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 . . .”
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