President Morsi at the UN General Assembly in September. Photograph: Getty Images
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Ignore the neocons, says Mehdi Hasan – I refuse to give up on Egypt, or the Arab spring

Long live the Arab Spring - despite the murmurs about Morsi’s “pharaonic” decree in Egypt and the Syrian bloodbath, I refuse to lose faith in the people of the Arab world.

Voltaire wrote that “optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable”. With the residents of Gaza and Homs still burying their dead and tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo marching on Tahrir Square, there doesn’t seem to be much light or hope in the Middle East. Pessimists abound. Over the past year or so, the doom-mongers and naysayers of the western commentariat have fallen over one another to try to write the definitive obituary of the Arab revolts, which, lest we forget, kicked off in December 2010 with the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi.

Cynicism has been married to cliché: “The Arab spring is giving way to an Arab winter,” wrote the self-professed neoconservative Douglas Murray in a Spectator cover story in November 2011. “The Arab spring is a misnomer,” added the US neocon Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post in July 2012. “This is an Islamist ascendancy . . .”

Divisive trigger

I concede that recent events in Egypt don’t help those of us who desperately want to be optimistic about the future of the region. On 22 November, fresh from his internationally acclaimed role in securing a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the Egyptian president (and ex-Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik) Mohamed Morsi decided to issue a decree giving himself sweeping powers, including the authority to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution”.

Overnight, his decree triggered sit-ins, dem - onstrations and clashes. “He has been a very divisive figure,” Dr H A Hellyer, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells me, noting how Morsi won only 52 per cent of the vote in June’s election. “He doesn’t have revolutionary legitimacy.”

Is Morsi a modern-day Cincinnatus, the 5th-century Roman dictator who relinquished power after just 16 days and resigned the moment he had defeated the city’s enemies? Or even Egypt’s Abraham Lincoln, the president who amassed such huge powers during the American civil war, only to surrender them all when the fighting ended in 1865? Only time will tell. But I refuse to give up on Egypt – or, for that matter, the Arab spring. Not yet, at least.

For a start, shouldn’t we be celebrating the backlash against Morsi’s decree and how instant it was? The president’s power grab was not just illegitimate, but ill-judged. His justice minister, Ahmed Mekky, went on television to object to the scope of the decree. The onetime presidential candidate and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a hero of Egypt’s liberal minority, took to Twitter to accuse Morsi of usurping “all state powers” and appointing himself “Egypt’s new pharaoh”. Wael Ghonim, the internet activist who became a crucial figure in the anti-Mubarak uprising of 2011, joined the chorus of angry critics. “Power corrupts,” he tweeted on 23 November. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely!”

As Egypt’s top judges threatened to go on strike, thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on 27 November, repeating the chant that became the defining slogan of the demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” Second, at the time of writing, the backlash looks like it might be working. Morsi has begun to perform a David-Cameron-type U-turn, claiming his new powers are much narrower and more temporary than the announcement originally indicated.

This pharaoh, it seems, isn’t immune to political or popular pressure.

Remember: just 21 months have elapsed since the fall of Mubarak, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years, and just five months since the election of Morsi. “It’s going to take some time” for Egypt to adapt to democracy, says Hellyer, who lives in Cairo. “There was always going to be a lot of trauma.”

In May this year, I took part in a debate at the Oxford Union on the future of the Arab spring. The cynics and fearmongers were represented that evening by the Israeli historian Benny Morris, the Daily Telegraph’s hawk-in-chief, Con Coughlin, and the retired US general Keith Dayton. Their argument boiled down to two complaints: why do Muslim Arabs keep voting for Islamist parties? And why aren’t we seeing much more change in the Middle East, at a much quicker pace?

Dayton emphasised this latter point in particular. I had to point out to him that his own country, the United States, won independence from Great Britain in 1776; it took another 89 years to abolish slavery and another hundred years after that to secure equal voting rights for African Americans.

Taking the long view

It’s worth noting that, compared to the transitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were subjected to foreign military interventions and occupation, the Arab spring has been a success.

Tens of thousands have perished in Afghanistan over the past decade; in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have been shot, slashed and bombed to death. By contrast, Egypt and Tunisia have been quite stable.

Yes, Syria continues to burn but Assad cannot survive much longer, the Bahrainis continue to revolt against their brutal royal rulers, and in Jordan thousands of protesters took to the streets in the middle of November for the first time to call for an end to King Abdullah’s rule.

“It is too soon to say,” the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is said to have remarked when asked, in 1971, for his view on the success of the French Revolution of 1789. In our 24/7 age, we need a dose of such long-termism; revolutions are measured in years and decades, not weeks and months. Yes, the stakes are high in Egypt and yes, Morsi, like every other autocratic leader, Islamist or otherwise, is not to be trusted. Power, after all, corrupts. But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post and an NS contributing writer. This piece also appears at the Huffington Post here

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue