“Arab Spring,” as it has been portrayed by the Western media, is an illusion.
Virtually every element of the media narrative — it is a spontaneous revolt, that it is Internet-driven, that it seeks democracy or income equality — is wrong or misleading.
After extensive interviews across the region and two visits to North Africa in July, it is clear that Western media and intelligence services have played a “Jedi Mind Trick” on themselves and us.
They have produced a number of myths that cloud our understanding. Let’s clear the air.
MYTH: The Arab revolt is an indigenous, spontaneous reaction to the excesses of dictatorial rulers.
Analysts should be wary of assuming that the revolts in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen are entirely internal in origin.
Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Soliman warned General Petraeus in 2010 that Iran was working with the Muslim Brotherhood (as well as Hezbollah and Hamas factions in Egypt) to bring down the Mubarak regime. Soliman was so angry that he phoned his Iranian intelligence counterpart, warning him that Iran faced retaliation from Egypt if it did not cease promoting revolution inside Egypt. All of this information is captured in a June 29, 2010 State department cable that was made public by WikiLeaks.
Is there only reason to believe that Iran severed its ties to radical groups in Egypt in mid-2010? Or is it more likely Iran continued its subversive work?
Or consider Bahrain, which has also been convulsed by demonstrations.
Geography is destiny. Bahrain is on the Persian Gulf and its Sunni rulers are engulfed by a population that is nearly 70% Shia, the religion of Iran’s ruling mullahs. Despite more than a decade of political and economic reforms, and overall prosperity that makes Bahrain the 19th richest country in the world, the Shia majority remains inconsolable. Al Wifaq, the largest Shia political group, won parliamentary and municipal elections in 2010 but its leaders complain bitterly that the powers of the elected body, which it dominates, lacks the power to rule the country.
Arab intelligence officials have told me that Iran’s agents are behind the street demonstrations and violent attacks on government buildings. It is not hard to believe that Iran wants to win back through mass revolt what it lost through neglect centuries ago. If Bahrain were to become an Iranian satellite, it would displace the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet from its base in Bahrain and dominate the routes through which a majority of the world’s oil supplies must thread. The strategic advantage to Iran is clear and clearly overlooked in the press coverage of the Bahrain revolts.
Or focus in on Yemen. Iran has been actively backing terrorists in the wild lands of northern Yemen for the past 10 years. While the population of Yemen is overwhelmingly Sunni, so are the populations of Syria and Lebanon over which Iran has enormous sway. (Iran just announced the construction of an Iranian military base in the Syria’s Mediterranean port city of Latakia.)
While no hard data exists in open-source documents linking Iran to the uprising in Yemen, Yemeni officials privately tell me that Iran is meddling in Yemen’s domestic politics by funding radical groups and providing propaganda cover through Press TV and other outlets it runs. Iran also has links to Al Qaeda’s Arabian Peninsula branch. It is dangerous to assume that Iran is not involved.
Other foreign players in the Yemeni crisis include Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Saudi Arabia is concerned about the security along its border with Yemen and stopping the spread of the radical contagion that festers there.
A North African intelligence chief tells me that Qatar, home to Al Jazeera, wants to put a finger in Saudi Arabia’s eye and roiling Yemen is the easiest way to do it. “You can start a revolution there for less than one million dollars,” he told me in July.
The role of Iran and other nations in fomenting “Arab Spring” is not fully known. But we know enough to say that the revolts are not the spontaneous mass uprisings that the media imagines.
Myth: The Arab Revolution is a Facebook, Twitter or Internet revolution
“Did Twitter make them do it?” asked Jesse Lichenstein inSlate.com.The New York Timesand theWashington Postpicked up on the theme, describing the Egyptian revolution as a “Facebook revolt.” In gratitude, one Egyptian man, Gamal Ibrahim, even named his newborn daughter “Facebook.”
Web-based writers seem particularly prone to the form of Internet triumphalism. Yet the hide-bound print and broadcast media was not far behind.
There is a pebble of truth here. After all, the Arabic and English-language versions of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” (named for a 28-year old Egyptian who was beaten to death by police when he called them corrupt) attracted some 500,000 followers and became a means of coordinating anti-regime demonstrations.
