Several reporters have written lately about the rightist Israeli government’s misapprehension of the Arab Spring. They note that instead of calling it “Arab Spring,” ideologues like current defense minister, Bogie Yaalon, called it the “Islamic Winter.” Further, they espoused to a certainty the conviction that these uprisings would bring radical Islamists to power throughout the region.
Whether they believed this or not (it’s likely they didn’t, but that’s for another post), it was a convenient conviction because it further bolstered Ehud Barak’s old saw that Israel was “a villa” in the Middle East “jungle.” If the region could be portrayed as a nest of Muslim terrorists or terrorists-in-the-making, it would make Israel the only friend the U.S. would have left.
This, of course, was the same thinking that led Bibi Netanyahu to see 9/11 as good for Israel because of his certainty it would show that Israel and America were lone bastions of democracy amid a sea of Islamic terrorism. Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s vision was largely realized thanks to a Bush administration that played the terror card quite deftly and an Obama administration that inherited and expanded upon this sordid legacy.
But developments in Egypt and Turkey have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no such thing as an Islamic Winter. That the revolts of the Arab Spring are progressing toward more democracy and more openness. I won’t go so far as to say they’re progressing toward secularism, because that’s a loaded term in countries like Turkey. But there is a clear movement away from authoritarianism and toward something radically different.
Far be it from me to predict what will happen in either country. Egypt’s Pres. Morsi got a shot across the bow from the Egyptian military, who seemed to threaten a coup unless he capitulated to protester’s demands and resigned. Military intervention would be disastrous in the current delicate political context. One hopes the military understands this and allows political developments to take their own course.
In Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan seems to have weathered for now, a spate of massive protests against his increasingly authoritarian rule. But those protests were the most significant outburst of democratic values in the entire decade since his Islamist party took power. Though physically beaten and repressed, the people will not remain silent for long. Turks will find their voice. Undoubtedly, Erdogan will overplay his hand at some point in the future and the next time he will not remain in power.
Whether Morsi stays or goes (and the same holds true for Erdogan), it seems clear that at least in these countries, if not others in the region, the people are not afraid to make their voices heard and their feelings known. They are not afraid to bring down Islamist governments if they are ignored.
Even in Iran, a country which as recently as 2009 brutally suppressed massive reformist protests against a disputed presidential election, a new president has himself embraced the message of the Arab Spring. Hassan Rouhani has told his people that his election represents the fruition of the hope for change represented by those earlier revolts.
What does this mean in terms of what I wrote earlier about Israeli interpretation of these events? It means that, to quote Donne: “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” In other words, the lessons of the Arab Spring will not be lost on Israel either. It already had a massive J14 social justice protest two summers ago. But this movement gazed inward rather than outward. It did not acknowledge in any serious way a connection to the other social movements in the region. It dealt solely with internal Israeli social justice issues.
But the latest developments show that again, as Donne wrote: “No man is an island.” Nor is Israel. It can isolate itself all it wishes. But it remains a nation in the Middle East. The currents in this region will impact it whether its leaders wish them to or not. Israel, despite believing itself to be a democracy, is not. This was one of the legacies of the J14 movement. Israel was seen for the first time by a massive cross-section of the public as a state controlled by an economic oligarchy of eighteen families who control a massive amount of the country’s capital (80%). It was seen as a country with one of the biggest discrepancies between the richest and poorest in the developed world.
Israel, during the J14 protests, experienced its own version of the Arab Spring. But that massive outpouring of protest and anger wasn’t sustained. Nor has Israel’s government pursued any path toward reform or shown any sign it heard or understood the message of the protesters. That means that Bibi Netanyahu, rather than being the enemy of the Arab Spring, is actually much closer to the autocrats and Islamists who took control in Egypt and Turkey. He is little different from Erdogan or Morsi and just as out of touch as them, if not more so.
Israel, like these two bell-weathers of the Arab-Muslim world, is bending toward a Middle Eastern arc of justice and democracy. It may not happen today or this year or even this decade. But to paraphrase Leonard Cohen , democracy is comin’ to the Middle East. And specifically to countries like Israel, Egypt and Turkey. Not the ethnocracy that passes for democracy in Israel today. But a genuine democracy that promises one state for all its citizens.