Review. The Long War for Freedom
The Long War For Freedom
The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East
By Barry Rubin
Wiley 2005, 304 pp.
Revolution is blazing through the Middle East. Are we truly looking at the dawn of a new democratic age, with progressive Arab and Persian opposition forces leading the charge, as Terry Glavin suggested this morning in The Leaving's Of Yesterday's Men? As much respect as I have for Glavin's insights, on this occasion I'm not certain I can rise quite to that level of triumphalism. Perhaps it has something to do with my reading of Barry Rubin's The Long War For Freedom.
Until about six weeks ago, the pharaohs of the Middle East seemed like they might last at least until midway to the next century. Today, the liberal democrats who helped bring down these tyrants are very much in danger of losing whatever ground they've gained to Islamists and nationalist demagogues. As Rubin explains, the deck was stacked against them even before these tumultuous events took place.
That there are sincere and courageous liberals indigenous to these societies, there is no doubt. The problem is that they are very thin on the ground. It's a natural consequence of having been squeezed between police state regimes and religious fanatics, as Rubin depressingly illustrates. Liberals who speak out are punished with career suicide, social ostracization, jail, kidnapping, accusations of being an apostate or traitor and ultimately, death. And the worst part is that for all their courage, these voices of democracy - people, like Tarek Heggy, Naguib Mahfouz, Moncef al-Marzouki and others - cannot even claim to represent a majority of the people. While the old regimes are famous for corruption, nepotism and religion-tainted brutality, it does not follow that what all of the people seek as a remedy is free trade, American or Westminster-style politics and secularism.
Rubin's analysis has been bolstered by events. Western media reported that the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions were sparked by massive discontent over unemployment, arbitrary police brutality and lack of freedom. This is surely true. But after Mubarak was gone, the people made their priorities clear. Some protesters called for the liberation of Palestine. Those with more pressing financial concerns ("Palestine can wait. I've got to pay my rent.") demanded that the new regime (whoever that might be) give them jobs; not open up the sclerotic economy or make changes to get businesses hiring, but for an already broke communist-style system to just give them jobs. And separating mosque and state isn't even on the table, when a good swathe of the protests began with the imams and the only coordinated public statements seem to be coming from the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is the awful reality of the post-tyrant era. Now the liberals actually have some breathing room. The (lack of) government in Egypt can't jail them for talking about freedom. But the Islamists still remain. And damn it, society still remains. They still have to use harsh anti-American or anti-Zionist rhetoric just to reach the masses and not be entirely discounted. They still have to get past an instinctive reactionary mindset among large segments of the population that believes wrongly that democracy and human rights are exclusively Western models and thus unfit for Arabs or Persians.
"So, America," said the dicators. "You want our country to open up our political system. You want us to tackle corruption. You want us to stop the incitement to violence and war coming out of our state-owned television broadcasters. You want us to focus on education and building our economies. Fine. If we make these changes, what's in it for us?"
This was the mindset that liberals were fighting -- and they will continue to have to fight against it, long after the tyrants have disappeared.
The long war for freedom is not yet over. Indeed, it has barely begun, as Rubin's observations of Arab political society remain all too relevant.
We should support our democratic colleagues throughout the Middle East as best we can. And as Glavin points out, there are grounds for optimism, perhaps even a little triumphalism. But these are early days.
Jonathon Narvey is the Editor of The Propagandist