Home inFocus 9/11: Past and Present Worse and Better in the Wake of the Arab Spring

Worse and Better in the Wake of the Arab Spring

Shoshana Bryen Fall 2021
President Trump hosts Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyani for the signing of Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House. (Photo: White House / Shealah Craighead)

In 2011 – 10 years ago and 10 years after the 9-11 attacks – there was a widespread uprising across the Arab world. It was tagged “The Arab Spring” to associate it with the 1968 Prague Spring (which, it should be noted, was viciously suppressed) and then the collapse of the Soviet Union and the freeing of Central Europe. But it was not at all the same and our American – and Western – confusion caused enormous upheaval for the Arab people. On the other hand, it arguably led to the Abraham Accords and better acceptance of Israel in the region.

The results of these uprisings varied from moderately successful to disastrous destabilization. It is unsurprising that the Arab Spring splintered in different directions; the societies of the Arab Middle East, North Africa, and the non-Arab Muslim societies of Turkey and Iran are vastly different and have vastly different requirements for societal control.

Lifting the yoke of the Soviet Union from the captive western nations simply restored them to their former position as part of Europe, “whole and free” as the Atlanticists correctly said. Before Soviet domination, the history, economy, society, religion, and national development of the Central [not actually “Eastern”] part of the European continent was similar to that of the Western part, with regard to economics, journalism, the middle class, and the role of women. Experience with kings, princes, wars, and parliaments had generally correlated on both sides of the Iron Curtain. 

Colonial History

It is a mistake to think of the Arab Spring in any such nationalist or capitalist or ideological terms. Instead, think of tectonic plates. Since 3000 BCE, the broader Middle East has been governed by outside forces, mostly colonial forces governing from elsewhere.

That’s a lot of years and a lot of colonial rule – and some of those colonial empires lasted hundreds of years. In terms of local societies, the colonial structure meant you were always beholden to someone far away. However important you thought you were as a sheikh, an imam, a warrior, etc., you still paid rent or tribute to someone else somewhere else. You could never be at the top of the hierarchy – this compressed society, making it in some ways more egalitarian than what followed. 

The Arab Spring was the pulling apart of the boundaries and societies stitched together primarily by the British and the French in the aftermath of WWI, when they drew the borders of nations emerging from Ottoman and European rule, in that post-colonial moment. One hundred years ago – that’s all. 

But it was the last 100 years in a 3,000-year process.

The first pull on the plates was the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq – what we call the First Gulf War in 1990-91. Saddam said Kuwait was the 19th province of Baghdad, stripped away by the British who wanted control there. 

He was right. It was. 

The Bush (43) and Obama administrations both believed that the people of the region wanted something called “democracy.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called freedom a “yearning in every human heart.” The Obama people wanted to “atone” for what they thought was white – and American – colonialism. Both were wrong.

Americans talk about “freedom” and “democracy” or hope the Arab countries will have a “democratic” revolution – but “democracy” is not an operative concept. When people are angry in the Middle East, they call for “justice” not “democracy.” Justice, for them, is the opposite of corruption. So, where “democracy” is not a useful concept, the Western notion of “rule of law” – meaning one set of laws applied equally to the rulers, the rich, and the regular people without regard for race, religion, sex, or political proclivity – would be analagous to calls in the Arab world for “justice” and an end to “corruption.”

And corruption is the first of four common elements in revolutions from Tunisia to Bahrain and Yemen, from Syria to Libya, from Afghanistan to Egypt. 

Corruption, Plus Money, Sex, and Humiliation

Corruption: All of those societies suffer from endemic corruption. Some regimes with oil have wealthy tribal, religious, and princely elites, others such as Libya, or Iraq under Saddam, used oil wealth to fund the military that kept them in power. Secular dictatorships without oil, such as Egypt and Syria, concentrated wealth in the hands of the military-backed elite. Iran has oil, religious elites, and a military oligarchy. The middle class, where it exists, is small and generally beholden to the elites for employment – that is, the ability to earn money and support a family.

Money: These countries are primarily statist and/or nominally socialist, with governments that dole out jobs, especially in government, which makes for inefficient job creation. Large numbers of educated young people can’t find work because no government can ever crank out enough jobs, and people can’t manage their way through the maze of government regulation to be market-based entrepreneurs. Technology-based entrepreneurialism is impossible in societies that regulate communication. 

The UAE and Bahrain understood that and have been working on much more capitalist and non-oil-related job production for years. The fact that the UAE sent a module to Mars – and that more than 30% of the science team was female – is the outward evidence of an extraordinary leap forward.

On the other hand, back in 2011 it wasn’t an accident that the Tunisian revolution was touched off by a young man with an “illegal” vegetable cart. 

Sex and humiliation: For most people in the Arab world, sex is meant to be a function of marriage. The casual sex and single life of Western capitals is not available to average Arab men for religious, financial, and social reasons. But you need money to get married and they don’t have jobs, so they can’t. It is not an accident that young men with no hope of marriage are lured into jihad in part with the promise of virgins in the afterlife. Sex without money; sex without responsibility.

