After spring, winter

The democratic dream is dying in the Middle East. And Britain is in part to blame

26 November 2011

2:00 PM

26 November 2011

2:00 PM

Spring was a long time coming in the dictatorships of the Middle East and North Africa. But when it arrived it was unhesitatingly welcomed by western leaders. William Hague declared the Arab Spring more important than 9/11 and the financial crisis. Barack Obama delivered one of his most mellifluous speeches on the subject. Everyone hoped for the best.

But hope, we were reminded, is not quite enough. The shooting of protestors in Tahrir Square by the Egyptian army is the latest sign of something the West seems in no mood to admit: the Arab Spring is giving way to an Arab winter.

In the last year we saw uprisings topple regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But it is far, far too early to celebrate. That might be about as wise as an Austrian democrat celebrating the assassination of an Archduke in summer 1914. Other regimes, in Yemen and Syria, are still hanging on. Some, including Bahrain, have brutally quelled any nascent opposition.

Why has such a promising era turned so sour? One reason is that the West’s response to these events has been woefully contradictory, almost entirely vacuous and utterly lacking in strategy. And just as we were taken by surprise by the revolutions, so we seem to be taken by surprise by the wholly predictable direction in which things are moving. Elections have indeed taken place in Tunisia, but as in Algeria, they have simply served as a springboard for well-organised Islamist parties to gain power.

This week the Islamist ‘Ennahda’ party in Tunisia formed a government after becoming the largest party on 39 per cent of the vote. John R. Bradley predicted in this magazine in March that Tunisia’s Islamists may have just 20 per cent of the vote, but they could win power because less than half of the electorate was likely to vote. So it was to prove. The now-unleashed Islamists have already been squaring up to single mothers and even storming universities that object to students wearing the full-face veil.

So change is indeed coming to the middle east, but not the sort of change Obama had in mind. In Egypt, the polls already suggest a similar triumph for the Islamists. The misleadingly titled Freedom and Justice party — the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian electoral vehicle — is currently leading in the polls for next week’s elections (which may not happen at all). So strong is the Freedom party’s position that it has said that it will limit itself to taking a third of the seats, and simply refuse to field more candidates.


This is the strategy of an intensely organised party, which knows power is there for the taking. The Brotherhood (whose political aims are akin to those of the revolutionary Khomeinists in Iran) feel that they can afford to bide their time.

Libya’s election is further off, but Islamists once again already have a head-start. All that military assistance from the West — what was it in aid of? Abdul Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council in Libya can explain: ‘Any law that violates sharia is null and void legally,’ he said.

As an example he cited the law on marriage, in place during Gaddafi’s rule, which imposed restrictions on polygamy. Polygamy is permitted in Islam, so the restrictions will be lifted. There have been reports of Islamist gangs entering Tripoli — after a long exile — threatening beauty parlours and dance halls. Television channels have been sent warning against allowing women on screen.

All this, not to mention the increasing persecution of the remaining Jews and Christians in the region, is being studiously ignored by the West — for a reason. And the reason is that it fails to fit into the tidy narrative that our politicians so swiftly came up with: that the Arab Spring is a demonstration that the ‘Arab street’ wholly refutes the extremist ideologies associated with al-Qa’eda. A majority may well do, but they also prefer order to bloody chaos. And so the end result may well be that this push for democracy produces its antithesis: the rule of militant Islam.

This could get deeply uncomfortable for the West. For instance, it will be far harder to justify the Libyan intervention should it transpire that Nato merely facilitated an Islamist takeover. In Libya, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were hailed as liberators. But they may yet regret those photographs of themselves posing alongside various members of the current council — about as much as Tony Blair must regret those snaps of himself glad-handing Colonel Gaddafi.

It is by no means clear how any of these post-revolutionary societies will develop, and nobody wants to be unsupportive of genuine democrats. But the cheering on of brave Arab citizens is best done with care, an eye on the long view, and the boon of distance. All of this — and more — we have failed to do. Post-Iraq, there is no desire whatsoever for nation-building, and of course money is in short supply. But no one seems to have the financial commitment or political will to see through even nation-influencing.

