by Steve Kramer (www.encounteringisrael.com)
I recently attended this season’s first lecture sponsored by the English Speaking Friends of Tel Aviv University. The subject was the Arab Spring and its impact on the Middle East. The lecturer was Professor Asher Susser of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University (TAU). He was the Director of the Center for twelve years and has taught for some thirty years in TAU’s Department of Middle Eastern History. Susser has been a visiting professor at Cornell University, the University of Chicago, Brandeis University, and the University of Arizona. His most recent book is “Israel, Jordan and Palestine – The Two-State Imperative.”
Susser believes that the term “Arab Spring” is exaggerated. Virtual reality and influence in cyber-space, Twitter and Facebook especially, have been confused with real political power. Technology has been overrated because social networking ignores age-old traditions in the Middle East. Susser said the media coverage in America was misleading, citing the example of The New York Time’s Maureen Dowd, who wrote that Twitter would create democracy in Egypt, a country where 30% of the population is illiterate and only 20% use computers.
Secularism is in retreat in the region. Susser asked, What were the Libyans fighting for? Surely not liberal democracy. Reports published by the United Nations show deficits in creativity, education, women’s rights and more. The disempowered and dispossessed masses, especially in the non-oil producing Arab countries, have risen up against the alliance of tyranny and corruption. Population growth adds to the pressure. There are currently 360 million Arabs. That will rise to more than 400 million by 2020! Those numbers mean that 50 million jobs will have to be created in the next decade, just to maintain the (woefully inadequate) status quo. The Arab countries can’t reach that goal, according to Susser, ensuring repeated bouts of instability ahead.
All societies have differences. The so-called “Other” of the Middle East are really different from us and those differences – religion and culture – can’t be ignored for politically correct reasons. Giving “respect” to Middle Eastern countries because Arabs are the “Other” is a trap. Islamist politics, religious sectarianism and tribalism are the Arabs’ main attributes, while secularism has lost it’s former momentum.
Though columnist Roger Cohen lauded the recent Tunisian revolution, comparing Tunisia to Cuba, Susser said Cohen was totally mistaken. Castro is still in control in Cuba, while the Islamist al-Nahda Party has just won the first elections in the post-revolutionary era, displacing the young Twitter crowd.
Despite the Arab Spring, Egypt still puts bloggers in jail. The revolution there has been hijacked by the military. Susser noted that this result is best for Israel, because the army is the most pragmatic leadership in Egypt. This is especially so since the recent sacking of the Israeli embassy, when Egypt’s military rulers were caught napping and felt embarrassed.
Susser reminded us that early in Egypt’s Arab Spring demonstrations, a liberal, Westernized Internet executive was lauded as a potential leader by President Obama and the Western media. Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google, claimed that he was behind the Facebook page that helped spark “the revolution of the youth of the Internet.” That activity earned Ghonim twelve days of imprisonment. His cohort, the mostly young revolutionaries, later voluntarily left the center of the revolt, Tahrir Square. Much was made of that by media.
Running things in uneasy coexistence with the army is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization which has been active in Egypt since the 1920s. While Islamists joined the Egyptian revolt late, they were careful not to be usurped by the military. A much later “million man protest” at the square started, significantly, on Friday after prayers, with a radical Muslim imam as principal speaker.
Susser also pointed out that Mohamed ElBaradei, former IAEA director and leader of the National Coalition for Change, was a significant leader during the Egyptian revolt, but he wasn’t even allowed to vote in the referendum because of a technicality. So much for his chance to be president. The winner in the referendum was the Muslim Brotherhood, which means elections will come soon, an advantage to the well-organized Brotherhood. It’s much the same throughout those Arab countries which participated in the Arab Spring: the most organized groups, the Islamist ones, win or retain power.
Nevertheless, said Susser, in theory democracy can coexist with Islam. But not with Sharia law, which according to the Koran is God-given. Sharia would have to be secondary. This won’t happen, Susser predicted. Minorities won’t have equality. Freedom of speech and freedom for women aren’t likely to happen. So, what’s left is skepticism about the legacy of the Arab Spring.
One hundred years ago, the Middle Eastern peoples looked to the West and wanted to be equals. No more; the West is in trouble economically and politically and doesn’t provide a desirable model. The Arabs also admired the Soviet model, but that system is obviously obsolete. Arab nationalism (Arabism), which Susser pointed out is language-oriented more than racial or religious, also failed. The Arab world has lost its momentum, except for its oil production. Not one Arab state compares to Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt (1956-1970) and brought Arabism to its peak.
Islamists on the one hand, and the military on the other, have been most adept in seizing the reins of actual power in the wake of the regional turmoil, reacting to the fact that the current leaders of the Middle East are the non-Arab states of Iran and Turkey, which are largely religion-oriented. (Israel is a big factor too.) The modernization, Westernization and secularization that the Middle East has undergone in the last two centuries has waned. Sectarianism (primarily Sunni and Shia Islam) has replaced secularism, both domestically and internationally. Susser noted that this fact counts much more than Twitter.
The world has changed in the last few generations. America has failed in Iraq because Iraqis don’t want to be Americans, unlike in Germany and Japan after WWII. Cyberspace is not reality and youthful rage isn’t a solution. The emigration of young Arabs is the only solution, but one which brings its own problems. Susser told us that expatriate Tunisians living in France voted for Islamists in the Tunisian elections more than domestic Tunisians did. Arab emigrants to Europe are alienated outsiders and many would vote for Islamists in their adopted countries.
In conclusion, Professor Susser said that the next twenty years are crucial. Israel must take a solitary path, disengaging from the volcanic situation in the Middle East. He reminded us that only a few years ago, Israel was ready to alleviate its need for fresh water with purchases from Turkey, instead of building more desalination plants. That should teach us something, he noted. As for the Americans, they try to be “on the right side of history.” But Susser teased, who knows what that means?