As Egypt explodes in what could be civil war, with a reported death toll of at least 628 dead and rising in clashes between security forces and Islamists that began August 14, many are wondering, whatever happened to the Arab Spring? That is, to the wave of popular uprisings against the long-lasting dictatorships of the Middle East and North Africa that began nearly three years ago in Tunisia, and brought the promise of democracy to the region at last?
And what should the U.S. do now that the Muslim Brotherhood--President Obama’s chosen horse in the race for control of the largest Arab state and our most important Arab ally—has apparently lost?
To answer the first question, the Arab Spring never happened as advertised. Rather than a series of straightforward, largely peaceful popular risings led by social-media savvy youth that swept decades-old repressive regimes into the dustbin of history, as first portrayed by the media, something else occurred.
In their place were a couple of military coups in Tunisia and Egypt, prompted by—or under the cover of—of the largest demonstrations yet seen in those countries; armed uprisings in Libya and Syria (the former successful with help from the U.S. and NATO, the latter locked in a stalemate that has claimed a 100,000 lives), and scattered demonstrations that have led nowhere--or next to it--in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan and beyond.
Western governments and the global media hailed both these coups as popular revolutions. True, they did follow massive protests in each country, but they only succeeded in changing the regime so quickly and without large-scale fighting because the army had agreed with them.
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In both Egypt and Tunisia, the only groups large enough--or at least sufficiently funded and organized to form a viable opposition--were the Islamists.
The secular, Arab nationalist regimes that took control of most of the region beginning with independence from the West in the 1950s tried suppress these extremist interpreters of mainstream Islam—itself a system that distinguishes legally between believers and non-believers, viewing the latter as second or third-degree citizens at best—with only limited success.
Using charities, an appeal to traditional values and even coercion when necessary to gain both members and influence, they were divided between the often subtle and highly-politicized Muslim Brotherhood and the more carelessly outspoken Salafis, “those who follow the ancestors”—who both did shockingly well in Egypt’s nation’s elections.
In Tunisia, secular groups got the majority of votes, but only the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, al-Nahda, received enough to form the government.
The Salafis, meanwhile, set about attacking the symbols of what had been the most socially liberal of all the Arab states, starting with bars and prostitutes, but also including synagogues and secular universities.
In most of the Arab Spring countries, decades of autocratic rule atop crushing pyramids of social and political injustice seemed the perfect recipe for massive unrest, which finally rose in a tsunami of public anger after a frustrated Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself afire on December 17, 2010, dying in a coma on January 4, 2011.
Ten days later, on January 14, the 23-year dictatorship of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was over, stunning the world—and inspiring the neighbors.
But what had inspired the Tunisians, and soon others, to risk all in revolution?
Though few would admit it, President George W. Bush’s drive for democracy in the Arab world, despite the traumas in and over the war in Iraq, had brought the call for serious political change back into public discourse for the first time in decades.
The bloodily-repressed demonstrations against the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran in 2009, which President Obama refused to criticize, also played a role.
Two other factors common to most of these movements, as important as the others, were also at play.
First was the largely underground presence of Islamist revolutionaries in all of these countries. They had been working to overthrow the established, insufficiently religious social order since Hassan al-Banna had founded the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Salafi library in Ismailia, Egypt in 1928.
Their goal was and remains the gradual takeover of society through al-Da`wa, (The Call), a subversive strategy for the incremental takeover of society, in which a pretense of moderation masks the ultimate aim of reestablishing the caliphate, abolished by Ataturk in Turkey in 1924.
They also seek the spread of Sharia—Islamic law—over the whole world, beginning with the Muslim lands, who had strayed from the true path under blasphemous modes of government borrowed from the West.
Second was that, for the first time, the U.S. has a president who apparently believes—though undoubtedly not quite as the Islamists themselves—the MB’s most famous political slogan, “Islam is the solution.”
On June 4, 2009, Obama gave his famous speech to the Islamic world, from Cairo, co-sponsored by al-Azhar, the highest institution in Sunni Islam, and Cairo University. The concept of addressing the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims this way, defining them as members of the Islamic community rather than citizens of their respective countries, is itself a Muslim supremacist idea.
Tellingly, he invited the leaders of the banned Muslim Brotherhood to attend, where they sat in the front row. This effectively excluded his official host and America’s friend, President Hosni Mubarak, who pleaded ill health.
It also seemed to tell the MB, an anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-female and anti-gay group that spawned the ideology that created Al Qaeda, “You are the future.”
Reportedly, in August 2010, Obama commissioned a special intelligence report on the Arab countries, which essentially predicted what became known as the Arab Spring (a term reputedly coined by Mark Lynch in Foreign Policy Magazine on January 6, 2011).
According to Mark Landler, writing in The New York Times in February 2011, “Mr. Obama’s order, known as a Presidential Study Directive, identified likely flashpoints, most notably Egypt, and solicited proposals for how the administration could push for political change in countries with autocratic rulers who are also valuable allies of the United States.” (The eighteen page paper this order generated is classified, according to Landler.)
When the revolt in Tunisia broke, Ben Ali’s embarrassed French ex-colonial patrons quickly abandoned him—and so did the U.S., which had security cooperation with him.
