Arab Spring? An Assessment Three Years later

The revolts in the Arab states have now been underway for three years and more. The first, in Tunisia, began on December 18, 2010, the one in Egypt on January 25, 2011, and the one in Syria on March 15, 2011. One would have thought that after all that has happened in the interim, the journalists, academics and pundits who first reported and commented on these major events would have returned at this time for a retrospective and reappraisal of what they said and wrote at the time.


It’s interesting, therefore, that, so far, at least, nothing of that sort has occurred. That absence, in itself, is very telling. It would appear that many of the reporters and pundits are less than proud of the material that they produced at that time. Worse still, they may be uninterested in the long-term impact their mistaken reporting may have had on public and decision-makers’ perceptions.


It seems patently obvious to me, though, that, without a thorough review of what was really happening then, people are very likely to be left with misunderstandings that they will be carrying with them into the indefinite future.


I’ll go even further. Because people have also failed to review many other important dates in the history of the Middle East, they are incapable of comprehending why the region is in the mess it is in at this time; and so, they will continue to make stupid judgments about it.


For those reasons, I believe that it is essential to go back to some of the more salient events that took place long before the rebellions broke out, the period after the end of colonialism, the period immediately before the protests began, the time just before Mohammed Morsi was elected president of Egypt, and the period immediately before and after he was deposed by the army and point out their relationship to the situation today.


Most of my survey will focus on Egypt because it was given the most media attention, and therefore the prejudices that journalists and commentators brought to their assessment of the events that took place there are easier to trace. Egypt plays a disproportionately important role in shaping attitudes in the Arab world. And it also is playing a critical role in the war against terror.


But I also have another reason for focusing on Egypt that I hadn’t even considered when I began my research. Demographers are now predicting that by 2030 Israel’s Haredi parties will elect enough Knesset members to form the core of any Israeli coalition government. As my work progressed, I found that there was an extraordinary similarity in the political behaviour and agenda of the Moslem Brotherhood and Israel’s Haredi parties. In fact, as I went into greater and greater detail, there were times when I thought I was looking Israel’s political future in the face.


After reviewing several thousand pages of data, my most general conclusion is that, with the exception of Tunisia, which for various historical reasons is now truly trying to strike out and create a new type of political society, almost all the political rationales used and all the battles fought during the rebellions in the other Arab states were repeats of or only slight variations on situations and events that had come before. In other words, the belief expressed by most pundits at the beginning of this period of popular revolt that the Arab world was entering into a new and dynamic political period was totally incorrect, wishful thinking and, at times, simply foolish.


After all that has happened, that may seem at first to be a “ho-hum, so what else is new?” conclusion. But I think that the reasons that brought me to that conclusion are worth examining closely because they will most likely have important portents for the future.


In addition, my hindsight is now based on a great deal of material that was not available when the revolts broke out. Surprisingly, in my searches, I rarely found any reference to these new and important batches of data in the media.


Among other things, for example, we now have two guides that can act as social and political Rosetta stones that can enable us to better interpret what has actually been going on throughout the past 3 years. At the very moment that the revolts were gaining momentum in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, two very important bodies, the UN Development Program and the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, based in Doha, were carrying out large-scale, independent studies on a wide range of issues and attitudes in the Arab world.


By doing a bit of additional data mining, it is also possible to uncover some very important information that can give us a deeper and broader understanding of the dynamics that are still underway.


In addition, it is possible to find validation and second sourcing for some of the new findings in those Gallup polls and other UN studies that were published long after the rebellions began.


And finally, we now also have the use of a brand new, world-beating computerized analysis of one aspect of the events in question, prepared by a brilliant Technion student as part of her PhD thesis. The work, by Kira Radinsky, both explains an otherwise confusing but critically important table published in the Doha study, and at the same time, it demolishes one of the most common ways Westerners have used in the past when analyzing events in the Arab world.


When taken together, all this material can enable us to fairly accurately assess some of the things that Westerners got right when they tried to understand what was going on. Even more importantly, they can also point out many of those things that the commentators got horribly wrong when trying to describe the significance of the events that occurred after the rebellions broke out.


But before getting into all that, it is best to begin at the beginning.


Mohammed created Islam with the aim of uniting the warring tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and forming them, and everyone else in the world, into a single nation, the Umma. His primary vehicle was a set of what he believed were universal laws that should apply to all societies.


However, after his successors left their desert confines behind and conquered the lush river valleys of the Middle East, and after they had also not only driven other people into submission and imposed Islamic law, they found that they still needed other, different tools in order to govern effectively.


One major problem they confronted was that Islamic law, as I said, had been designed, first and foremost, to cope with problems presented by tribally-based societies. However, places such as Persia and those parts of the Byzantine Empire that had recently been conquered had had traditions of centralized rule that had lasted thousands of years. That meant that some features of Arab society, such as the use of inter-tribal discussions for dispute resolution or public management were irrelevant and useless. A totally different system of governance was needed.


