I am once again going to step away from Israel and Turkey because I cannot let Walter Laqueur’s piece in World Affairs on misplaced optimism about the Arab Spring go uncommented upon. Laqueur’s argument is that most observers assumed that democracy was going to sweep the Middle East, which is now apparently not going to happen, and so we must ask why the chances against that happening were ignored. He cites the writing of Roger Cohen and Nick Kristof as leading the optimistic charge, and says that Westerners mistook Arab dissatisfaction with the status quo as a desire for democracy and universal human rights, and that “it should have been clear that the odds against the emergence of a democratic order in the foreseeable future in the Arab world were impossibly heavy.”
Agreed, I am 100% on board with this last observation. The problem is, by focusing on the reporting of a couple of New York Times columnists, Laqueur makes the same mistake that they committed in that he misses the big picture, which is that plenty of people made it very clear that the odds of democracy emerging were depressingly slim. Just because high profile journalists ignored the vast array of expert opinion that was out there at the time does not mean that we can somehow alter reality and act as if Kristof and Cohen represent the consensus opinion of the world. If you are looking for contemporary warnings from the leading ranks of Middle East analysts that democracy in Egypt was not imminent, you can try this or this or this. Just because Kristof and Cohen chose to ignore the vast weight of history and the crushing burden of institutional legacies in favor of the heady optimism of Tahrir Square protestors does not mean that there needs to be soul searching on the part of anyone save columnists who parachute into the midst of a revolution and deign to explain what is going on to the world without taking a step back to consider the various structural constraints that are constantly shaping the political sphere. Democracy does not happen overnight; it emerges following a long and difficult path in which literally thousands of little things have to go right, and even then it is a long shot unless the underlying conditions for democracy to flourish are present. I do not mean to take anything away from the thousands of Egyptians who demonstrated in Tahrir and elsewhere, standing up to Mubarak’s goons and then to the army in order to nurture a dream of a better political and social order. Their presence was and is remarkable, but it is not enough to make democracy appear out of thin air, not when there are so many countervailing forces pushing back.
Folks who study and write about the Middle East professionally are not surprised at what is taking place today. I am certainly no expert, just a small voice on the periphery, but even I saw what was coming. One of the main premises of my dissertation (which is merrily underway and nearing completion), which I came up with for the first time in the fall of 2007, is that Tunisia has long been the only Arab state in which conditions are favorable in almost every respect for democracy and that there is a particular ideological legacy that has been holding it back. On the day that Ben Ali fell, I argued in Foreign Policy that Tunisia is unique and that it was unlikely that any other Arab dictators would be joining Ben Ali soon. That prediction was obviously (and happily) wrong, but only because my language was far too imprecise. What I should have written, and what I have argued long and loudly ever since, is that other Arab regimes were unlikely to be replaced, and indeed anyone who has followed events in Egypt knows that Mubarak may be gone but the authoritarian regime has remained right where it always was. In February 2011, I wrote the following in a short essay that I could not convince anyone to publish: “In Egypt, the military’s interests are too bound up with those of the regime to let it be overtaken, and as seen by events in Tahrir Square, where the army allowed violence to flare up but has now acted to simply keep both sides apart, the army is neither on the side of the demonstrators nor a force for democracy. In Syria, civil society is far weaker than in Egypt, making mass demonstrations difficult to sustain, and the army has a history of firing on civilians, unlike the Egyptian military. In short, Arab regimes and militaries are remarkably resilient and protective of their interests, and the chances of an outbreak of successful revolutions or democratic transitions are slim at best.” In hindsight, some parts of this are more correct than others – demonstrations have been going on in Syria for over a year, and Egypt and Libya carried out revolutions with varying degrees of success – but underlying analysis was right on point, which was not to expect democracy outside of Tunisia any time soon. I am not reprinting my thoughts from the first months of 2011 to make myself seem particularly prescient, but to highlight the fact that anything but the most shallow analysis easily led to a more pessimistic conclusion than the optimism Laqueur describes as widespread. Laqueur wants observers to reassess how their wishful thinking impacts their analysis, but the truth is that it is not Middle East analysts who got history wrong, only the wishful thinkers who moonlight as analysts.