Stairs: Syria is on the brink of civil war. Democracy is being undermined in Egypt. Is the Arab Spring over?
The real question here is whether it was appropriate to conceive of events in the region last year as an “Arab Spring” in the first place. It seems clear that the uprisings were linked in a kind of ‘copy-cat’ mimicry, and that Internet communications both triggered and reinforced the process. But the widespread conclusion that this reflected a universal hunger for western-style liberal democracy, coupled to a tolerance for diversity, and hence that it meant that we were on the verge of a democratic transformation of political processes in the Arab world, was naively optimistic from the start. Political cultures – along with the underlying political realities and the forces that sustain them – rarely alter their essentials overnight. In matters of this sort, absent a total cataclysm, watersheds are as scarce as hen’s teeth.
The sins of facile thinking and over-generalization were compounded here, as they have been elsewhere, by the assumption that the countries involved – because mainly Arab and mainly Muslim – were all pretty much the same. Hence it was concluded that what was happening in country A was essentially the same as what was happening in country B, and that, to the extent the happenings themselves were successful, they would all generate pretty much the same result. These are hardly reliable premises upon which to found our expectations, and they point to the need to ground our assessments in nuanced, case-by-case analysis of local conditions.
Even in an age of single-page government memos and 142-character tweets, there is no short cut to perspicacity. We have to know – REALLY know – what we’re talking about.