In my writings about the Middle East, I have always tried to emphasize that contrary to a belief common in the United States that Western-style democracy is the system of governance that best suits all peoples all the time, nations tend to adopt systems of government that best relate to and cope with their culture, their beliefs and the experiences that they have undergone over time. Thus the Jews developed consensus-based Kehillah government, the Western nations adopted rights-based popular rule, and the Russians have always sought a “strong leader.”


After their breakout from the Arabian Desert, the Arabs and other Islamic leaders experimented with several systems of governance. Most of those experiments failed, because, as the great Arab historian and sociologist, ibn Khaldun pointed out in the 14th and 15thb centuries, these new governments quickly became corrupted.


Corruption has remained an integral part of every Arab government since the Moslem conquest. Nonetheless, several, huge, imperial governments did survive for remarkably long times. The Abbasid empire, for example, lasted almost 500 years, and the Ottoman empire lasted for more than 500 years.


What many of those in the Western media today fail to recognize is that, even though the empires are now gone, precisely because corruption has remained endemic throughout the Arab world, some of the principles upon which those empires were based continue to have an impact on the way Arabs’ approach governance today.


For example, Arab political culture differs from both Jewish Kehillah government and Western democracy in one very fundamental way. The latter two systems are anchored in a belief in a very particular form of the rule of law. It is one that develops over time as precedent-setting rulings by justices accumulate, and as those precedents are then modified as needed to cope with new realities.


In Arab Islamic society, though, believers are required to submit to the dictates of what is believed to be unchanging Sharia law. A true Sunni Moslem is required to choose a scholar who knows the law… and then behave as the scholar himself acts.


And here we come to a very crucial element. According to Sunni Islamic practice, that scholar is not required to take into account the rulings of any other scholar—and not even his own past rulings. Quite naturally, even many devout Moslems shop around in order to find a scholar who is to their liking.


This phenomenon of having a choice in how the law should be interpreted, also applies when judges are appointed. In the old days, and even today in places like Saudi Arabia, a person could choose which judge he wanted to try his case. Thus, powerful men were able to tilt judgments in their favour from the outset of the proceedings.


What this means in practical terms is that Sunni Arab societies are inherently subject to chaos. And this is what we have been seeing recently in both Libya and Syria. In Libya, following Gadhafi’s assassination, the political situation reverted to a state of affairs that was remarkably similar to the one that existed in pre-Mohammedan Arabia. In Libya today, inter-tribal warfare has become the norm. The only significant difference between the tribal warfare in Libya now and that which took place in the Arabian desert before the rise of Mohammed was that at least some of the warring tribes in Libya have justified their use of violence against other tribes by claiming that they are acting more in accordance with Islamic teachings than the tribes they are attacking.


In Syria, the rebel Islamic forces are being torn apart because they can neither agree on a single leadership structure, nor can they agree on how the war should be fought.  For example, one al Qaeda affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, believes that its objective should be the establishment of an Islamic state. Therefore, it tries to impose a very brutal form of Sharia law the moment it captures an area. However, another al-Qaeda affiliated group, al Nusra wants to unseat the ruling Alawites first. Therefore it seeks to capture as much territory as possible before imposing new laws. This difference has led to bloody encounters between the two groups.


As a result, and as might be expected, the non-jihadist Sunni rebel groups fear both groups. And the large Christian and the Druze minorities have been caught in the middle and can only cringe.


In the past, under the imperial system, in order to create stability, the ruler simply imposed his decisions on everyone else.


So, because neither the behavior of Arab tribes nor Sharia law has undergone any significant change in the past 1300 years, in order to understand what is going on in the Arab world today, it is important to recognize first how the sultans of old imposed their will on tens of millions of people and hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of territory.


Western democrats begin with the supposition that political and economic corruption is destructive to the body politic. The way to limit corruption is by the establishment of three equal and competitive, branches of government…administrative, legislative and judicial.


However, those Arab governments that were successful in the past adopted a very different set of rules for self-governance. Throughout the Arab world, stable self-governance has usually been based on four very different pillars—the existence of a monopolistic political elite, an army, a bureaucracy, and a religious elite.


The most successful Islamic governments have been those where the political elite was able to maintain absolute control by limiting and then balancing the power of the other three pillars.


For example, the Islamic religious elites would seem to have a clear and even decisive advantage over all three of the other groups. They run the dawah system of schools, mosques and welfare centres that enables the clergy to maintain a presence everywhere within the borders of any Islamic political entity. Their dispersion into the tiniest villages and encampments not only provides the Sheikhs and Mullahs with conduits of communication with the masses, each building controlled by the system automatically also becomes an organizing point for mass public action.


In order to overcome that inherent power granted to the clergy, the Sunni Islamic emperors manipulated one of the most fundamental early Islamic beliefs to their benefit. That belief is that the ideal leader should be a Caliph—someone who is both a supreme religious figure and a supreme political leader. While Sunni belief is that each Caliph should be chosen by a council of religious scholars, the Abbasid and the Ottoman empires were successful largely because they were able to create continuity in the leadership by reinterpreting the idea of a caliphate so that their empires were run by hereditary dynasties.