Then in Egypt, where sporadic self-immolations had begun, copying the human bonfire in Tunisia, a coalition of anti-Mubarak youths called for demonstrations on National Police Day—January 25, 2011--to protest the beating death of an Alexandrian blogger by police in an Internet café in Alexandria the previous year.
A group of young Egyptians using Facebook and Twitter were credited with launching the demonstrations, which drew crowds much larger than normal. Before that day, the Muslim Brotherhood declared its support for the effort, but cautiously sent only its youth wing to take part on the first day of action.
But seeing their success, the group issued an order making it “mandatory” for its members to take part in the next day of protest, on January 28. Their networks in the mosques overcame the government’s shutdown of the Internet and cell phone service to limit the demonstrations, resulting in huge protests that electrified the global audience, a fact the press missed: the myth of the secular revolution was born. That two of the key organizers on Facebook had ties to the Brotherhood was also not widely known until this writer exposed it in July 2012.
As the demonstrations continued to grow all over Egypt and hundreds died on both sides in fights with the police, Mubarak offered a number of compromises, ultimately promising to yield most of his powers to a vice-president, Omar Suleiman, until the next scheduled election that September.
He warned that if he stepped down too quickly, chaos and the Muslim Brotherhood were bound to succeed him.
His critics said that he had created the MB bogeyman to persuade the U.S. to keep him power -- when in fact, it was the only opposition force in Egypt that he could not crush completely. And, after all, the MB was “moderate,” so there was nothing to fear.
On February 10, Obama issued a statement that said,
"too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy." The next day, Mubarak--who had angered the army by acceding to his wife Susanne’s demand that their non-military son Gamal succeed him as president--was gone.
The armed forces would now run the country. They would organize elections, for which they worked hand in hand with the MB. After all, the MB and the more openly-hardline Salafis were the most capable of filling the vacuum of civilian authority, and the army itself was riddled with Islamists, even at the top. Only worries about being prosecuted for business dealings with Mubarak and his cronies, and the desire to keep the military budget under wraps from parliament, really divided them.
Through the next eighteen months of unstable transition, as skyrocketing crime, incessant strikes and sporadic waves of increasingly violent demonstrations, plus escalating attacks on Christians, dried up foreign investment, drained hard currency reserves and drove tourists away, the young secularists kept calling for the immediate return to civilian rule. That, of course, meant the MB and the Salafis, but—having not yet lived under them—their greatest fear was the perpetuation of army rule, which is all Egypt had known since 1952.
Finally, the MB and the Salafis together won 75% of seats in the first parliamentary elections in the late 2011 and early 2012. But the Islamists behaved so outrageously in office that their share of the vote dropped by half in the presidential balloting of April and May, 2012—when Mohamed Morsi, the hardline ideological enforcer of the MB—barely beat an albeit respectable holdover from the ancien regime.
But this seemed to cause no worry in Washington. In February 2011, National Intelligence Director James Clapper assured a Congressional panel that the Brotherhood is a “largely secular” organization: few seemed to believe his hurried correction.
Despite escalating complaints of the MB’s tyrannical behavior, Morsi’s apparent complicity with an assault by a mob on our Cairo embassy on September 11, 2012, his call for the release of the “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel-Rahman from a North Carolina Prison for the first World Trade Center Bombing (in 1993), and his actual freeing of scores of convicted, often Al Qaeda-connected terrorists from Egyptian prisons, along with the ever-worsening attacks on Christians and the addition of Shiite Muslims to the list of victims, the Obama administration uttered nary a word in complaint.
Instead, Obama sent Security of State John Kerry to Cairo in March 2013 to announce that he would increase our aid by $250 million dollars this year.
U.S. and world leaders praised Morsi for brokering a truce between the MB’s Palestinian branch and Israel in a military crisis last November.
Morsi responded with an unprecedented decree that put him above all judicial review while he rammed through a new Islamic constitution that a majority of a tiny minority of voters approved. And still, the White House said nothing.
And it continued to say nothing until the largest demonstrations in human history—up to perhaps 30 million souls, dwarfing those against Mubarak—demanded that the army remove Mohamed Morsi.
It then fell to Morsi’s own appointee as secretary of defense and head of the military, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—himself an Islamist, but also a nationalist appalled the chaos that the MB had caused, as well as Morsi’s covert dealings with terrorists who had killed and kidnapped Egyptian soldiers in Sinai—felt that he had to do something.
On July 3, al-Sisi removed Morsi, leading to the confrontation still unfolding Obama and some members of Congress, including prominent Republicans, have threatened to cut off our annual assistance in response—which has left the vast majority of Egyptians furious, and many hoping that he does it.
But to answer our second question, what should our president do? In light of all the above, he should cancel the president’s pointless cancellation today of Bright Star—the bi-annual joint training exercise between our military and theirs.
And then he should finally speak out against the Islamists' mayhem--the killing and torture of opponents, policemen, Christians and suspected informants; the torching of between seventeen and twenty-one churches yesterday alone, not to mention four Shiites slaughtered in June, and the attempt to create a state within a state by propaganda and violence. Other than that, since threats don't work, he should do nothing.
He has done enough already.
Raymond Stock, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and Instructor of Arabic at Louisiana State University, spent twenty years in Egypt and was deported by the regime of Hosni Mubarak in 2010 for an article he published in Foreign Policy Magazine in 2009. He is writing a biography of 1988 Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and is a prolific translator of his works.