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There’s nothing like having to explain a complex subject to people to improve one’s own understanding of the issues. And when you must tailor the briefing for a specific cultural and historical background, this new angle is also conducive to learning more. Whenever I have to give a talk I learn something new.
So here are a few things that having to explain the Middle East to a group of serious intellectuals, officials, and diplomats in Riga, Latvia, made me understand.
First, in trying to have a good one-sentence explanation about the events of the last couple of months, I hit on this idea:
The question is whether these revolutions are more like that of 1917 or of 1991.
Everyone understood what that meant. In 1917 there was a revolution against a dictatorial government, that of the czar of Russia. The revolutionaries were full of enthusiasm and idealism; many thought the movement would bring real democracy. Instead it brought 70 years of Communist oppression, even worse for many than the previous regime.
The irony is made even more intense by the fact that Riga was the industrial center of Russia, full of workers and hence of a disproportionately high number of Bolsheviks. The Lithuanian rifle regiments were among the most militant and reliable of Red Army forces, also furnishing many cadres who would be the foundation of the Soviet secret police. So while Latvia suffered horribly under Communist rule, a number of Latvians were involved in imposing the new regime.
In contrast, the 1991 revolution was one of liberation from a dictatorship that produced a democratic rebirth. Thus, if the Middle East revolutions turn out like the1917 upheaval it means things will be worse, while if they lead to the result of the 1991 uprising, then those Arab societies will be on the road to something much better.
While I stress that every country is different and go into the details of those differences, I’m expecting Tunisia to be more like 1991 and Egypt closer to 1917. Of course, if I was speaking to an Egyptian audience, I’d use the years 1952 and 1979, that is comparing the other Egyptian revolution—which produced a radical nationalist and military regime—with that of Iran, which brought a military regime. If I wanted to be a bit optimistic, I’d mention 1919, a moderate nationalist revolution that helped produce an independent Egypt with a parliamentary system.
Two other useful points came up in a question from an important political figure. He spoke about how his country “returned” to democracy in 1991 and to a national existence interrupted by invasions of both Nazi Germany and the Communist USSR.
The other key concept is the regional, wider picture. From a Latvian (and most European) perspective, this implies the European Union and NATO, in other words having stabilizing and beneficial—let’s not get into the shortcomings of the EU right now—institutions.
I thought this really put the Arab political problems into perspective. For in the Arabic-speaking world, what is there to return to? Most obviously, that means the Islamist interpretation of an ideal traditional society that in practice would mean a totalitarian nightmare. In Egypt, it could also mean, alternatively, a return to militant nationalism. After all, Egypt is almost certain to elect as president Amr Moussa, the country’s most famous living Nasserist.
So while a “return” to the past in Central Europe was good, in the Middle East it can be disastrous.
As to the other point, in the Middle East regionalization means the attempts of different countries to subvert each other, as Arab politics traditionally functioned. Few outside observers realize that more energy was spent between the 1930s and 1970s or 1980s on Arab states trying to take each other over or battle among themselves than was devoted to destroying Israel. In addition, the Arab-Israeli conflict could reignite for the first time since the1970s. The conflict’s decline had clearly began when Egypt made a peace treaty with Israel; the conflict’s revival could begin with a new Egypt that no longer feels bound by that treaty.
Several factors make it easier for Central Europeans to understand the Middle East than it is for Western Europeans. They understand that ideology matters, having lived under an ideological dictatorship. That is a concept that many in the farther west find impossible to understand. They also know, living under Russia’s looming shadow that threats still exist in the world.
When you’ve had the likes of Hitler and Stalin knocking down your door and trampling you underfoot, you’re less likely to think that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a harmless clown.
And with all necessary allowances for the differences, I tell them to think about the revolutionary Islamists as being like Communists. They get the parallels: disciplined, revolutionary, ideological, ambitious, willing to conceal their aims, pretending to be moderate at times, setting up front groups, using useful idiots, being patient and keeping the long-term perspective in mind, but unlikely to change their ultimate aims, and many more techniques from the repertoire of Communism can also be seen in Islamism.
I also point out that in Central Europe, the transition from Communism to democracy was eased by the fact that the “dissidents” had religion and nationalism on their side. The churches opposed Communism and supported moderation and democracy; nationalism united the people against the foreign rulers, that is the Russians.
Here, though, I miscalculate a bit in my wording. A distinguished leading figure objects to my use of the word “nationalism.” For him, that word implies something hardline and right-wing. It isn’t that he’s against patriotism that’s the problem–as it would someone in a North American or Western European audience–it’s that he takes it for granted. You don’t need nationalist slogans when the whole nation is united already in wanting to reestablish their own state.
To make this point, I respond: If the USSR had become fully democratic would you have wanted to remain under Moscow’s rule? Of course not. But today nationalism in the Arabic-speaking world retains a very ferocious and potentially aggressive breed of nationalism. Here is one area where differences make things a bit misleading and a careful explanation must be made.
Finally, as a small country, ultimately dependent for its security on Western Europe and most of all America, they comprehend how the lack of strength and leadership in those quarters jeopardizes their most fundamental interests. There is now a club of countries around the world who have common concerns in this regard.
In Asia, there are those who fear China and there is India concerned about Pakistan. In the Middle East there are a large set of countries—Morocco, Algeria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the small Gulf states among them—that want Western protection from revolutionary Islamism and Iran. In South America, they have parallel situations of countries really worried about Venezuela and some other ambitious regimes. And there are those in Central Europe and the Caucasus who feel that Russia has not settled down to be a peaceful and benevolent neighbor.
Finally, there are the democratic oppositions in Islamist oriented or radical nationalist states—Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, and Syria—that desperately want Western support and just aren’t getting any.
These dozens of countries don’t complain about America being a unilateral bully, they bemoan its lack of self-confidence and strength. If it fails, their very survival is on the line.
So it’s easier to explain all of these things to Central Europeans, who still remember the lessons of history, than it would be in London or Paris where, many seem to think that the personification of modern evil is George W. Bush and the biggest contemporary international threat often appears to be Israel.
At any rate, nobody is surprised or upset at the idea that events might not turn out so well or assumes that democracy is inevitable and that radicals can be transformed into moderates by sympathy. They know things can go wrong and that the world is a dangerous place.