Another extraordinarily powerful group is the military. It manages both the training of and the acquisition of weapons for the body that is supposed to have a monopoly on violence. However, Islamic leaders recognized early on that the army is also a permanent, endemic threat to the leaders because the soldiers can always try to take over the reins of government. For that reason, many Moslem armies were deliberately made up of foreign mercenaries. Others, however, were controlled in a different way. They were kept too busy and satisfied dealing with business matters to think about launching a coup.


For example, corruption enabled the Arab leaders to pay off the soldier class. When the opportunity arose the preference by all parties was for the soldiers to enrich themselves through plunder and booty. In more peaceable times, military roadblocks could extract fees from caravans. And most recently, armies have been permitted to own commercial businesses. It is assumed that these businesses then give the army a reason to preserve domestic stability because political stability is a necessity for the preservation of

stable markets for the goods the military produces. This latter tack is the one being used in Iran, Syria and Egypt today; and it was used in Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein.


To me, at least, one of the most fascinating aspects of Islamic governance has been the role played by the bureaucracy. From the early days of the Islamic conquest, when the newly-conquered, but highly-educated Persians were drafted to run the day-to-day affairs of state, the bureaucracy has acted as the Islamic political system’s anchor.


Among its many functions, Islamic bureaucracies were charged with acting as the main communications conduit between the masses and the rulers. Because they were so widespread and so embedded in society, bureaucracies became the primary vehicle for imposing the leadership’s autocratic rule and for monitoring the behaviour of the clergy. The bureaucrats were invariably mandated to scrutinize the behavior of the people through the use of regulations, and to penalize those seen to have broken the society’s rules, mores and customs. However its job was not just supervisory and punitive. Its tentacles were able to provide early warning of the development of dissent and the need for the rulers to either crack down on rebels or to reform some aspect of their system of rule.


Another important function the bureaucracy plays to this day is that it deals with those aspects of national life that require extended negotiations.


A third task is to massage the merchant and economic classes so that the economy continues to function well. This particular job can include, among other things, resolving jealousies that arise if one individual or group is given a monopoly or allowed to operate as a cartel in a certain field of endeavour.


A fourth assignment is that the bureaucracy is expected to maintain inter-ethnic and inter-tribal competition at levels that will not lead to sudden social explosions.


Incidentally, let it not be said that the bureaucracy has not changed with the times. Gamal Abdul Nasser gave it an additional, new job—to absorb and act as the repository for the tens of thousands of young people who were graduating from university but who couldn’t find jobs.


And now we come to some of what I believe are among of the most fascinating aspects of Islamic governance. There is an inherent contradiction between the cardinal Islamic belief in a universal Umma, and the particular political, diplomatic, economic and social needs of any state. Thus, for example, every attempt at political unity has always collapsed.


Another is that, in the West, when a government is incompetent or does something bad, it is punished by being labeled “illegitimate”—in other words, that it is not operating within the legal system and has thus lost its right to rule. In Arab states, when governments are perceived to be bad, they are said to be “unworthy.” In other words, the Western system is based on a series of fixed parameters of what constitutes good government. The Islamic one is based on subjective, personal, judgmental, and value-laden considerations about the worth of the individual leader—not the substance to his policies or his success in implementing them. For example, President Nasser failed at almost every task he set for himself. Yet, when he resigned in the wake of his greatest failure—Egypt’s traumatic defeat in the 6-Day War—the masses came out into the streets to demand that he remain in office because he was, in their eyes, a worthy man even if he was also a total failure.


How does that play out in real life?


It is now clear that the recent revolts only took place once there was a popular consensus that the governments in those countries where rebellions took place had become “unworthy” to rule. For example, according to the Doha study, at the time of the outbreak of the revolts in their countries, only 9 percent of Tunisians and 17 percent of Egyptians thought that the “political conditions” in their countries were satisfactory. In Yemen the figure was 8 percent and Iraq, 7 percent. In other words, translated into Arab political coding, in these four countries, there was an overwhelming consensus by the citizens of these states that their leaders were unworthy.


The way in which that belief in a leader’s “unworthiness” was expressed was different in each country. Dr. Kira Radinsky, doesn’t put matters exactly like this, but my interpretation of her research findings, is that, particularly after communications lines between the masses and the leaders break down, the masses, when they talk openly, use the equivalent of a synecdoche to express their growing anger. A synecdoche is a way of representing a whole by talking about a part of that whole. Thus, for example, the US administration as a whole can be referred to by talking about the “White House.”


