You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Welcome to Phase Three of the Arab Spring

Islamists are waning in the Arab world. But will Obama notice?

So it is not true that, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood speaks for society as a whole. Nor does Islamist ideology, with its invocations of superstition and its exaltations of obedience, express the Egyptian “street.” Nor does the Brotherhood possess the canny ability to bend history to its will. The crisis in Egypt over the Brotherhood’s proposed new constitution broke out in December, and, three months later, the riots and demonstrations and killings have still not come to an end. Even the police have been demonstrating.

Nor is it true that, in Tunisia, the reputedly more moderate version of the Brotherhood, Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party, has offered a sounder alternative. On the contrary, the moderates have presided over what appears to be a steady patter of violence by the radical Islamists, in token of the fact that, in Tunisia and everywhere else, moderates and radicals tend to be quietly allied, if only because the moderate leaders have to pacify their own radically-inclined rank-and-file. A great many Tunisians have evidently had their fill. The assassination of a popular leftist in early February brought about, at the funeral in Tunis, a public demonstration on a scale dwarfing even the Egyptian protests. And, just as in Egypt, the political crisis in Tunisia turns out to be less than easily resolved.

Nor is it true that radical Islamists, given the chance to rule on their own, can succeed in spreading their beliefs to the rest of society. On the contrary. Not in Mali, anyway. The French army invaded northern Mali in January in order to prevent the jihadis from spreading their mad emirate across the whole of the Sahel, and, although France is the former colonial overlord, and the French in Africa have a lot to answer for—even so, when François Hollande made his way to Timbuktu to gloat over the military victories, crowds of Malians appeared to be delighted. Their cry of “Vive la France!,” which is not “Allahu Akbar!,” can only signify the deepest of Malian detestation for the hand-chopping fanatics.

What is true, then? It appears to be the case that, in one zone after another, the vast regional revolution that used to be known as the Arab Spring (except that springtime has lasted two years now, and not everyone is Arab, and Mali testifies to the fact that revolutions do spread) has entered its Phase Three. The liberal origins back in 2011—the beautiful cries, “Peaceful! Peaceful!”, the days of Facebook glory—amounted to Phase One, the utopian heyday. Then came the Islamist triumphs, which marked Phase Two. Phase Two had a look of permanence, or so we were told, if only because, in the estimation of a certain school of Western thinking, Islamism, which may not be to our taste, is nonetheless authentic, which signifies: inevitable.

Even President Obama appeared to dabble in this kind of thinking, to judge by, at least, his Cairo speech in 2009, with some of the Muslim Brothers in attendance. Obama orated about the relationship of “Islam and the West,” as if this were the crux of the matter, and he felt it necessary to criticize implicitly the French for their headscarf law, and generally he seemed to accept as givens the geopolitical categories of the Islamist worldview: the notion of Islam in conflict with its Western enemies, the notion of Western persecution of Muslims as central to the conflict, and so forth.

The Arab Spring’s Phase Three has nonetheless arrived. Phase Three adds up to a series of mass protests and revolts and even wars against Islamists of every stripe—against the mainstream Islamists in Egypt, against the moderates in Tunisia, and against the radicals in Mali. The people want to topple the Islamists!—a significant number of people, anyway. Events have by-passed the experts. Islamism, even in its mainstream and moderate versions, turns out to be less democratic than advertised; and the demos, less Islamist.

And Islamism turns out not to be Islam. For who are these crowds in one country after another, shouting their protests? They are Muslim crowds, and their own Islam is as valid as anyone else’s—or, in truth, if authenticity is the criterion, more valid, because more traditional. And some of these crowds are not at all in conflict with the West, except in the degree that Western powers are in league with the Islamists. So Phase Three turns out to be an age of struggle, anti-Islamists against Islamists, with the Islamists still on top in various countries, but no obvious long-run victor in sight.

The entire development ought to make us wonder about a couple of aspects of American policy. In the years after the Second World War, the United States constructed all kinds of international institutions to cope with the new circumstances, military and otherwise. But here we are nearly a dozen years after 9/11, and the level of military coordination among the anti-terrorist allies is such that, somehow or another, France felt it necessary to venture into Mali alone. Naturally the United States supplied a bit of aid, after a while. The commentaries in the French press make it clear, however, that France is feeling a little blue in its moment of military bravura—proud of its own achievements, but feeling abandoned by the other military powers of the European Union, and genuinely offended by the United States and its tepid support. The White House response to the French invasion, in the estimation of Le Nouvel Observateur, which is normally warm toward President Obama, “bordered on insult.” Secretary of State Kerry tried to be friendly last Thursday by congratulating the French on their military successes, but the secretary’s words seemed only to aggravate the offense, such that even Le Monde, likewise sympathetic to Obama normally, went so far as to quote in a spirit of approval the criticisms of a Republican congressman, which, for Le Monde, is going pretty far. And the French, in responding in these ways to American policies, turn out to be anything but alone.

A couple of weeks ago, an articulate human-rights champion in Egypt named Bahieddin Hassan published an open letter to President Obama in al-Ahram Weekly reminding the president of a good aspect of his Cairo speech—the American president’s promise to stand by the peoples of the region. Only, the letter complained that lately the White House, instead of standing with the people, has been issuing statements that tend to shore up the new government in Egypt—just as, in the past, the United States used to shore up the government of Hosni Mubarak. Is the open letter entirely fair to Obama? Those of us who are merely far-away observers have no way to judge. But the letter and its complaint ought to strike us, in any case, as familiar—a mirror reflection of heartrending complaints we have seen from Syrian rebels who, fighting against the Baath on one side, are also hoping to fend off the Islamists on the other, and are desperate for our help, and are not receiving it; all of which mirrors complaints we used to see, back in 2009, from Iranians who would have also have appreciated a few signs of American support in their own protests against Islamist rule.

At least in 2009 the American master-thinkers could have argued that, in Iran, the Islamist government was not about to tumble from power, and there was no point in encouraging the protesters. But in these early weeks of 2013, when no one can pretend any longer that Islamism has some automatic claim on the entire region, the several mutterings and complaints and cries of betrayal from our own friends and fellow-liberals and closest allies ought to be getting under our skin.