By Dorothy A. Logan
Dr. Walid Phares’s presentation at the Heritage Foundation did not leave a lot of room for optimism, but the author’s one encouraging analogy comes from the term the West gave to the series of revolutions in the Middle East – it was a Spring.
Though the title says the Spring was lost, every spring is lost, each and every year. It is a cycle. Although some are saying what came out of the Spring of 2011 is now a Winter, what always follows winter? Well, that would be another Spring. The hope is that one of these times around, we may find the comfort and refreshment and abundance of a Summer in the hotly contested region.
The projections he made in his previous book, The Coming Revolution, and the lack of preparedness and thus the reaction of the United States and the West to the actual events, however, tend toward a bleak – or at least extremely challenging – future for the Middle East and Levant.
As the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been debated as pre-emptive, reactionary or just plain wrong, Americans apparently were not expecting the real social and political ramifications of our interventions in the region. The changes made for women in Afghanistan alone should indicate that the people there are ready for change. One aspect of the history making events of this century that the American people cannot grasp, however, is that stability takes time. Americans are of the “now” generation, but as Phares indicated, we will not end up with Sweden overnight or instantly. Even though it took nearly 100 years for France to stabilize after its first revolution, we have decided that because the region has not yet found its secular and democratic voice of peace – three years after the initial revolutions in the area (or 10 years after the invasion of Iraq) – there is no hope for them. Phares disagrees with other experts who argue that because the issues are cultural – thus the people cannot be trusted or relied upon to develop a sustainable democracy (at least not one without the Islamists winning the elections) – there is no solution to the instability there.
He does not argue, however, that military or “kinetic” action is what it takes to successfully transform a country or a region into a stable and peaceful democracy. He instead speaks of political change and Western engagement as the proper response to the readiness of the people to replace the status quo totalitarianism with something that may provide them with a normal life where they can send their children to school and take jobs without fearing suicide bombings.
Unfortunately, as Phares indicated with an answer to a question after his presentation, Americans and the West are not engaging the region and are instead in global retreat and disengaging from the very people we should be supporting: the civil societies and silent majorities.
He supports this claim by mentioning the SMS Revolution (the 2005 Cedars Revolution in Lebanon) and the Twitter Revolution (the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran). What the Middle East region has today that the French did not have 200-some-odd years ago is technology: cell phones that can text and social media sites that can organize. The success of such modern day tools in the protests preceding the Arab Spring led to the Facebook Revolution (Egypt’s initial Tahrir Square demonstrations).
Yet with millions of people mobilizing using this global technology, the West knows less about the actors and the events in the Middle East than we did during Poland and Czechoslovakia’s uprisings. He compares the public’s familiarity with the Solidarity Movement to that of the April 6 Movement. Everyone in the United States had heard of Solidarity (in Poland) during the 1980s; very few Americans even know where the April 6 Movement (or later the Tamarod movement) exists or what they stand for. He says this is true even though there was funding of institutions in both the U.S. and Brussels (home to the E.U.) to deal with civil societies. So why are we so disconnected from the actual events and players in the region?
There appears to be two major reasons for our inability to interact with those who actually led these revolutions (Phares focused on Egypt’s): First, this was not an organized resistance movement with organized political parties but instead a social uprising; and second, the academic community in the West did not produce reliable experts on the region. The Jihadist movement was, for decades, referred to by those graduating from Middle East Studies programs as involving Islamist revivalists without ever identifying what they were reviving; and books from the region itself in the 1990s ignored the plights of minorities there.
We still have a misinformation or misunderstanding problem here in the West. The top scholars may not like to refer to social media, but it is there that we can see in real time what the people of the region are saying and how they are reacting. Historians can only look backwards. And even though there is a saying that hindsight is 20/20, with the minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour updates available due to social media and the internet, we should be able to discern the connections on our own. Mainstream media outlets certainly are not doing it for us – and neither are most of our Middle East “experts.”
Dr. Phares briefly touched on the topic of a race between the silent majorities and the Islamists for control or influence over the outcome of each toppled regime. The Islamists were better organized at the beginning (as they were always a resistance movement, albeit one without popular support) than were the rest of society. The author of The Lost Spring argues that organization is important to who will ultimately win the race, but he also spoke of funding and media coverage and mentioned that those who are received by the West will be granted more visibility – and visibility will give them legitimacy. So are we helping the secular democrats organize? Are we funding their attempts to form political parties in opposition to the remnants of the regimes and/or the Islamists? Are we providing them with the visibility necessary to cultivate legitimacy?
Are we engaging or disengaging from civil societies and silent majorities in the region? And who is this silent majority? Dr. Phares defines the silent majority as those living in the vast space between the Islamists and the vocal democratic seculars, the masses who are driven by ideas and desires that do not fall far from the more “sophisticated” ideas of the West – they simply lack the political parties to articulate these ideas and desires. Are we partnering with those that will be most likely to meet their demands? Not at the moment.
This discourse on civil society seems most pressing, but that is not to minimize the other areas of discussion and topics of the book. Dr. Phares also touched on what happened in Tunisia, Libya, and the tragedy that is now Syria. But one thing is clear: there is a large chasm between what the Arab Spring actually was and how the West perceived it.
The author concludes with a projection that there will be another protest/demonstration/revolution in Iran – among other locales. Will the U.S. marginalize it or support it? How will the rest of the region react?
One last thought – a point that came up in during the question portion of the event – provokes pause. Iran. The theocratic Iranian regime is now influencing events all over the region from Iraq to Sudan. And we are funding them. They may reduce their uranium enrichment, but they continue to develop missiles, support Assad in Syria, and refuse to reform in regards to oppressing their own people. And we are funding them. Although Dr. Phares implies that the current administration is hoping to solve half the problems in the region by dealing with Iran, he makes it clear that if we do not perform a massive change in foreign policy – and soon – we will continue to have tremendous challenges in the Middle East regardless of who is in office during the next administration.
As Walid Phares launches his book into the space of ideas in search of life, I hope the next Spring is followed by an abundant and verdant Summer instead of the dismal Winter most of the region now finds itself in.