The Arab Spring has met its Cassandra. While countless analysts and observers gushed that an era of democracy was at hand, John Bradley sat down to write a book that defies almost every assumption underlying the conventional wisdom about the Arab Spring.
Bradley believes that his worst fears have already been realised. In his view, the liberal vanguard of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt has been overwhelmed by the Islamists, who have begun radically reordering their societies for the worse. (Bradley calls Egypt today an "action replay of Iran in 1979", when Islamists pushed out liberals and leftists after the revolution.) He predicts that the same thing will happen in Syria, asserts that Bahrain crushed its revolt with Saudi assistance and tacit US approval, and maintains that the Libyan and Yemeni revolts were dominated by tribes and Islamists from the start.
Bradley is a British journalist with three other books to his name - including one on Egypt, in which he predicts an uprising against Hosni Mubarak. He has spent years in the region, and brings to After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts a copious amount of first-hand knowledge. He also enlivens his otherwise downbeat and enervating argument with a potent dose of caustic wit, so that even readers relatively confident of democracy's triumph in the Arab world will look about furtively, hoping that Bradley isn't around to add their names to "those who subscribe to the kitten-loving, Facebook Arab Spring narrative".
Nevertheless, one cannot but conclude that Bradley's doomsday prophesying is premature. His pessimism rests largely on two arguments - both of which relate only indirectly to the current situation. The first is that a number of the Islamist leaders who claim to be moderate have made extremist statements in the past. (Bradley pays special attention to Rachid Ghannouchi, chief of Tunisia's Ennahda party.) The second is that when Islamists have secured a share of power in other countries - such as Malaysia and Indonesia, which Bradley discusses extensively in an informative but digressive chapter - they have not moderated their earlier views, despite having initially pretended otherwise. Bradley extrapolates that Islamists in the Arab world will be the same.
While Bradley deftly analyses Islamists' political strategies, he tends to overestimate their long-term success. He is correct that Islamists often compensate for being a numerical minority both by utilising long-established grassroots networks and by voting en masse, ending up with a share of power disproportionate to their true numbers. "The Islamists, to put it simply, do not need majority support from the total population to triumph in elections," he notes. "They need a majority within the minority who vote." Bradley adds that, in post-revolt elections in Tunisia and Egypt, overall voter turnout was low, and attributes this phenomenon to the masses having risen up due to lack of economic opportunity, not a desire to engage in party politics.
But what about the day after the elections, when the Islamists find themselves in power and the people expect tangible improvements in their lives, as opposed to increased personal restrictions? Bradley makes no mention of Gaza-governing Hamas having softened its initial zeal with time. And even though he observes that in Indonesia, voters turned against the Islamists in 2009, he apparently cannot conceive of a similar phenomenon occurring in any of the Arab countries currently falling under the Islamists' sway. In fact, Bradley seems to think that Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere will subvert the nascent democratic process so thoroughly that there will be no way to dislodge them.
Although the author should be commended for his unflinching examination of economic setbacks caused by the mass upheavals and the attacks on personal freedoms launched by emboldened Islamists, he veers into exaggeration. To hear Bradley tell it, the economic damage done will take decades to reverse, while the transgressions by Islamists are bound to increase and worsen. The author also generalises quite a bit. For example, the Libyan rebels did include Islamist contingents, but to Bradley all the rebels were Islamists and Muammar Qaddafi was secular: "The 'rebels' were religious extremists fighting to impose Islamic law in Libya once secular Qaddafi was ousted."
Granted, when it comes to international politicking, the author has reasons to be alarmed. He points to US acquiescence in Saudi Arabia's collusion with the Bahraini regime in suppressing the revolt in that country as proof of Western hypocrisy. And he lays bare much of the realpolitik behind Saudi's support of Nato in Libya. According to Bradley, the West wanted Libya's oil. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia wanted to crush the largely Shiite uprising against a Sunni minority in Bahrain. "This allowed the Saudis to make a deal with Washington: Let us invade Bahrain and we will vote for UN Resolution 1973, which kick-started the Nato intervention in Libya by authorising 'all necessary force' to protect civilians."
Bradley does not spare Iran, that other regional behemoth. He details Iran's quashing of domestic dissent and its support for the currently embattled Syrian regime as well as Hizbollah in Lebanon. (Iran also sponsors Hamas.)
But he proceeds to adopt a wholly defeatist attitude, claiming that "if the Arab Spring had even a remote chance of ushering in a wave of progressive change, it would have had to challenge, in concrete and progressive ways, the internal power structures and region-wide influence of both countries. A tall order indeed."
For him, the Arab Spring is over and the results are not positive: "The Arab Spring has been a dismal failure. All indications are that what comes next will be significantly worse than what existed before, in Tunisia and everywhere else, and the traumatic events up to now have already caused untold havoc and violence and made the lives of innocent ordinary people even more miserable than they already were. Socially and economically, the Arab Spring has put back countries like Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria by decades."
The main problem with After the Arab Spring is that, although Bradley's criticism of Islamists and their western cheerleaders often hits its mark, he fails to discern the long-term positive effects of political democratisation in the Arab world. Given that the situation in autocratic Arab countries was (by his own admission) untenable, change was bound to happen. And since the regimes were adamantly opposed to ceding political or even economic power, their overthrow became the only way to effect change. This realisation makes it clear that the sooner such regimes were toppled the better, as there is no sense in postponing the inevitable and prolonging people's agony.
The chief caveat attending the otherwise joyous overthrow of sclerotic Arab regimes is admittedly that Islamists will assume a greater socio-political role. As Bradley shows, this has already happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and will probably happen in Yemen and Syria. The immediate results of this disturbing phenomenon are fewer personal freedoms, greater censorship and harassment of women and religious minorities. Bradley does well to force readers - many of whom may be unrealistically sanguine about recent events - to confront the dark side of the Arab Spring.
Yet paradoxically, unrestricted political expression and activity on the part of Islamists will impel liberals to openly oppose them. Hitherto, Arab liberals and Islamists would often close ranks against autocratic regimes, thoroughly deforming the politico-ideological arena and rendering any distinctions other than pro- or anti-regime purely theoretical.
The two developments enabling a rectification of this political aberration are a general receding of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the toppling of autocratic Arab regimes. So long as Arabs were obsessively focused on Israel, much of their political energy was directed towards events over which they had little influence. Of course, the autocratic regimes exploited their people's pro-Palestinian sympathies and anti-Israeli animus so as to deflect attention from themselves.
Once the Arab-Israeli conflict began to diminish in importance, Arabs in various countries began to focus more on their own rulers' faults. But in order to seriously challenge regimes, opposition groups had to unite. This alliance of convenience ends as soon as the regimes fall. At that point, liberals and Islamists can get on with the business of promoting liberalism and Islamism, respectively, as opposed to devoting their energies to fighting the common enemy.
This is what has happened in those countries in which the dictatorial regimes were overthrown. To be sure, the Islamists have the upper hand in their growing confrontation with liberals. Islam, upon which their movements claim to be built, remains the single most powerful component of identity for many Muslims, and the main focus of their loyalties. And, as Bradley demonstrates, unlike the frequently elitist liberals, Islamists have been laying the socio-cultural groundwork for their political decisions for decades by working among the masses.
But at least the battle lines have been drawn. Liberals and Islamists will no longer be bedfellows in those Arab countries that have liberated themselves from tyranny. A political fight that should have taken place a long time ago has finally begun. Hopefully, whichever party emerges triumphant will respect democratic norms and avoid emulating its predecessor's approach to most political opponents.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.