The reason why they use a synecdoche is that the Arab Moslem system of government is invariably authoritarian. One of the most important techniques that Arab governments use to preserve their rule is to limit open discourse between their subjects. People who can’t to talk to each other or who are forbidden under pain of a penalty to talk about a particular subject, can’t form a consensus. Not only that, because most authoritarian governments base their system of governance on “divide and rule,” protest leaders invariably find it difficult to come to a consensus even among themselves, or decide on an action that they can agree on.


The only way they can only do so is if they can find an issue that affects everyone. Even then, they may face punishment for even mentioning the subject at hand. One of the ways that they can circumvent the rulers’ restrictions, however, is by speaking in codes. The code for rebellion is usually a simple sign or a single word or short phrase that is understood by all.


When words or phrases, rather than gestures, are used, the word or words employed are usually synecdoches for a much bigger issue. Because a large minority of Arabs remain illiterate and/or are engaged in subsistence agriculture, references to terms such as GDP, inflation, or national debt elicit almost no popular response. Even the very word “economy” may remain permanently undefined for some. So, a popularly understood synecdoche must be used instead. Dr. Radinsky found that popular riots are set off in Syria when rebel leaders highlight that there has been or there is about to be a rise in the price of wheat, in Sudan, when the price of cooking gas is raised, and in Egypt, when the price of bread goes up or rebel leaders claim that a shortage of bread is imminent.  In other words, words such as “expensive wheat” or “too costly cooking gas” or “bread” can become code words for “unworthiness.”


It is now clear to me at least that if all the data sources I have just cited are correct, Western analysts have made the same mistake time and again. Rioting over bread prices in Egypt is not a synecdoche for the country’s economic problems. That is a very Western interpretation based on the teachings of Adam Smith. The use of the word “bread,” in Egyptian political parlance expresses anger and a belief that the national leadership is unworthy to rule.


There is another set of more recent historical events that also influence the current rebellions.


After the last of the great empires, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, it was replaced by European colonial governments, which were finally was replaced by post-colonial Arab governments. Most of those new governments were inherently unstable and chaotic for all the reasons I have already cited.


In Egypt, the army staged a coup in the belief that it could create greater stability. The first major event that it confronted was the reinvasion of the Suez Canal Zone by Britain and France in 1956.


Instead of using the combined Israeli-British-French assault to unify Egypt and its various ethnic groups in support of the new nation-state that had emerged with the end of colonialism, the new President Gamal Abdul Nasser chose, instead to launch a campaign to rid Egypt of what he believed were foreign influences. In a massive shift from historical cosmopolitanism to xenophobia in cities such as Alexandria, Nasser expelled the Jews, the Greeks, the Armenians and some other smaller ethnic groups. Most of these groups had lived in Egypt for centuries before the arrival of Islam and the conquering Arab armies.


That expulsion took place at the same moment that globalization, one of the products of the post-colonial era, was just beginning to develop momentum. That left Egypt, and other Arab countries that tried to adopt similar measures, without the cadres that had been involved in international trade and commerce and diplomacy for millennia. Henceforth, because they were missing these intermediaries, which had also often acted as a kind of shadow diplomatic corps and shadow bureaucracy in time of need, and instead of trying to find solutions to pressing problems, many of the Arab states simply fell into a torpor or blamed anyone, but especially Israel and America, for the situations they found themselves in.


Another relatively recent event that would have a profound impact on the region was the pair of oil shocks, in 1974 and1976, initiated by OPEC. Those two power plays led to a huge increase in incomes for all the Arab oil-producing nations, but especially for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis used part of the vast increase in national income to set up a world-wide network of madrasses or Islamic schools. These schools taught the very rigid form of Islam known as Wahhabism. The graduates of these schools ended up adopting a form of Islam known as Salafism, which purports to renew the religion and revive it by making it mirror the practices of Islam’s founders. One of the prime beliefs of Salafism is the value of jihad, and one of its products has been al Qaeda.


The Saudis originally believed that they could control the message taught in the madrasses they had founded—just as they believed they could control the politics of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, which they supported financially for many years. They failed, however, to take into account that “true believers” can end up having different beliefs from those promoting the ideology and philosophy in question. Since 9/11, the Saudis have tried to limit the impact of al Qaeda; and, in the past year, they have totally rejected the Brotherhood because of its tentative exploration of democracy. The Saudis feared that any experiment in democracy by an Islamic movement was heresy because it was a threat to its monarchy.


And now we come to more recent events that help explain why the revolts developed as they did.


During its inception, the so-called “Arab Spring” was described, almost-breathlessly, by the Western journalists who covered it as a great and noble popular effort by young, secular modernists whose aim was to replace autocratic regimes and install democracies in their stead. Too often the commentators inaccurately implied that the demonstrations in the Arab nations were similar to those that had created the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe.


For those of you who listened to my talks and read my blog posts at the time, I warned that introducing democracy, as Westerners usually understand the term, would be easier said than done. Unlike American officials I do not believe that democracy begins and ends with free elections. My suspicions that democracy, as Westerners understand the term, would be difficult to introduce in the Arab Middle East, have stood the test of time.


