back on if we have to come up with a forecast.

      In the larger scheme of things, the reality is that the most probable outcome is itself improbable. Juan mentions Turkey, but they had the guiding precedence and Attaturk to give them a chance to get to where they are at the moment; maybe the model will be enough for the Egyptian junta to do the The Right Thing. But who knows? And with the confidence to make a bet with their own money???

      I see a two steps forward, one step back sort of deal: pick your own ratios. And, of course, the world of politics just as easily can spin in reverse.

  7. Egypt is not USA in 1789: Egypt is not having a federal vs confederal policy issue. Egypt is having a military dictatorship wearing a costume of democracy. In 1789, USA was not a junta dicatatorship controlling the economy.

    • Well no, the USA was a slave oligarchy holding the union’s survival hostage over its demands for a government too weak to interfere with the oligarchy’s system of exploitation – a dictatorship of property and cultural control. The slave economy was the most valuable thing in the new country, and it in turn fed money into the shipbuilding and banking sectors in the North. So no surprise they got what they wanted, creating the flaws and conflicts that bedeviled a country that rapidly outstripped its slaveowning sector, leading to a civil war 70 years later.

      However, the fact that war happened does not illegitimate the very existence of the country beforehand. Our republic, flawed as it was, lent great evidence to the causes of those opponents of monarchical tyranny in Europe. We should be ashamed that it took us so long to overthrow that first oligarchy, and that we so quickly let it be replaced by a second. I don’t think the Egyptian junta will prove so durable, do you?

  8. As I look at the results of the Egyptian Presidential elections, I cannot see it as a gereat victor for the Islamists. Morsi got about 24% of the vote in the first round, just about what analysts have considered to be the support the MB has in Egypt for several decades. More important still, is that 75% of the voters rejected them, including the felloul, of curse, but also the revolutionary forces representing about 50% of the vote. If the court had canceled Shafiq’s bid, Morsi would have faced the likes of Hamdeen Sabbahi, who along garnered 22+% in the first round. Likewise, if one or more of the liberal/left candidates dropped out and endorsed Sabbahi, he would have faced off against Morsi and my guess is that he would have won. That would have posed serious problems for the military, who fear a shake up in the social order, something a leftists, but not a Brother would promote.

    The Parliamentary elections were also a give away. with the NDP dissolved and thus with no candidate lists, the only recognizable forces at the grassroots level were the until then apolitical MB and Salafi charity groups, making their win a giveaway.

    I think the revolutionary forces have it right….get ready for the 2016 elections. They need the time to establish a grassroots presence.

    In the meantime, Morsi is in an impossible position, given SCAF control. It is unlikely that he will be able to make good on any promise, through no fault of his own. At the same time, the Salafis have embarassed the Islamist movement with their efforts to restore FGM and marriage at age 12. The recent series of violent crimes, enforcing a certain notion of Islam, but groups variously described as Takfiris, Mutawa’een, etc., have also disgusted ordinary pious Egyptians. They are unlikely to distinguish between one group of guys with long beards and short dishdashas and another.

    I just don’t see a swing to the Islamists, especially to the MB which has a reputation for opportunism and failure to fulfill promises. It should be sobering for them that in that great Parliamentary win, their 80 year old organization garnered not that much more than the much newer Salafis. I continue to be struck by the attitudes of ordinary Egyptians interviewed by various TV stations in Arabic about the Islamists, much of which centers around the fact that they are already Muslims and don’t need any politicians teaching them about Islam.

    • Great comment. The long game is everything, and if they play it smart even 2016 shouldn’t be positioned as decisive, but a stepping stone.

  9. Self-governance, presumably by some flavor of democracy, is an ongoing challenge always (ALWAYS) prone to backsliding, and forever the subject of backward pressures. There will be an ongoing challenge in the best of cases.

    Generations after the US founding there was a civil war that killed 700-800,000 people out of 31 million (coincidentally, about the population of Iraq?). A few (!!!) generations later there are people who have forgotten at least part of what it was supposed to have settled.

    Every generation is a blank-slate, that needs to be educated to what has been learned or agreed on to that point. Along with understanding that a theory is not just an opinion, and not all opinions have the same underlying validity. If this isn’t done, you have the beginnings of a problem. No exceptions.

  10. I think one problem with American perceptions is that we have been kept in the dark about the multi-staged overthrow of pro-US juntas in countries like Turkey, Brazil and South Korea, and the relationship of that to their subsequent economic success. Our capitalist media refused to talk about the crimes of those regimes, so as usual we were surprised when they fell, if we even bothered to notice. Note that fashionably antiwar leftists also have given those developments short shrift; it didn’t fit their narratives either.

    We really are very ill prepared to deal with the dismantling of the US hegemony, continent after continent, and the inevitable good and bad of the consequent new governments. But looked at in the time scale of the decline of the Hapsburgs or the Ottomans, it is clear that our levers over the rest of the world are being broken faster than we can replace them with new killing machines. This ought to be a cause for celebration, but left and right we’re just as stupid as everyone else who lived in a self-absorbed, nostalgic declining empire.

  11. Professor Cole writes: “Even the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbade Congress to designate an official American religion, was considered solely a Federal initiative, and states often had Established religions.”

    This isn’t right, I don’t think. Many state constitutions before the formation of the Federal government included sections on religious liberty. In fact, one of the more effective criticisms of the original draft of the Constitution by anti-Federalists was that it lacked this basic guarantee, and was a step backward relative to what could be found in state constitutions. The same is true for the freedom of press. The Bill of Rights was based in large part on the version of the same thing written by George Mason for Virginia’s constitution. See Mason’s “Virginia Declaration of Rights.” Section XVI of Mason’s “Declaration” reads: “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”

    • Having an Established Church did not necessarily mean persecuting the others; it meant throwing state resources behind the favored one. But sometimes it did mean persecuting dissidents, including Quakers and Baptists. Jefferson and Madison got a religious freedom statute in Virginia to combat latter, but that was not universal.

  12. “(Comedian Bill Maher said it was because the Tahrir young revolutionaries were unrepresentative and ‘they [Egyptians] are all nut jobs,’”

    If a Christian comedian /commentator had suggested that all Israelis “are all nut jobs”, the internet would be packed with Jews screamimg “anti-semitism”.

  13. As soon as this all started, I found myself using the fall of the Iron Curtain as a good modern model for how this would all (generally) play out. It took a good 10-15 years before the former Soviet Block countries settled down into something generally stable and healthy. There’s still that hold out Belarus (at least, last time I checked), but all in all things have worked out well.

    Along the way there were some ugly things like the breakup of Yugoslavia. So I knew there would be something painful along the way in the Arab countries. Now we have Syria, and I’m sure that won’t be the last ugly mess in this process. I don’t know enough about all the details in each country to hazard a guess.

    Those above that mention the short-term mentality of TV have it spot-on, I think. This is still going to take a while to sort out. Considering how much of a change this is, it’s actually taken place rather smoothly. So far.

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