As first Tunisia and then Egypt shed long-time dictators, the Obama administration drew parallels between the Arab Spring and the fall of the Berlin Wall. “In terms of moments in time when important democratic and economic transitions begin this is a comparable moment,” a senior White House aide declared on the sidelines of the May 2011 G8 Summit in Deauville, France.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly described US strategy as based on America’s experience at the end of the Cold War. “We have a lot of experience around the world in helping countries that are moving to democracy, most recently after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” she told the Egyptian foreign minister last September.
Annoyed with analysts who suggested that Islamists might hijack the uprisings, Obama directed his aides to discount parallels to Iran and focus instead on comparisons to Eastern European transitions, the “People Power” revolution in the Philippines and the growth of democracy in his boyhood home of Indonesia.
The optimism was infectious but, in hindsight, better analogies for the Arab Spring would be to the 1789 storming of the Bastille or the 1917 abdication of the Russian tsar. In both cases, what began as popular movements against autocracy ended in dictatorship even more violent and repressive.
The uprisings across the Middle East caught not only Arab leaders by surprise, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. Washington was caught equally flatfooted. Just days before protests erupted in Egypt, the Presidential Daily Brief—the CIA’s daily report for the president—reportedly advised Obama that Tunisia’s unrest would not spread. What began as a protest for economic opportunity and rule-of-law quickly morphed into something else. Young protestors interviewed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square may have been sincere in their demands for democracy, but it was the Muslim Brotherhood who filled the vacuum. In the name of organization, the Brotherhood sent muscle to control access to the podium. Only those whose speeches the Brotherhood approved beforehand could speak.
The Islamist putsch continues. It is clear to everyone outside the White House spin room that the latest violence in the Middle East had less to do with a risible film produced by a California bigot, and more to do with domestic politics. “People don’t go to demonstrate and carry RPGs and automatic weapons,” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) quipped. Nor, for that matter, do most Muslims carry Al Qaeda flags in their back pocket, on the office chance they can raise it on an embassy flagpole. When it comes to White House denials of Al Qaeda involvement, Americans now find themselves in a once unimaginable position where the Libyan government tells the truth while American leaders lie.
In effect, last week’s violence was equivalent to Maximilien de Robespierre unleashing of the Reign of Terror in the chaos following the French Revolution, or the Bolsheviks purging the Mensheviks during the Russian Revolution. While Americans remember the November 1979 Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in the context of Ayatollah Khomeini’s hatred of America, that episode had as much to do with revolutionary radicals creating a pretext to purge competition and seize power as it did with anti-Americanism. Iranians still suffer the consequence of failure in their democratic moment. It is now clear that democracy will also evade the Arab world perhaps for decades to come.
With an opportunity lost and a centuries-long record of failure, it is fair to ask whether democracy is even possible in the region. In the years before the Arab Spring uprising, Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim described the autocrats and theocrats in the Middle East as mirror images of each other. While autocrats had ministries, military, and media to promote their control, the theocrats relied on the mosque to recruit and communicate. Both poles used fear of the other to recruit allies and cultivate supporters. Both had one thing in common: They could tolerate neither accountability nor democracy. When liberals and democrats emerged, they became public enemy number one to both the security services and Islamists.
Political scientists have long struggled to define democracy. Stanford University’s Larry Diamond identifies four pillars to democracy: Choosing and replacing government through free and fair elections; active public participation; protection of the human rights; and equality of all citizens under the law.
The late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested that countries could only be considered democracies when they had had two consecutive, peaceful changes of government via free elections. Huntington’s approach disqualifies those like Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood who accept the efficacy of the ballot box only so long as it works in their favor. It was this concept that Edward Djerejian, an assistant secretary of State, enunciated when, on June 2, 1992, he enunciated for the first time the American position toward Islamist parties. "While we believe in the principle of ‘one person, one vote,’” he said, but “We do not support ‘one person, one vote, one time.’”
Under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, one-in-six Iraqis voted with their feet and fled the country. When they settled in Europe and the United States, they had little difficulty accepting democracy. Their experience suggests that the problem remains less cultural inhibition to democracy, but rather a lack of rule-of-law.
Alas, rather than take a no-nonsense approach to democracy, it is now the politically correct embrace of cultural equivalence and the associated willingness of diplomats to kowtow to Islamists which poisons the democratic well. In a 1996 essay, Princeton historian Bernard Lewis described how Islamists “claim that Islam itself is the only authentic democracy.” “This statement is perfectly true,” he quipped, but only if one accepts the Islamists’ own definition of the term, something which would be unrecognizable to most democrats.
Alas, this is what American diplomats also do. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, won elections in Turkey, American diplomats rationalized their victory as little cause for concern. Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, described the AKP as “a kind of Muslim version of a Christian Democratic party,” while Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Turkey as a “Muslim democracy.”
Today, the AKP imprisons more journalists than Russia and China, bans its opponents from parliament, and declares its goal to raise a religious generation in Turkey. To modify democracy with words like Islamic, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, socialist, or anything else simply diminishes the standard of democracy. This is a lesson Iranian know well. Studying in Iran in 1996, one of my tutors explained that she had joined the Islamic Revolution because Khomeini promised an “Islamic democracy.” “By the time I realized we got neither, but just another dictatorship,” she explained, “it was too late.”
Obama’s desire to work through allies—“lead from behind” as one aide put it—has put another nail in the coffin of the democratic hope. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey might have been willing intermediaries, but each of those countries had at the core of their agenda Islamist empowerment. It no coincidence that in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, the most extreme factions now carry not only the biggest guns, but also the largest purse.
Last February, I sat down in Kuwait City with a local professor to discuss the Arab Spring. “It’s understandable the Muslim Brotherhood won,” he said, explaining that after years in opposition they could promise constituents the world. Absent power, they need not worry about accountability. “The tragedy for democracy would be,” he continued, “if once in power American would not allow them to fail.” Alas, by compromising the pillars of democracy, tossing accountability out the window and treating American aid as an entitlement for hostile regimes, Obama is now doing just that.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.