To be clear, marriage isn’t just about sex: a wife, job, home, and family are the attributes of adulthood. But without jobs with a future, marriage is postponed, and young men often remain in their parents’ house well into their 30s. To be fully grown but less than an adult in the eyes of society is humiliating. 

It wasn’t an accident that the Tunisian vegetable vendor was pushed over the edge when a female police officer harassed him.

The good news is that Islamic radicalism has no answer to the problem of the rise of educated and ambitious young people. Religious despots are not a positive alternative to secular despots. 

America Mis-Steps In

The bad news is that until the Trump administration, the United States made all the wrong moves. President Trump’s policy successes in the Middle East consisted primarily of opening artificial floodgates and allowing for the passage of political currents already moving. This is not a small thing.

As early as 2006, during the war between Israel and Hezbollah, the editor-in-chief of a major Saudi paper wrote: 

This war was inevitable as the Lebanese government couldn’t bring Hezbollah within its authority and make it work for the interests of Lebanon. Similarly, (Abbas) has been unable to rein in the Hamas Movement. Unfortunately, we must admit that in such a war the only way to get rid of “these irregular phenomena” is what Israel is doing. The operations of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon are in the interest of people of Arab countries and the international community.

By 2021, Hezbollah had decimated the once prosperous and forward-looking Lebanon. 

The Arab Spring turned ugly. In 2011, the government of Hosni Mubarak was removed – with American help – and replaced with the terror of a Muslim Brotherhood state that was, itself, ousted in 2013. Libya, under an Obama Administration-directed American military assault, crashed in 2011 and the wars since then have killed thousands, wrecked industry, fueled the migrant crisis, and provided weapons for ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria. And, of course, in Syria, the promise of the Spring encouraged the uprising against a brutal dictator, that led to the civil war. In that war, the U.S. supported and armed militias that it did not understand, which killed more than 600,000 people, displaced more than half of the Syrian population, and included the use of poison gas. Much of this was funded by Iran’s largesse, which was partially American largesse.

American policy frightened governments around the region. The Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan didn’t want to be like Syria, if they had a choice. They did have a choice.

Suddenly, the allure of war and the ideological principle of throwing the Jews into the sea paled in comparison with figuring out how to stay in power and determine the role of the people under their systems of government. Technology, water, and the fight against Iran’s export of radical ideology —both Shiite and Sunni—were better priorities, and some Arab states began to see Israel as a potential partner in their pursuit.

The Abraham Accords

A combination of things brought the Gulf States to create the Abraham Accords 

Fear of Iran

Fear of the upheaval of the Arab Spring coupled with the understanding that new governing and economic models were necessary to stay in power

Respect for the fact that the U.S., under President Trump, was a firm ally. Yes, a firm ally to Israel, but a firm ally. They began to think he could be their ally as well.

The Biden Administration’s immediate slap at Saudi Arabia’s position in the war with Yemen’s Houthis began to undermine that conviction. 

When Egypt made peace, it was looking for American weapons to replace the Russian weapons. When Jordan made peace, it needed Israeli security to prevent a Palestinian uprising in the Kingdom – and still does. A brave Jordanian military officer once pointed out to a group of American military professionals that, if you look at the maps carefully, you see that Jordanian soldiers are pointed INWARD, planning to save the King from internal upheaval, not to attack Israel. 

Under the Abraham Accords, Israel and the Gulf States have changed the dynamic in the region. There is an Israel-Gulf business association. Textbooks in the UAE tell Israel’s real story – including the story of Jewish history in the Arabian Peninsula. Morocco, among other Arab states, has revised textbooks and is inviting Israelis publicly to visit Jewish history in Morocco. 

My New, Favorite Story

The Association of Gulf Jewish Communities has been established to create a network of Jewish institutions across the region. [And yes, there are small indigenous Jewish communities.] One such institution is the Beth Din of Arabia, a rabbinical court to adjudicate communal and personal status issues among the Jewish population of the Gulf states. It will be headquartered in Bahrain.

Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates Yehuda Sarna will serve as the president of the new court, and Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates Eli Abadie will be its presiding rabbi. Rabbi Abadie said, “This dates back to the Treaty of Umar and recognition from the advent of Islam of Judaism as a bona fide, monotheistic religion and ‘people of the book.’” He noted that Jewish communities in Muslim lands were historically given religious autonomy to adjudicate their own personal status issues. 

Rabbi Sarna adds, “The very presence of a rabbinical court is a signal of integration into local society, so exploration of how a rabbinical court interlocks with local judicial departments is really a larger question of how the Jewish community can become integrated into the fabric of Gulf countries.” 

The real impact of the Abraham Accords, then, is to offer Arab-driven political answers to the Arab Spring. Which bodes well for the region.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.