June – ‘tis the season of report cards and graduations – a time to celebrate for some, to reflect upon what went wrong for others. Now six months into the Arab Spring, it’s also an opportune time for analysis and grading through the lens of key academic subjects. Though promising opportunity and better lives in the Middle East and North Africa – unless the Arab Spring delivers sweeping societal change and meaningful economic improvements along with democracy, it’s likely headed for disaster.
Let’s take a look at its report card:
History – D
A cursory glance over the past 100 years shows that while popular uprisings may topple autocrats, they don’t necessarily yield positive outcomes. Russia’s revolution in 1917 ushered in the Soviet Union. Iran’s revolution of 1979 brought us the current regime – perhaps the world’s most destabilizing – and one determined to join the nuclear club.
Budding democracies in troubled societies don’t always fare much better – Germany’s Weimar Republic brought Adolf Hitler to power in 1933. When Palestinians in Gaza elected their own leaders in 2006, they picked Hamas – a terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction.
Civics – F
In the study of rights and duties of citizenship, the Arab Spring has exposed deeply intolerant and misogynistic societies. Since the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and functioning state security apparatus, it’s been open season on Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population. Last month, two churches were burned, a dozen Christians killed and hundreds wounded – incredibly while riot police reportedly stood idly by.
Meanwhile, the savage gang sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan during a public celebration for Mr. Mubarak’s downfall in Cairo’s Tahrir Square revealed a darker side to the pro-democracy movement – equal treatment of women remains a starkly foreign concept.
Economics – D minus
The chaos that has enveloped the Arab world is bad for business. Foreign direct investment depends on stability and security – increasingly rare commodities there. Libya’s civil war has all but stopped its oil production, and while only previously supplying about 2 percent of the world’s supply, the conflict-sparked run on petroleum has led to $4-a-gallon gas in the United States – double that in Europe.
A Group of Eight-announced aid package of $40 billion for Tunisia and Egypt might prevent their collapse, though unless it’s accompanied by improving underlying economic conditions, it will be little more than an expensive bandage.
Political Science – D minus
A tradition of autocratic rulers in principally tribal-centric cultures has fostered weak civil societies. Many modern Arab nations are a mix of rival tribes, religious sects and ethnic groups. Thus, the strong govern by force, ruthlessly repressing the building blocks of democracy – a free press, vibrant and independent universities, a pro-business culture and tolerance for new ideas.
Clashes over who will rule in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen will pit those striving for Western-style personal liberties and modernity against Islamists wishing for a return to medieval ways. Since the latter – most notably the Muslim Brotherhood – appear to be the best organized, look out for anti-U.S., pro-Iranian governments coming soon.
Art – F
The Spanish Civil War gave us Picasso’s “Guernica,” an iconic painting of a town wiped out by Nazi Germany’s bomber aircraft. World War II gave us films like “Casablanca” and “Back to Bataan.”
The Arab Spring has shown us coarse anti-Semitic graffiti and effigies, depicting leaders like Col. Moammar Gadhafi adorned with the Star of David. While riveting, the protester-produced videos of carnage have been little more than a modern version of the “Faces of Death” film series.
What can we learn from all this?
First, the Arab Spring is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Second, despite signs of looming disaster, the Obama administration has thrown its weight behind whichever Arab democracy movements it thinks will succeed, regardless of whether they are friend or foe.
So we’ve dumped long-term allies in Tunisia and Egypt as their regimes crumbled, led “kinetic military action” in Libya despite the absence of a direct threat in recent times, and abandoned Yemen even while it’s a partner in fighting al Qaeda. Yet oddly enough, we haven’t done much about a true enemy in Syria beyond mildly expanding economic sanctions.
Such an incoherent strategy on the Arab Spring – one that essentially punishes allies and gives enemies a pass – is prone to fail and come back to haunt us, likely sooner rather than later.
Sounds like time for summer school.
J.D. Gordon, a communications consultant to several Washington think tanks and a retired Navy commander who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.