Another thing that was clear to me even 3 years ago was that the reporters were focusing almost solely on the swirl of dramatic events that were taking place in the main squares of the big cities where the journalists were staying. The demonstrations that these journalists witnessed, though, often did not reflect the narrower, more conservative and more xenophobic public attitudes that held sway in rural areas and even in other parts of those same cities.


Yet another conclusion I was able to draw almost immediately was that, from their remarks, the journalists were clueless about the customs, values and social mores of the societies they were reporting on, and therefore they were incapable of explaining one of the most important features of the rebellion: the impact that those long-embedded behavior patterns were having on the course of events.


One common mistake made by Western observers that arose out of that ignorance was that these commentators took,  at face value, the statements being uttered by the only people with whom they could communicate—the tiny minority of young, English-speaking, tech-savvy, often-Western-educated  protesters with whom they could identify emotionally. By failing to dig deeper, the commentators consistently distorted their viewers’ and readers’ appreciation of what was really happening.


Having now patted myself on my back, I must also, though, in all honesty, admit that there were many things that I too did not understand at that time. The Doha study, called the Arab Opinion Index (AOI), and the UNDP survey have now, however, enabled me to explore the meaning of some of the events in greater depth and with greater accuracy.


For example, possibly the biggest mistake almost everyone—myself included— made was to assume that the English-speaking, and apparently Western-educated Arabs who were interviewed were using the word “democracy” in the same way it is defined and used in the West.


At the time, I was quite proud to be in that minority group of observers who were criticizing the reporters on the spot for having seemingly sought out only those people who would say that they were “seeking democracy.” That was because it seemed to me that there were simply too many of these new-found “democrats.”


But that wasn’t the only reasons for my suspicions. I also took careful note that, as they talked about how much democracy meant to them, the Arabic-speakers failed to refer to some of the ideas Westerners invariably associate with and mention when they discuss democratic governance.


For all those reasons, I then drew the conclusion that while the Western educated youngsters may have understood the word “democracy” in the same way a Westerner does, everyone else, when talking to reporters, was merely spouting slogans that had no substance, but which the interviewees assumed that the journalists wanted to hear.


In retrospect, I was correct for criticizing the Western journalists for implying, after the interviews were over, that what the Arabs meant was “liberal democracy” as Westerners understand the term.  But, I now recognize that I had made two major mistakes. The majority of the young English speakers, even when speaking to western reporters, did not interpret the word “democracy as a Westerner normally would. Most were using it in the same way they would use the term when talking to their fellow citizens. And the seemingly overwhelming support for democracy by the Arabic-speaking interviewees was real and not simply sloganeering for the benefit of the television cameras.


The Doha study of 16,173 people in 12 Arab states found that more than two thirds of those polled did support the idea of “democratic” governments. Those numbers, especially since they come from a respected organization, are simply too big to ignore or to dismiss out of hand as being inflated or the result of using poor polling methods. Therefore, they have to be taken at face value.


But, and this is a big “but,” it is only when the aggregate numbers are disassembled, that the real truth emerges. That truth, in turn, then reveals a fascinating picture of attitudes in the Arab world that otherwise had remained hidden. In very broad terms, if one looks at all the raw data closely, one can only come to the conclusion that the Arabs do not use the word “democracy” as a synonym for the way terms such as “popular rule,” are commonly used in the West.


To most Arabs, the word “democracy” means that their leaders should constantly and actively listen to the messages being sent through established conduits by the masses, whether elections take place or not. In other words, in the Arab world, even authoritarian governments can be thought to be acting “democratically” if they respond to public concerns and public demands.


In the Arab world, the widespread use of the word “democracy” does not and is not meant to imply, as is the case in the West, that those who support “democratic government” also support a whole series of social and political principles which established democratic governments in the West have found to be essential for the maintenance of popular rule in their countries.


For example, one of the cardinal rules of American-style democracy is that there should be an ironclad separation of church and state. However, fewer than half the Arabs interviewed, (42.8 percent), believe that religion should be separated from politics. That belief, in itself, need not be all that problematic. After all, many European countries have had thriving Christian Democratic parties without the democracy in those countries being endangered. That was because those parties also accepted the idea that religious pluralism is an acceptable and even desirable and necessary principle of social behaviour.


But that is not how democracy is viewed in the Arab world. Since the rebellions began, the Christian Copts in Egypt have been under almost constant, violent assault by Moslem extremists; and, elsewhere in the Arab world an estimated one third of the Christians living in Syria and Iraq have been displaced.


Another crucial finding of the Doha poll is that 41.5 percent of those interviewed believe that political power should be given only to those who are religious—in other words, only to devout Moslems.


Those beliefs about religion and its adherents then lead to another series of convictions that are anathema in the West. For example, only 36.3 percent of the interviewees in the Doha poll believe in the principle of political freedom and the existence of inherent civil liberties. The vast majority do not.


