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Why the Arab Spring hasn't failed in Egypt and Middle East

With Egypt back to 'temporary' martial law and turmoil riling the Middle East, the Arab Spring may appear to have failed. But the revolutionary story in the region is far from over. The Arab world has been changed irrevocably, and transitions – likely marked by conflict – will continue.

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To remain in power in these shame-and-honor cultures, as British author David Pryce-Jones described more than 20 years ago in “The Closed Circle,” it seems a leader has to combine most if not all of the following strategies: generating an aura of fear, ruthlessly eliminating rivals, appointing trusted friends to run the army and security services, using foreign alliances to his advantage, and – of course – placing busts, portraits, and statues of himself in every public space. Some observers are already wondering how long it will be before the de facto ruler of Egypt, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ticks all of these boxes.

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Yet I am not quite so pessimistic as to expect a complete restoration of the old order. The Arab Spring may appear to have failed, but in many important respects the Arab world has been changed irrevocably.

First, the institution of tribalism is not as strong and cohesive as it used to be. Individuals within a tribe or clan have developed other loyalties and can defy traditional forms of authority in ways that were unthinkable a generation ago. The combined factors of urbanization, young demographics, displaced peoples, and emigration will further erode tribal and clan loyalties.

Second, the appeal of radical Islam is beginning to wane. This trend is paradoxical because Islamists continue to enjoy considerable grassroots loyalty. However, after what people have experienced in countries where Islamists have come to power – notably in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran and the Taliban’s Afghanistan – it is no longer self-evident that sharia is the answer to all the problems of modernity. This is the key to the backlash against the Islamists that we have seen in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. Islamists thrive in opposition and in chaos but fail miserably in government.

Third, the effects of globalization have changed attitudes toward the West. Thanks to migration and telecommunications, Arabs in particular and Muslims in general are now physically and virtually connected to Europe and the US as never before. They may not approve of everything they see in the West, but they nevertheless are seeing how Western political institutions of freedom actually work.

Fourth, the emergence of hitherto oppressed interest groups cannot be reversed. Women, religious minorities, and even homosexuals remain highly vulnerable in the Middle East and North Africa. But such groups are gaining strength through organization. If you are a woman who has been raped, you are better off going to a women’s group than to your local despot. Feminism, in particular, has been one of the surprise winners of the past three years in Egypt.

Finally, the attitudes of Americans and Europeans have changed. In the past, any despot in the region worth his salt understood how to present himself as strategically vital to Western interests. For better or for worse, that game is now almost over. Rulers who cannot credibly claim to have popular legitimacy can no longer count on being propped up by Washington, London, or Paris.

Significantly, the restored military regime in Egypt is counting on the Gulf states, not the US, to bankroll it. Last Thursday, President Obama interrupted his holiday to give a speech canceling joint US-Egyptian military maneuvers. The minority of Americans who still care about the Arab Spring are urging him to go further. But even if he further cuts US aid to Egypt, it won’t make much difference. Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates can more than compensate.

Do all these profound changes mean the Middle East is on the brink of a glorious new era of peace, democracy, freedom, and prosperity?

On the contrary. The collision between the region’s traditional divisions and these new and disruptive trends will be anything but peaceful. I look ahead with trepidation and pity toward a prolonged period of conflict as revolutionary and religious wars coincide and interact. All we can say with any certainty is that there can be no return to the old days.

This was indeed a turning point – even if the Arab world has turned in a direction that few Western commentators expected two years ago.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of “Infidel” and “Nomad.”


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