The danger of Western projection: Egypt’s ‘Spring’ devolves into atavistic authoritarianism

A guest post by Gidon Ben-Zvi, an Anglo-Israeli writer who blogs at Jerusalem State of Mind

Egyptians are choosing between a radical Islamist and Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister in the second day of a presidential runoff greatly dominated by the country’s military.

Two days before the second round of the country’s first “free” presidential elections, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled to invalidate the parliamentary election there. With parliament, 75 percent of whose members were Islamists, being dissolved, the military has taken over total authority.  

Egyptian protesters chant slogans against country’s military ruling council & Presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, as one holds a poster with merged photos of Mubarak and Ahmed Shafiq with stars of David, at Tahrir Square on Thursday.

The highest court in the land also ruled that the army-backed candidate, Ahmad Shafiq – the last president to serve under Hosni Mubarak- could stay in the race, in what was widely seen as a double blow for the Muslim Brotherhood

The decision was denounced as a coup by opposition leaders, who fear that they will lose much of the political ground they have gained since Mubarak was ousted 16 months ago. 

What do these latest developments mean for the much ballyhooed ‘Arab Spring’? Does the West now find itself in the awkward position of condemning the Egyptian military and simultaneously demanding that the Muslim Brotherhood be put into power?  

This thoroughly misunderstood revolution has laid claim to the hearts and minds of many an erudite Western observer. Did not the awakening that flowered with the removal of Hosni Mubarak usher in a new dawn of social cohesion, economic vibrancy and political democracy

Evidently not. In a country woefully unprepared for democracy, the apparent choice for the good citizens ofEgypt is now between a Sharia state and a military junta. 

One reason that that the West got it wrong was that it fell under the spell of several tantalizing myths, including the one that attributes Mubarak’s ouster to the Facebook generation. While the young and wired up may have played a role in sparking the Arab Spring, they have not been its main beneficiaries. 

The West also overestimated the significance of the democratic secularists and the degree to which demonstrators across Egypt were committed to Western-style democracy rather than a quasi democracy that represented Islamist values.  

Indeed, pro-democracy activists may have induced a gullible Western public to swoon, but they never succeeded in generating a grass-roots following inside of Egypt, which in the end is more important.

Grossly underreported in the media coverage coming out of Tahrir Square was the rise to prominence of the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood. The leading Islamist party in Egypt, which had been banned from participating in national politics by Mubarak, reaped the benefits of a suddenly open political system. 

Last Thursday’s decision by the supreme constitutional court -whose judges were appointed by Mubarak – brings into sharp focus the old regime’s complete lack of public support.

Such machinations bode ill for the Arab world’s newest ‘free society’. In fact, Egypt remains a ‘fear society’ – whose rulers lack the legitimate support of the people. In order to remain in power, Mubarak’s coterie must apparently resort to extraordinary judicial maneuvers. 

As such, despite the West’s infatuation with the image of pro-liberty demonstrations and protests occurring across the Arab world, there’s actually nothing new taking place underneath the Cairo sun.  

In fact, the rise of religious revolutionary forces that drove a nation’s strongman to leave his country bears a striking resemblance to the events leading up to 1979’s Iranian Revolution. 

Once the Western powers realized that Iranian society was on the verge of a fundamental change, they chose to accommodate this change. After recognizing the opposition groups, they facilitated them with opportunities such as media coverage. Through this action, changes accelerated with an unexpected speed.  

It appears, then, that the West is once again on the wrong side of history. What’s behind this chronic inability to get it right? Besides buying into a few unexamined assumptions about the ‘Arab Spring’, Westerners have also tended to lean heavily on the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 as point of reference. Indeed, the unpopularity of these regimes in 1989 is comparable to the loathing expressed across theMiddle East at inert and intolerant authoritarian rulers in 2011. 

However, the role of foreign forces in 1989 and 2011, respectively, is strikingly different. The unpopularity of regimes swept out of power by in 1989 originated in the fact that they were imposed from the outside — from the Soviet Union after World War II — and the governments were seen as tools of a foreign government.  

The Arab Spring was different. The regimes did not come into being as foreign impositions. Nasserism, the ideology of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who founded the modern Egyptian state, was not imposed from the outside. Indeed, it was an anti-Western movement, opposed to both European imperialism and what was seen as American aggression. 

Until the West learns to read and interpret events on the ground with better accuracy, it will continue to find itself waking up in bed with Iranian Mullahs and Egyptian supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Ultimately, such diplomatic naiveté only serves to arouse public suspicion in these countries towards Western intentions in the Middle East. 

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