There are other reasons for britain to feel ashamed of its part in the Arab Spring. Twenty years ago a man called Rachid Ghannouchi arrived in the UK from Tunisia and requested political asylum. He was granted it in August 1993. Over the succeeding two decades he used his perch in the UK to further the work of the Islamist party which has just triumphed at the Tunisian polls. When President Ben Ali was ousted, the Islamist Ennahda party had a head start on all of its rivals: it had the advantage not just of time, but of having had the support of the British state. If you were a secular liberal in Tunisia, Britain had done absolutely nothing for you in recent decades. Tunisian Islamists, by contrast, were hugely helped.

Likewise we have been a great help to Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Kamal Helbawy, for example, arrived in the UK in 1994 and became a British citizen. Though he has been refused entry into the United States, Helbawy, thanks to Britain’s consistently lunatic asylum policy, became a pillar of our Islamist establishment. Since the overthrow of Mubarak, this veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood has returned to Egypt, where he has been calling for the elimination of borders drawn by ‘imperialist nations’, the better to bring about a global Islamic state ‘called the United States of Islam’.

Other such examples are legion. When visiting Pakistan earlier this year, Cameron suggested that Britain is responsible for ‘so many of the world’s problems’. On this occasion his analysis is right: under Labour and the Conservatives, Britain did her bit to turn the Arab season from spring to winter. Of course, these are textbook mistakes that should never have been made. But there is time to remedy them, and we should try.

The claim of the Foreign Office types that the dictators ‘kept a lid on things’ was true. But they also encouraged the water to boil. Occasionally this spurted in our direction, so we have practical as well as moral interests in seeing this right.

In the long-term, representative democracy provides the only answers to the failures of the Arab world. But in the short-term this process will be complex, fraught and bloody. It will require care, attention, resolve and patience. We will need to look at the region with objectivity, recognise danger, and support those we can while doing everything possible to sideline civilisation’s enemies. The reward for success will be normality. But the price of failure will be incalculable.

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Show comments
  • Peter Wolstenholme

    One might think that people who have removed a dictator would realise that a religious leader who claims to know exactly what God thinks about any topic, and thus claims absolute personal authority, would be just another dictator. But of course such people are not organized so we shall see what the article writer predicts, for another half-century or so. On the bright side, lamentable education will mean the West will not see more Asian-style competition, while on a pessimistic note there will be strong pressure to emigrate from those counties. Business as usual!

  • D Shaw

    Even by the current woeful standards of the Spectator, this article is very badly sub-edited.

    So much so that it’s hard to understand what the writer is trying to say. I saw Ghannouchi returning from Tunis airport and he was truly welcomed by a lot of people. Is the writer saying he should have spent those years in a stinking Tunisian jail? And is really saying Britain should take a lot of the blame for events which a lot of people welcome? Democracy and Arab countries just don’t go together. ‘The West’ would like Arab countries not to be Muslim and not to have Islamic law, but the problem with that is you have to have a puppet dictatorial government. The West would like more markets in which to sell its booze, fast food and overpriced coffee, but Arab people seem happy enough generally to live simple and religious lives.

  • Barbara

    The answer to this article is to let countries sort their own problems out like we have to, don’t fight wars on anyone’s behalf in the future, spending our money and taxes for others when it’s needed here. What we should do is build up our forces, airforce, and navy in particular, and train a well prepared force for the things that will be needed in the future. Stop foreign aid and let countries sort themselves out. Most of this money goes to despots, and they buy goods for personal use, out of the aid sent. I don’t agree to making it law for aid, it’s silly and against democracy for an incoming government may not agree or have the funds available.
    These states that have this new found freedoms, well they would do well to remember how they got the freedom in the first place, they too could be removed in just the same way. We are in for unsure times, can we trust these new regimes, I don’t think so. Deal with them yes, but with caution.

  • David Cockerham

    It occurred to me some time ago that if the Arab Spring were to result in stable democracies taking over in many Arab countries (even if they were radical Islamist democracies), and if they were to embark, EU style, on ever closer union among themselves including full monetary and fiscal union, they would surely have a far greater chance of success than the EU and the eurozone have had, given that they have a common language making mobility of labour easier; less glaring disparities in competitiveness than the EU, and oil revenues well distributed across the region to oil the works and bail out the weaker brethren. So maybe those boundaries imposed by the imperialists will indeed be torn up in the longer term, but not necessarily in violent, revolutionary ways.

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