When Spring Turned to Winter in the Middle East

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Harvard law professor Noah Feldman’s book about Arab political self-determination and self-destruction is called The Arab Winter: A Tragedy. And he really means it. Grief emanates from every line of this reevaluation of the Arab Spring, which revisits the hope followed by disaster in Egypt and Syria; the utopian Islamism that produced the hellish dystopia of ISIS; and, perhaps most painful, the success in Tunisia that showed the other tragedies were not inevitable.

But Feldman’s argument is ultimately upbeat. The tragedy, as he sees it, is not just that these uprisings failed to bring democracy or prosperity, collapsing instead into renewed repression and worse. The tragedy is that under different circumstances, they could have gone a different way.

Feldman, who has seen attempts at Arab and Islamic democracy up close—at the age of 32 he was a constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq—argues in this new book that the widely shared view of the Arab Spring as an unmitigated failure with a dark aftermath misses key elements. Arab peoples, he says, exercised political agency and expressed popular will; these are noble undertakings even when they go awry. Though the Egyptian people chose wrongly in tacitly supporting the return of the military after their brief experiment with the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi, he argues, they still made political choices; they were not merely the victims of outside forces. The Syrian uprising, though futile from an early stage because of the country’s ethnic divisions, likewise began as an honorable attempt at political self-betterment. Even the ghastly excesses of ISIS, which Feldman sees as ultimately part of the Arab Spring’s trajectory because of its genesis in the Syrian civil war, can be seen as a horrifically misguided attempt at utopian Islamist nation-building—one that, in its lurid excesses and quick fall, discredited Salafi Jihadism as a political option.

Feldman speaks with Moment about Arab political agency and how it contributes to understanding events in the region.

What should American policymakers learn from your argument? 

After the tremendous disappointment that follows something like the Arab Spring, it’s tempting for policymakers to fall into a certain nihilism, to think things can never improve. That’s the main point I want to work against. Despite many things that went terribly, terribly wrong and a fair portion of blame, things could have gone well, and those possibilities still exist. Also, it’s important to remember that it’s a tremendously good and valuable thing for human beings to make a serious effort to take charge of their own fate. When cynics say we shouldn’t even encourage people to try to govern themselves, my answer is that you’re talking about the search for one of the most fundamental human goods, self-government, and of course it can go wrong. It’s like love. Not every relationship succeeds, and love is risky. But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t try to find it.

You talk about wanting to combat the “culturalist error” of assuming Arabs can’t exercise political self-determination. Do people still say that? 

Some do, but there are also a lot of people nowadays, influenced by China, increasingly willing to jettison the democratic self-government ideal altogether. You don’t hear them saying, as they might have a century ago, “People in China can’t govern themselves.” What you hear instead is a general anti-democratic argument like, “What’s so great about self-government? Autocracy is what’s raising people out of poverty.” Then there’s the self-serving argument: If you think democracy in an Arab country is going to lead to bad things in your country, whether the United States or Israel or whatever, you might be inclined to support the idea that it can’t happen anyway. In the early 2000s, lots of people in Israel were saying Arab countries really needed to become democracies, but then when the Arab Spring actually happened, some of those self-same people flipped and said Egypt couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be democratic.

Do you think, in retrospect, that the United States could have done anything to influence “Tahrir II,” when the Egyptian military overturned the elected government of Mohammed Morsi? 

Absolutely. Consistent with our own laws, we could have sent a message that a regime that moved against the democratically elected government would not be treated as a legitimate government with which we would be unproblematically allied, or one that would get the benefit of the tremendous economic and military aid we give to Egypt. There’s actually a federal law that prohibits supporting governments that come to power in this way. But eventually, the U.S. government just decided Egypt was too strategically valuable, and we started funding it again. It’s a perfect example of a case where we had leverage just from signaling. It’s no secret that there are close ties between the U.S. military and the Egyptian military, so they were not going to do this without pretty clear signals that we wouldn’t intervene and cause trouble. We could have communicated that they should wait till new elections and then start again. But we didn’t do that.

Does your focus on Arab political agency cast any light on recent developments between Israel and the Gulf states?

It’s no coincidence that the first peace deal occurred with the United Arab Emirates, a country that doesn’t see itself as vulnerable to domestic instability. The UAE is probably the least domestically unstable of the Arab states, by virtue of having just 10 million inhabitants, only a couple of million of whom are citizens, spread across multiple monarchic member states. It’s much harder for Arab states that see themselves as responsible to democratic forces in their countries to move in that direction.

Because the deal happened without meaningful progress on the Palestinian issue, it will have transformatively negative effects on the Palestinian ability to influence other Arab states. That’s relevant to the arguments in my book insofar as the Palestinians have at various times tried to exercise different forms of self-government, and they haven’t been so successful. We can surmise that the Palestinian popular will would oppose any agreement with Israel, but we also know that under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Palestinians haven’t had the benefit of real elections where they can say what they want.

Does Israel have more to fear from greater political agency in Arab nations?

Politics are complicated. You can’t assume that a democratically elected government will be anti-Israel. When the Morsi government came to power, people worried that an openly Muslim Brotherhood government would repudiate the Camp David accords. But it didn’t happen, even when Morsi might have gotten some public political benefit from it. The takeaway is that once you’re elected and running a government, your pragmatic national interest comes into play. So it’s a mistake to assume that democratically elected Arab governments would be unwilling to make peace with Israel. But of course, most people in most Arab countries feel personally sympathetic to the Palestinians’ situation, so democratic leaders in the Arab world would be under political pressure to do something for the Palestinian cause.

Is U.S. influence in the Middle East on the wane?

The United States remains the most significant global superpower, so you can’t ever say our influence in the region is gone, notwithstanding the rise of China. But other powers have gained influence. Russia was nowhere in the Middle East after 1989, but since the Syrian war and their successful intervention, they’ve vastly transformed their footprint. Iran gained tremendously in regional power as a consequence of our Iraq invasion. On the other hand, the Gulf countries remain our allies, and the UAE deal strengthens U.S. influence by creating an alliance between two U.S. allies who are both sold vast amounts of U.S. military technology.

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