But the Arab rebels are pretty unhappy with Facebook. Facebook insists users use a real name or it will be take down a user’s page. Real names invite nighttime visits of the secret police. Egyptian dissident Wael Ghonim complained that Facebook kept taking down his revolutionary page many times, until he found an Egyptian woman living in Washington, D.C., willing to lend her name. Even then, they needed the intervention of an English lord, who is also a Facebook executive, to keep the page online. As a result, Ghonim had to rely on other, non-web means to build his base of support. Most of those 500,000 Facebook friends came after, not before, the demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
“Ali,” who runs the Tunis-based Facebook page “SBZ News,” told theDaily Beastthat his page was taken down five times by Facebook. Again, Facebook wanted a real name. It even asked “Ali” to scan and email a copy of his passport. “Are they interested in our personal information more than supporting a revolution?” he asked bitterly.
Even if Facebook had been a model revolutionary aid, few Arabs have Internet access compared to Americans and Europeans.
Fewer than 9% of Egyptians have Internet access at home and in Yemen only 3% have Internet access at home, according to a 2009 survey conducted by The Gallup Organization. While in Tunisia the figure climbs to 21% and in Bahrain to 80%, according to the same survey, no one has described events in these countries as a Facebook or Twitter revolutions. While Internet cafes are numerous in major Arab cities, they generally charge by the minute — motivating users to keep online time short.
And don’t forget that many Arabs have no Internet access at all. Thirty-four percent of Egyptians have no Internet access of any kind and in Yemen 35% are cut off from the world-wide web, according to Gallup.
What about cell phone usage, which has climbed by more than 1,000% since 2000 in the Arab world? Of Egypt’s 55 million phone users, fewer than 20 million have Internet access through their phones. In Tunisia only one-third of that nation’s 10 million mobile phone users could access the Internet and a like percentage in Yemen.
And that measures only theoretical access to the Web via phone. Since most of these mobile phone users access the Web through high-priced providers, most of whom are state monopolies, only the very rich can afford to spend significant amounts of time online. Few can afford to use costly services such as email, let alone Facebook.
Also Internet-service providers tend to be highly regulated across the Arab world. Indeed Arab governments are major buyers of Western-made blocking and filtering software, according to Ahmed Al Hujairy, the president of the Bahrain Internet Society. Police patrol the web for would-be revolutionaries and use the government’s control of the telecom infrastructure to track them down — hardly a great platform for revolution.
And don’t forget, Facebook and email can’t reach the almost half of the Arab world that is illiterate in its own language.
Western observers tend to view the Web as inherently revolutionary, partly because it upended Western economies in the last twenty years. They think it is only natural that the Internet can transform international politics too.
They overlook that the Middle East lags behind Asia, Europe, North America, Latin America and even sub-Sahara Africa in both the degree of Internet penetration and the number of Internet users, according towww.Internetworldstats.com.
Besides, if the Internet were inherently revolutionary, why hasn’t the Internet produced revolts against dictators in Asia, Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa where Internet penetration and usage are far higher? (To be sure, the sub-Saharan numbers are skewed by South Africa’s near-European levels of Internet penetration and usage.) Why does the Internet produce revolts only among the Arabs?
The answer is that the Internet itself does not produce political revolutions, but allows elite dissidents to quickly contact other elite dissidents and build a tiny virtual community. Mass revolt, as seen across the Arab world, requires something more.
The main tool of Arab revolutionaries is not the web, but satellite television, largely Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera has a nearly universal reach across the Arab world and brought the startling news of revolution into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of Arab homes. This live, continuous coverage is what spread the seeds of revolution to even illiterate peasants. While 50.2% of Yemenis are illiterate, all of them can crowd around a television screen and get the revolutionary message.
Internet triumphalists overlook the enormous power of the tiny mobile phone. Egypt has more than 55 million mobile phones in use (the largest number in the Arab world), Algeria 33 million (the second largest number in the Arab world) while Bahrain, Tunisia and Yemen have almost as many mobile phones as they have people. Person-to-person calls, conference calls and text messages enabled individuals to reach dozens, hundreds, even thousands. If anything the Arab revolutions are driven by the cell phone and the television screen, not the Web.
MYTH: The Arab Revolution is mainly about unemployment.
This has some superficial plausibility. After all, some 65 million out of 360 million Arabs live on $2 per day or less.
Of course, Western scholars are prone to see mass movements as uprisings of the economic downtrodden, as if the Arabs were no more than extras who escaped from a performance ofLes Miserables.It is typical Marxist fallback explanation for almost any mass movement: the 2011 London riots, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and so on. They like this diagnosis because the prescription is simple: governments should tax more and bribe the discontented to stay quiet.So income inequality is either the magic key that unlocks every door in the universe or a simplistic explanation that is applied to every event the intelligentsia can’t immediately explain.