And, possibly most important of all, only 19.5 percent of the Arabs interviewed believe in equality and justice for all.


It is the prevalence of this belief structure then explains why Hamas, for example, could get elected, and retain public support, even though it believes in the dictatorship of a theocracy—in other words,  it was supported precisely because it believes in the concept of: one man, one candidate, one vote, one time.


These attitudes also explain why while the devout Moslem Turkish Prime Minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, claims that he is a democrat, he can also firmly believe that a government, once elected by a majority, need not take the needs, interests and concerns of its country’s ethnic and religious minorities into consideration.


Another major area of international misunderstanding during the height of the rebellions was, as I noted earlier, the widespread Western belief that economics was having a significant impact on the behavior patterns of the Arab public—especially in Egypt.


It seems clear from the Doha poll that, unlike Westerners, Arabs do not necessarily correlate their personal economic situation with the way in which their governments act.


According to the AOI, most Arabs don’t approve of their governments. Nonetheless, 76 percent of all the Arabs polled said that they are satisfied with their lives. An even more remarkable 55.1 percent said that they were satisfied with their economic situation.


Specifically, before the rioting broke out, amazingly, 85 percent of Egyptians said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives; and 72 percent of Tunisians felt the same way. Unless you had looked up the AOI section that showed, as I noted earlier, that only 17 percent of Egyptians and 9 percent of Tunisians  approved of their country’s political condition, you would never have even considered that a major political upheaval was pending.


But that’s not all. Amazingly, 60 percent of the Egyptians and 55 percent of the Tunisians said that they were also “satisfied or very satisfied” with their economic situation.


At least on the surface, it would appear that it would take an Olympic-level mental gymnast to make those figures correlate with the additional fact that 47 percent of Egyptian respondents and 37 percent of the Tunisians said that their incomes do not cover their household expenses.


The mind boggles…a lot. How can 60 percent of Egyptians say they are satisfied with the economy when 47 percent can’t make ends meet?


What appears to be a totally absurd contradiction in terms can be explained, at least in part, because there was a measurable trend that was underway at the time. The UNDP Development Index shows that, in the period from 2005 to 2011, Egypt’s and Tunisia’s GDP was rising by over 5 percent per year. During this period, Egypt went from 106th place on the UNDP‘s Development Index to 104th place, and Tunisia rose from 90th place to 87th place. Even if a disproportionate amount of that increasing wealth was siphoned off by a corrupt, rich elite, there had nonetheless been a relative and noticeable improvement in the economies of the two countries—and many people might have felt the change. In addition, especially in Egypt, extended families had made a point of trying to send at least one family member to work in the Gulf states and to send his earnings home.


It therefore appears that people made their judgment possibly based on extreme fatalism or a belief that things would get better. My own suspicion is that because of low educational levels, average citizens make little or no connection between the government’s overall handling of the economy and those specific government decisions that affect the price of goods. Thus, inflation figures may be considered to be totally irrelevant abstractions, whereas a one penny rise in the price of gasoline feels like a jab in the guts and is enough to send millions into the streets in protest.


If that is true then when the elections were held in 2012, the Moslem Brotherhood benefitted from unwarranted public optimism that a trend that had been underway for some time would continue.


Of course, what happened in practice was that the Brotherhood made things far worse than they need have been. As a result of its failure to prepare for office, the Brotherhood did not have the trained cadres needed to rule and it could only focus on a very narrow range of activities once it gained power.


Its main effort involved attempts to introduce Sharia law and to place Brotherhood members in the bureaucracy. It made no effort, for example, to create new jobs or to reinvigorate tourism, which had produced 12 percent of GDP and had employed hundreds of thousands of people.


In addition, because it is an organization made up of “true believers” with a common mindset, common agenda, and common symbols, it was unable to read and interpret the manner in which the populace was reacting to its actions or inactions. As an organization run by and for socially-isolated religious scholars, it did not even recognize that it would eventually have to seek out both expertise and areas of compromise with its political foes.


The Brotherhood—but also the Western commentators—also totally misread the way the army was behaving. The Brotherhood’s leaders appear to have assumed that the man they had appointed to lead the military, General a-Sisi would automatically be loyal to them because he is a devout Moslem. They totally failed to understand the culture of the Egyptian Army, its relationship to the masses, and the domestic power it can bring to bear.


The Brotherhood was not alone in its inaccurate assessments. President Obama’s demand that Mubarak step down and be replaced by any democratically-elected body demonstrated just how profoundly ignorant the United States has been in interpreting events in the Middle East.


As I noted earlier, Mohammed understood that the greatest political problem facing the Arab world was its endemic tribalism. That had led to the creation of Sharia law. However, as I also added, that law code was not enough to provide a viable framework for political decision-making.


Just as the Jews survived  because they had adopted a policy of “group responsibility,” which met and satisfied their cultural and historical needs, and just as Western countries  adopted popular democracy as their preeminent system of governance, so the Arabs empires survived and prospered by creating a system of mutual dependency.


