Opinion Columns & Blogs

Trudy Rubin: Too soon to judge the gains of Arab upheavals?

For those who think the failures of the Arab Spring prove the Mideast is unsuited to democracy, Jordan’s Marwan Muasher begs to differ.

A scholar and statesman who has long been a voice for tolerance in the Arab world, Muasher argues – in his important new book, “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism” – that it’s too soon to judge the outcome of the Arab upheavals that began in 2011.

He says: “The Arab world never operated in a culture of democracy, so you can’t expect a transformational process in three years.”

I first met Muasher in 1991, when he was Jordanian spokesman at the Madrid peace talks. He served as Jordan’s first ambassador to Israel and as ambassador to Washington; as deputy prime minister in 2005, he led a national effort for Jordanian political reform that was blocked. A Christian in a Muslim country, whose father is East Bank Jordanian and mother is Palestinian, he is uniquely suited to argue that the second Arab awakening won’t succeed unless political systems become more inclusive.

But why, when Syria is imploding and Egypt reverting to military rule, does he think this is possible? Here are the reasons he laid out to me:

First, consider the initial Arab Awakening, which began in the 19th century and eventually overthrew Ottoman rule: It led to colonial overlords and then to nationalist autocrats who provided “artificial stability” for decades. “Once that lid is lifted,” said Muasher, “of course you’ll see all kinds of forces come out.” He believes it will take years, or decades, for the results to emerge.

Second, despite the apparent rise of Islamists – with election victories in Tunisia and Egypt, and militias surging in Syria – the Arab world isn’t embracing theocracy. Egyptians elected a Muslim Brotherhood parliament and president but turned heavily against them when they could not deliver economic benefits.

The slogan “Islam is the answer” was popular before 2011, Muasher said, because Islamists could claim they were “clean” and had been excluded from power. “That slogan means much less today,” he said. “What Arab rulers couldn’t do in 50 years, the Islamists did to themselves in three.

“The polls show that, while ordinary Egyptians may be religious, they will now judge a government by performance. The criteria is the economy. The Arab street has shown in Egypt that its support for Islamists was not ideological.”

Similarly, Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq are fighting back against al-Qaida, as are Islamist militias in eastern Syria. “The fight for ideas (post-2011) is only beginning,” said Muasher, “but at least now there is a chance.”

His third point is that the Arab world is not monolithic. “Syria will take a long time, Iraq and Lebanon, the same. But we won’t see all new Arab governments fail.”

Tunisia, where a new constitution backed by seculars and Islamists was just ratified, sets an example of success. There, a Muslim Brotherhood prime minister, with an eye to the coup in Egypt, voluntarily stepped down.

I asked whether Tunisia was unique, given its closeness to Europe and well-educated population, including women. Moreover, Tunisia’s Islamists might not have been so cooperative were it not for the military coup against their brethren in Cairo.

“If Tunisia provides a unique lesson to the rest of the Arab world, that’s fine,” said Muasher. “In three years they’ve proven it was possible (to act with seculars by consensus). Is that not important?”

Indeed, Tunisia shows Islamists and autocrats alike that Egypt is not the only model. “If the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt want to be successful, they must evolve,” Muasher said. “They cannot rely anymore on Islam as a solution.” Nor, he said, can Egypt’s seculars continue to rely on the generals.

If Egyptians elect Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as president, as looks likely, Muasher said he will be judged by whether he delivers on the economy, which he can’t do unless he can make the country secure. He won’t achieve security unless he finds a way to reintegrate the Muslim Brotherhood – which represents a sizable minority – back into the system.

“Absolute power has ceased to be an option,” Muasher said. “The only way for Arab governments – new and old – to maintain power will be to share it. The trick is to persuade people that democratic norms will lead to stability, which is good for the economy.”

I believe he’s correct in principle. I question whether there are leaders in the region capable of persuading fearful publics – including minority Christians and Shiites – that pluralism won’t threaten their existence. Tunisia has such leaders, but Egypt, Syria and Iraq currently lack them. Let’s hope they emerge.