The Winter to Follow this Arab Spring
Thomas Cromwell

Seasonal metaphors are of limited use in describing political changes. Has the Arab world indeed shaken off the cold grip of dictatorship and entered a happy springtime of change on the way to a warm summer of freedom, democracy and human rights? Hardly.

In the 1970s most of the smart observers around the world viewed the Shah of Iran as one of the last despots on earth, and his removal from power was hailed as a victory for ‘the people of Iran’. But while the Shah had cracked down on communists in Iran, he also had allowed a wide measure of religious freedom and was building a modern Muslim-majority state in the image of Western free market economies. 

The Shah’s Western-oriented government was replaced by a far more repressive regime. Under the glowering visage of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic of Iran started life with bloody purges of the intellectual, business and political elites, and since its inception has been associated with the violation of human rights, including suppression of dissent, persecution of minorities and the sponsorship of terrorism internationally. As it approaches acquisition of nuclear weapons, it now threatens neighbors and countries as far away as Europe with devastation.

Is this the model we are now witnessing in the Arab world? The signs are not good. The ‘great dictators’ of the region (all of them worse than the Shah) are being replaced, one by one. The worst of all, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, was removed by the United States, but at great human and financial cost. The second worst, Bashar Al Assad of Syria, is likely to be forced from power as the slaughter of his own people, unlike when his father massacred some 10,000 at Hama in 1982, shows every sign of fuelling an all-out civil war that he will probably lose.  

Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, shot dead by Western-backed rebels, was probably the third worst of the lot. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia are in another, less brutal class. But they too made the mistake of clinging to power far too long, fueling a growing domestic opposition, led by Islamists. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh appears to be on the way out too, and again it is Islamists pushing him out.

Who is replacing the despots? In Egypt radical Muslim parties will now control the parliament. And, unlike in Turkey where the army long secured Ataturk’s secularism, the military-installed government of Kamal Ganzouri does not look to have a long, healthy life.

Egypt, by far the largest country in the Arab World, has long been a regional leader. In the 20th Century Egypt was prominent in replacing colonial rule first with its own monarchy and then with a parliamentary form of government, headed by a dictator (Gamal Adbel Nasser) aligned with the Soviet Union. Iraq, Syria, South Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia all took similar paths.

Soviet bloc countries were the mentors for all these ‘republics’, and all, to some extent at least, adopted many of the evils of communism: phony elections, centralized economies and often brutal police state concentration of power in the hands of dictator presidents.

Savvy, often benevolent, leadership and deep-rooted tribalism has saved some monarchies from this destiny (Jordan, Morocco, Oman), while oil wealth has saved others (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the emirates scattered along the Gulf).

Iran under the banner of Islam has not been a success. The economy has declined, despite very significant oil revenues. One would be hard-pressed to point to any benefits for ordinary Iranians under this regime. If Islamists complete their sweep of leftist Arab dictators, what can we expect from the new governments that will emerge?

My best guess is that we are facing another dark era of dubious elections, poor economic performance and diminished human rights.

The fundamental problem of all the unsavory Arab regimes is their failure to value individual human beings. Only the State (and its ruling elites) has value in the eyes of the Arab leaders, whether they call themselves royals or republicans. This translates into a ruling mindset that ignores the rights of all those not included in the privileged classes. This is not about to change under Muslim rule, as we have seen in Iran.

What’s more, the modern tendency for sensible and decent countries to seek an active role in the rest of the world, whether through increased business, tourism or other forms of interaction, is likely to diminish. This isolationism has been a hallmark of the Islamic Republic, as it was of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Not only is the free (and developed) world looked at with suspicion and distaste by Islamists, the regimes they create are despicable in the eyes the West.

For now it seems the early signs of spring in the Arab world have already given way to another long winter of bad government, this one under the banner of an ascendant, confident and unpleasant brand of Islam.

Thomas Cromwell spent 25 years in the Middle East and was founding publisher and editor of the Middle East Times. He is president of Washington-based East West Communications.