The Caravan

Turbulence

Thursday, August 9, 2012

These are the most vexing questions of this historical moment, and I deny that anybody has the answers to them yet. Looking backward, I think that two observations can be made with some confidence. The first is that the only emancipated Arab country that did not elect an Islamist was the one Arab country in which the United States and its allies robustly intervened. I refer, of course, to Libya. Whether this is correlation or causation, it is certainly not coincidence. In Egypt and in Syria, by contrast, we have almost no levers of influence as regards the political direction of the change. President Obama’s assumption that American intrusion upon these events can only be for ill is a tremendous mistake. The second is that the rise of the Islamist parties in Egypt is owed in part to the disgraceful abdication of the political sphere by the liberal Twitterers who made the revolution. These fools pride themselves on their “leaderlessness” (they are abetted in this by any number of ideologues of the Internet who erroneously teach that “the network” is an appropriate metaphor for political life) while the authoritarians, religious and secular, the mullahs and the generals, have their leaders and seek resolutely to lead. The techies of Tahrir overthrew the dictator and left the field. They do not wish to live fiercely; but liberalism, too, must be fierce.

As for the future: I am as unclear as the next honest man. I am not yet prepared to speak ominously of an “Islamist ascendancy”. We are in the early days of the Arab experiment with democracy. The party of democracy is young and somewhat inchoate, whereas the party of autocracy – there is more than one – is old and operational. The Morsi administration – owing to its manner of coming to power, it is not the Morsi regime, and this is an epochal change – will almost certainly be sobered and moderated by the responsibilities of governing. I see no reason to believe that it wants a war with Israel, or that it will take its new policy toward Hamas all the way to a war with Israel. Even believers recognize raison d’etat. (Some of the greatest practitioners of raison d’etat in early modern Europe were princes of the church.) The primary concerns of Morsi and the other elected Arab leaders are, and will be, overwhelmingly domestic. There is no denying the eagerness of jihadists to exploit the chaos that accompanies all rapid political change, but I do not see an Egyptian Taliban or a Tunisian Taliban or a Syrian Taliban. Moreover, not all theocrats are jihadists, hard as it may be for some Westerners to grasp the distinction.

I do not mean to speak casuistically: I know that theocrats are not democrats. But devoutly religious officials who are democratically elected and govern a democracy in a way that leaves civil society open – they are not theocrats as, say, the Ayatollah Khameini is a theocrat. Does religious leadership in a democracy mean that the public sphere has itself been sacralized? It all depends on what they do. We will have to wait and see. But we do not have to wait and see passively. The sooner we learn to talk with these governments, however awkwardly and tensely, the better for us and for them. We have no choice, and the stakes are high. We may not like these governments, but there is nothing we can do about the fact that they are legitimate. Holding back as we now prefer to do – diffidence-building measures, you might say -- will accomplish nothing. And as we learn to talk with these governments, we must continue to support the secular democrats in these societies, because the democratic revolutions in the Arab world will not be complete without their muscular participation in politics. So we had better keep our heads, because democratic transformation is a species of turbulence, and this turbulence will not end soon.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.