Essentially, under the Arab system, tribalism was tamed, but not broken. So, for example, under the Ottomans in particular, some of the positive features of tribalism were integrated into the system of rule—especially the way that the lines of hierarchy and communications were constructed.


Basically the system worked this way: Every resident was made dependent on the family leader for any and all contacts the individual needed with the central ruling authorities. Then every family leader was made dependent for any favours he needed on the mukhtar—the village leader. In in other words, the family leader had to get the approval of the mukhtar first—if he wanted to plead for something from the central government on behalf of a family member. The mukhtars were dependent on the approval of the clan leaders. And the clan leaders were dependent on the approval of the tribal leader—and so on up the social ladder.


On the other hand if someone down the social ladder started making trouble, the person immediately above him was also held directly responsible for recreating stability.


At each plateau in this pyramid, there were inter-clan or inter-tribal forums. The primary purpose of these forums was conflict resolution.


Once Egypt became a Western colonial dependency and began to modernize, the political system changed somewhat. Egypt had almost invariably had strong centralized governments from time immemorial. For that reason, in the Nile Valley and in the Nile Delta, there were extended families and clans, but no real tribes as such. And, following Nasser’s expulsion of the Jews, the Greeks and the Armenians, and with the exception of the Copts, there were none of the ethnic divisions that bedeviled other Levantine states.


Commentators who have analyzed the Egyptian referendum on the new constitution that was approved last week have emphasized that it increases the power of the army enormously. That is true. However, there are other aspects of the document that arise out of Egypt’s historical experiences and are no less important. One of the most important is that while Egypt has no tribes as such, other bodies in Egypt, such as trade unions or professional groups began behaving during the colonial period in much the same way that tribes behave elsewhere in the Arab world. That behavior only strengthened after independence.


Since, in Egypt, there is no linear social hierarchy, such as had existed under the Ottomans, a new form of governance evolved when colonial rule ended. The country was governed by the military, but with the advice and consent of an unofficial federation of interest groups. This new system of rule was eventually formalized in the 1971 constitution, where each of the most important interest groups in the country was given formal, legal status.


One of the most important tasks of that informal federation is to ensure that the communication lines between those in power and the masses are kept open. Another is to openly support the proposition that the national leadership is worthy to rule.


The army was able to consolidate its position as the first among all the interest groups not only because of its size and access to weaponry. Following Nasser’s death, Anwar Sadat succeeded in altering the public’s perception of the role that the Egyptian army was playing in Egyptian society.


In order to pay for a huge modern army capable of taking on the Israelis, he expanded the role it played in the economy.  And in order to build up the officer corps in preparation for the 1973 war against Israel, he ordered universal conscription.  Universal conscription then enabled the military to construct an image of itself, as not being an instrument of some distant ruling class, but as the “army of the people, defending the people against hostile external forces.”


Rule by the military worked so long as the lines of communication between the government and the masses were kept open. However, under Mubarak, those lines became ever more sclerotic and constricted. His approval ratings deteriorated steadily as those close to him began to flaunt the fact that they were taking more and more of the national economic pie at the expense of other interest groups. His popular support finally collapsed when he tried to impose his son Gamal as his successor. It is impotent to remember that it was only after that long process that he was finally considered to be unworthy to rule by enough people that they would take the effort and face the danger inherent in trying to depose him.


The moment the rebellion gained a mass following, the army had to make some crucial strategic choices. Unlike the US, which blustered around, the military adopted a strategy that was totally in keeping with Egypt’s culture and its people’s self-perceptions.


After the revolt in Egypt began, the military stood largely on the sidelines in an attempt to show that it had not been tainted by the Mubarak regime and it would not harm the people it was mandated to defend. It left the job of trying to control the demonstrators to the already-hated police and secret police.


In order to protect its position as the primary interest group in the country, it acted as soldiers are trained to behave on the battlefield. In order to avoid a head-on assault by the protesters, it withdrew from the fray and even went so far as to willingly sacrifice its own people, including Defence Chief, Field Marshal Tartawi in order to maintain its popularity.


The Moslem Brotherhood seems to have been totally oblivious of the way in which the military was operating and how it was beginning to lay the groundwork for a popular takeover.


The Brotherhood based its entire approach to the public on the assumption that first and foremost, what the public wanted was to strengthen Islam within the country. That would seem to have been a reasonable approach because the Doha survey found that over 96 percent of Egyptians said that they are religious or very religious. A Gallup poll taken a decade earlier had found that only 2 percent of Egyptians took their Egyptian nationality as their primary source of identity.


However, in what would otherwise have appeared to have been an almost impossible reversal, the army eventually succeeded in placing loyalty to the idea of Egyptian nationalism at the forefront of the public debate.


One of the main ways it did so was to use the 1971 Sadat-inspired constitution to its advantage.