The evidence points to the latter. Tunisia was the first Arab country to revolt and its unemployment rate (14%) was among the lowest in the Arab world. Other nations in revolt had even lower rates of joblessness in 2010: Egypt (9.7%), Algeria (9.9%), and Jordan (13.4%). These are unemployment rates comparable to Western Europe and the North America—regions where mobs are not toppling governments.
Indeed, Yemen, with one out of three adults unemployed, seems to be the only clear-cut case of the out-of-work marching on the capital. And, that may well be the work of foreign actors, not domestic anger about poverty.
If unemployment alone was a major driver of revolt, then Djibouti should be in chaos now. At 59%, its unemployment rate is the highest in the Arab League and almost four times the unemployment rate in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan — each of which have seen major demonstrations or revolts in the past months. But Djibouti is quiet.
Nor are the revolutionary leaders poor. In Egypt, the revolt was led by the highly paid, includingGooglemarketing executive Wael Ghonim. Other leaders of the revolt were engineers, managers, lawyers and teachers – all of them employed and many of them employed by the very government that they were revolting against.
While the cause of the unemployed was sometimes cited by anti-regime demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, the two main themes expressed over and over again in signs and statements were corruption and the lack of accountability by the rulers to the ruled. Rather than seeing this as a proto-Marxist manifestation, the Arab revolutions should be seen for what they are: a desire by the people to be treated honestly by officials and to hold them responsible when they fail.
MYTH: The Arab Revolution is about democracy.
It is too soon to tell. Western observers forget the ancient wisdom of the Greek writer Polybius, who reminds us every system eventually becomes its opposite. In the Arab world, dictatorship becomes anarchy, not democracy.
So far, the Arab revolutions have not produced a single democracy. In Tunisia and in Egypt, there is the hope that transitions will produce democracies in the coming months. But a new oligarchy of military and intelligence officers, tycoons and technocrats seems more likely.
In Algeria, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen the strongmen may survive or be replaced by other dictators. Democracy is not a foregone conclusion.
In all cases the Arab revolutions were unified in demanding the ouster of the current leaders and either confused or conflicted about what form of government should follow.
What unites revolutionaries across the Arab world is a loathing of their centralized, all-powerful states.
Such states, because they have the ability to dispense so many benefits, soon become completely corrupted. When a citizen has to rely on the state for every life-sustaining thing from housing to schooling, its officials do not have to ask for bribes. They know that desperate citizens will volunteer to pay them. Thus are a people made to grovel, beg and proffer gifts to the very officials who should be serving them, a condition that produces humiliation and disgust on one side and greed and entitlement on the other. When this indignation coats a country, it is as if every city has been soaked in petrol and awaits only a single spark to explode.
After Muburak was forced from power, Egyptian motorists largely stopped paying bribes to traffic cops. We had a revolution, they would say, and then spit on the ground near the corrupt policeman’s feet, according to the Egyptian press.
This is the real issue of the Arab revolts: the desire to be free of the humiliating dance of petty corruption. They want respect and not necessarily democracy.
Even those demonstrators demanding elections are not actually demanding democracy. Democracy is a form of government in which leaders face election on a regular and continuous basis. Some factions in the Arab world want only one election to cement themselves in power and never want to face another one. Consider the case of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who held a December 1979 referendum to ratify his hold on power and never saw the need to hold an unrigged election ever again. Or the case of Algeria’s ruling junta, which decided to nullify the results of the 1992 elections that would have brought the radical Islamists to power. Indeed the political history of post-colonial Africa can be summed up in the maxim: “one man, one vote, one time.”
MYTH: The Arab Revolution is led by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamic extremists.
While the Muslim Brotherhood played a part in the Egyptian revolution, it is clearly not in power, at least not yet. The Egyptian army maintains control and is presiding over what it describes as a “transition to democracy.”
Barry Rubin, an American scholar specializing in the Muslim Brotherhood, calls it “by far the most successful Islamist group in the world.” It has branches in every Arab country and many outposts in Western Europe and North America. While large and influential, Rubin points out in his book “The Muslim Brotherhood” (Palgrave, 2010): the Brotherhood “has never quite seized state power anywhere.”
To be sure, its creature, Hamas, dominates the Gaza Strip and the Brotherhood tried unsuccessfully to seize Syria in the 1980s.
Nowhere is the Brotherhood’s power more strongly felt than in its founding place, Egypt. Yet it did not lead the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo and it is unclear if the demonstration leaders side with the Brotherhood. Indeed, the Brotherhood seems to be trying to cut a backroom deal with the army. A similar deal, forged in the 1950s, broke down within a year and led to decades of repression of the Brotherhood.
