When the Arab spring began a year ago, the Western world was shocked. Liberty seemed to have bypassed the Arabs; they had seemed resigned to tyranny. But once unleashed, the upheaval knew no restraint, and there were both mayhem and promise in the streets of the Arab world. Since then, the rebellions have spawned a steady stream of punditry and conventional wisdom about the Arab spring—some of it vastly mistaken. Let’s explore what really fueled the uprisings.
Myth one: Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech helped inspire the Arab spring.
Nothing could be further from the truth. By the time of these rebellions, the Arab and Muslim romance with President Obama had long vanished. He had gone to Cairo in June 2009 promising a new American approach to the Arab-Muslim world. But embattled liberals in the Arab world (and in Iran) had already begun to see through him. While Obama pledged “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Arabs saw the new American leader’s ease with the status quo.
Obama set out to repair America’s relations with Syria and Iran, and gave George W. Bush’s “diplomacy of freedom” a quick burial. “Ideology . . . is so yesterday,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bluntly proclaimed in April 2009, identifying Bush’s assertive foreign policy as a thing of the past. As upheaval swept through Iran in the first summer of the Obama presidency, the self-styled bearer of a new American diplomacy ducked for cover.
The Arabs nearby were quick to see that Obama’s cosmopolitanism—the Kenyan father, the years in Indonesia—masked a political man focused on problems at home. The rebels in Tunisia and Egypt did not expect the U.S. cavalry to ride to the rescue. Even when the rescue mission came for the Libyans, it was late, and the push was from Paris and London, not Washington.
Myth two: these are Facebook and Twitter revolutions.
Facebook and Twitter enabled young dissidents to get around entrenched autocracies and communicate with one another. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who was the face of the revolt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, what was next after Hosni Mubarak fell, Ghonim replied: “Ask Facebook.” But it was ordinary men and women who sacked the pharaoh.
These rebellions have been fueled by traditional sparks: crowds coming out of mosques after Friday prayers in the embattled cities of Syria; the test of wills between brutal regimes and those brave enough to challenge the power; and young people in Daraa, Homs, and Hama conquering the culture of fear and taking on despotism.
Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendor who set himself ablaze in December 2010, didn’t have a Facebook page. He had a sense of righteous anger and despair. We should rein in the technophilia: Internet penetration in the Arab world is still modest.
Myth three: the Obama administration threw Hosni Mubarak under the bus.
The Egyptian president was the author of his own demise. Washington had assumed that Mubarak would ride out the storm. As Egyptians came together to topple the dictatorship, the Obama administration was hobbled by confusion, expressing a presumptuous intimacy with the man while most Egyptians had nothing but contempt for him. Mubarak had long been the pillar of America’s relations with the Arab world. Remember that just a few weeks before he fell, Clinton said that the Egyptian regime was “stable.”
America should not write itself into every story: There are forces in distant nations that we can neither ride nor extinguish. Egypt, a patient land, had given Mubarak three decades. In return, the ruler toyed with his people and belittled them. He sat at the apex of a lawless regime and never designated a legitimate successor. (Even the most obtuse could see that he intended to bequeath power to his pampered son.) He had risen out of the armed forces, and the officer corps came to see that dynastic ambition as a brazen affront. In this Egyptian drama, those at the White House and in Foggy Bottom were mere spectators.
Myth four: Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq inspired the Arab spring.
Having supported the Iraq war, I would love to make this connection. But Iraq, contrary to the hopes and assertions of conservative proponents of the war, is not relevant to the Arab spring.
When the protests began in late 2010, Iraq no longer held the Arab world’s attention. There was bloodshed in Iraq’s streets, there was sectarianism, and few Arabs could consider Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a standard-bearer of a new political culture. The Iraqi story was burdened with two handicaps: the despotism had been decapitated by American power, so it was not a homegrown liberation, and the new Iraqi order had empowered the Shiite majority. The Sunni “Arab street” was not enamored of the political change in Iraq. It had passionately opposed the American war and had no use for Baghdad’s new Shiite leaders.
Tahrir Square inspired other uprisings because Egypt is the trendsetter in Arab political and cultural life. Iraq is a place all its own; very few, if any, Arabs elsewhere can relate to the upheaval in that country.
Myth five: the rebellions will further damage prospects for the Arab-Israeli peace process.
It’s true that hooligans overran the Israeli Embassy in Cairo after Mubarak’s fall. But Arab-Israeli accommodation hardly flourished in the time of the dictators. Despite a peace treaty that was the precondition of American patronage of his regime, Mubarak kept Israel at arm’s length. During his three decades in power, he went to Israel only once—to attend the funeral of the slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Mubarak’s reign was an incendiary mix of antimodernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. The 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was kept, but it was a cold peace with no intimacy between the two countries.
And no praise ought to be showered on the kind of peace that Damascus has observed with Israel since the 1973 October War. The Syria-Israel border has been quiet, but Syria has had the Lebanon-Israel border from which to harass the Jewish state. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s statement that the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be “a blessing for the Middle East” is on the mark.
The leaders of the Arab rebellions may not be fervent, public advocates of peace with Israel, but they have emerged out of the recognition that the dictatorships used the conflict with Israel as a convenient alibi for their own political and economic failures. Does anyone truly believe that the people of Homs dread Israel more than Assad’s tyranny?