One of the first acts the Moslem Brotherhood did, after being elected, was to prepare a new constitution, in which Islamic institutions were to have been given greater privileges than other bodies such as the doctors union or the engineers’ union. This was a classic Islamist move, pitting as it did, the power of its adherents’ belief in the Sharia against the neo-tribalism of interest groups as it had evolved in Egypt.


This choice then enabled the military to offer a third path that eventually became more acceptable to more people. It offered nationalism as an alternate political belief structure to tribalism and religion.


To that end, it began by gathering the grassroots support of all the interest groups, which are central to life in Egypt.


One of those bodies, which had wide public support, was the judiciary. Despite having been appointed by the now-overthrown Mubarak regime, and despite being a defined interest group, the judges had also managed to create a public image of themselves as being an arm of the will of the people.


They therefore virtually volunteered to act as the vanguard in the inevitable conflict with the Brotherhood.


A turning point in the battle for power occurred when President Morsi, after a series of serious clashes with the country’s most senior judges decided in November 2012 to strip the judiciary of most of its powers to cancel government decisions.


This move essentially created a formal battlefront, with the Brotherhood and its allies marshalled on one side, and the judiciary and its allies on the other. The judiciary’s allies initially included only two groups, each of which was bitterly opposed to the other—the remnants of Mubarak’s political allies and the anti-Brotherhood secular rebels. The moment that the battleline was formed, the army was in a position to determine the fate of the country’s politics because its support was critical for both camps. The choice was easy and, from that point on, the position of the Brotherhood began to deteriorate rapidly.


Up to that time, according to a Gallup poll, 57 percent of the public had supported the Freedom and Justice party—the Moslem Brotherhood’s political face. But, just seven months later, in June 2013, when Morsi was overthrown by the army, the Freedom and Justice party’s public support had fallen to a meager 19 percent. In other words, a consensus of the public had determined that the Brotherhood was unworthy of ruling the country.


How had it lost so much support so quickly? Put in very general terms, instead of listening to the increasingly voluble level of complaints about its stewardship, it continued to behave like an opposition, not ruling a body. In particular, instead of seeking out areas for compromise, and appointing people with expertise to deal with pressing issues of state, it continued to deal only with those issues it considered to be important for the promotion of its own agenda.


There were several other significant turning points in the decline of the Brotherhood’s popular support that are worth noting. The Brotherhood allied itself with Hamas, which in turn, had already allied itself with those Bedouin tribes in the Sinai that were falling under the influence of foreign jihadists.  The most obvious signs of those alliances were the attacks on the trans-Sinai pipeline bringing Egyptian gas not only to Israel, but to Jordan and Syria as well. When the military asked for government approval to crack down on the terrorists, Morsi Brotherhood demurred. Morsi’s refusal to confront the religious, neo-jihadists then played negatively into the army’s nationalist narrative that was beginning to be strengthened. The army at this point, could legitimately claim that, by not cracking down on the neo-jihadists, the Morsi government was undermining Egyptian rule over its sovereign territory.


Another important turning point came when 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Sinai-based jihadists while the soldiers were eating their breakfast Ramadan meal. The military was then able to build and spread a narrative that the Moslem Brotherhood was implicated in the killings because it had supported Hamas and Hamas had trained the jihadists.


But even when there were no specific events on which the military could focus public attention, it kept up a steady propaganda message that it was “the people’s army”—the one and body the people could trust.


For example, among other things, the rebellion had led to the establishment of a whole bunch of new, competing, television stations. The Brotherhood had yet to take control of these independent means of communications—as the army now has.  And so, while the Brotherhood had access to every village via its network of mosques, the army understood that it could gain access to every home if it could manipulate the television stations properly. And manipulate them properly it did. The stations were already broadcasting pictures of long lines of cars waiting hopelessly in front of gas stations, waiting for fuel deliveries. To this, nightly pictures of bread bakeries were soon added. The implication was that the fuel shortage might soon reach the bakeries.


At this point the army was able to make indirect use of the classic Egyptian political synecdoche for unworthy governments. The military responded to the pictures being aired by providing pictures of its own showing army bakeries working non-stop to ensure that there would be a supply of precious loaves for the populace.  The message: the people’s army would provide for the people.


The Brotherhood had no response to this masterful propaganda exercise. Reports from Egypt have recently emphasized the army’s crackdown on the media, its arrests of opposition figures, its labelling of the Moslem Brotherhood as a ‘terrorist’ organization, and even its loss of support by the young secularists who had accepted its seizure of power from the Brotherhood.


However, when assessing what is going on in Egypt, you should remember that, according to the surveys done by Gallup, the Moslem Brotherhood government had a popular approval rating of about 57 percent immediately after the elections in June 2012. But by June 2013, 69 percent of Egyptians disapproved of the Brotherhood’s performance in government. In a year it had been judged by popular consensus to have been unworthy to hold office. Even though new elections were not held, popular consent was given to the army to take control of the government. The army thus gained office almost by default. A coup was not even needed.


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