For now, the Brotherhood says it will not run candidates when elections are held. This does not necessarily mean that the Brotherhood will sit out the elections. Ever since the 1980s, the Brotherhood in Egypt has paid (or prevailed upon) other political parties to field its candidates. It seems unlikely to be deterred from this proven strategy of electing wolves in sheep’s clothing.
So it is too soon to tell whether the Brotherhood will end up ruling Egypt, directly or by proxy.
If the Brotherhood does come to power, it may not last long. Eighty-five percent of Egypt’s tourist revenue comes from its beaches, not its pyramids. The Brotherhood wants to ban booze and bikinis from the beaches—killing tens of thousands of jobs and foreign exchange. Don’t expect the army to give up that revenue lightly.
MYTH: The Arab Revolution is similar to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.
Not even close. In Europe, the revolts were largely non-violent (except Romania) and the former members of the regimes could count on their physical and financial safety. Germany even paid pensions to former East German officials, including Markus Wolf, the notorious spymaster who allowed dozens to die on the Berlin Wall.
The threatened Arab elites have no such belief in their safety. And rightly so. Mubarak lies on a slab in a small cage in a crowded courtroom, where he may soon be sentenced to death. That is why, unlike communist leaders, they see their choices as fleeing the country (Tunisia), or fighting to the death (Libya).
More importantly, the fight against communism was largely ideological and moral and in every Eastern European nation similar arguments were made against communist rule. By contrast, every Arab uprising seems to have different causes, claims and circumstances. There is not one Arab revolution, but many.
In virtually all cases, Eastern European countries wanted to return to their largely democratic pre-World War II pasts. In Arab lands there is no talk of returning to a recent past, but of moving toward a yet unknown future.
In Eastern Europe there were vibrant and independent elements of civil society, from labor unions to churches. In Arab lands, the prayer leaders at mosques, labor leaders and officials at professional associations are often more radical and more Islamist than the leaders they want to topple. The rest are paid by the regime. There are simply no independent institutions, of any significant size, that are able to mediate between the people and the state.
In Eastern Europe, the people were ruled by a foreign ideology and occupied by foreign troops. So nationalism and patriotism were natural responses. In Arab lands, the occupiers may be from another tribe, but not another country. That renders nationalism and patriotism either a tool of state power or a spent force.
The closer one examines the events of 2010 the less they resemble the developments of 1989.
MYTH: All Arab lands are equally at risk of revolution.
Not exactly. The grip of the Palestinian Authority looks firm. We’ve seen no uprisings in the Comoros Islands.
More instructively, consider the case of Morocco.
In Morocco, street demonstrations attracted tens of thousands in a score of cities. There was virtually no violence and few police were needed. (In Algiers, police outnumbered demonstrators.) What was more telling is what the demonstrators said and did not say. They didn’t call for the removal of the king, did not insult the monarch or even demand a reduction in the scope of his powers. Nor did they want to bring down the government, which is mostly elected. Instead, they wanted more economic reforms adopted more quickly. In short: faster, please.
Why is Morocco the only North African countrynotrocked with revolt? In large part because the king and the government have been aggressively modernizing and reforming the country since 1999. Go to Dakhla, in the kingdom’s deep south. Once a poor outpost on the edge of an endless desert, the city is now booming thanks to the King’s ambitious development plans. New housing, a new airport and a $2 billion port have attracted foreign investment — producing both jobs and hope. In first week of July, Moroccans ratified a new constitution providing for an elected president, an elected bicameral national legislature, and legal guarantees for equal rights for women and Jews. Except over national defense and foreign intelligence, the king is now a largely ceremonial figure — like Britain’s monarch.
At the end of July, south of Tangier, I attended a ceremony commemorating the 11th anniversary of the crowning of the king. The ritual’s aim is to annually renew the social contract between the king and the people. Representatives of each of Morocco’s 16 districts (wilaya) were given the chance to renounce or support the king. They all did.
Back in Casablanca, the head of the nation’s largest Islamist party said he supports continued cooperation with the United States against al Qaeda and other radical terrorist groups.
For all of these reasons, Ahmed Charai, a Moroccan media magnate who is the chairman of Med Radio, calls Morocco “a model for the neighborhood.” It is. But it is also the Arab nation touched the least by Arab Spring.
It is vital that we see “Arab Spring” for what it is, not what we want it to be. If it is the work of new leaders beholden to Iran or radical Islam, it may be the most dangerous development since Sept. 11, 2001.