The Egyptian Case
The Arab Spring flared across the Middle East last year leaving toppled dictatorships, festering civil wars, and countless dead in its wake. Billed as a democratic movement spontaneously erupting in opposition to authoritarian governments, the settling dust is revealing a much different picture. A year on and we have apparently endemic tribal warfare in Libya, a civil war in Syria, a military oligarchy in Egypt (with an Islamist government waiting in the wings to seize power), a bloody family feud in Yemen, and a variety of greater or lesser reforms implemented in other nations which have (mostly) pacified the malcontents. Egypt, as the location of some of the most radical changes resulting from the Arab Spring, is an instructive example. Islamists have the people’s mandate; the military is still in control of the real power; and foreign and internal policies are increasingly destabilizing the region. Yes, there is a democratic movement in the Arab world; no, the Arab world is not yet democratic.
A prime example of the problematic landscape created by the Arab Spring is a recent vote cast by Egyptian lawmakers. On Monday, March 12, 2012, the Egyptian parliament, which is now dominated by Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, voted to revisit its peace treaty with Israel, cut off the flow of Egyptian natural gas to its northern neighbor, and label it the nation’s number one enemy. While the parliament has little power over either the peace treaty, which has kept Israel and Egypt from exchanging munitions fire for the past 30 years, or the gas pipeline, it is at least symbolic of the attitude of the Egyptian body politick. The increased participation on the part of the Egyptian civil society is not going to translate to greater regional stability in the short term. Truthfully, if the trend of increasing Islamification of government continues, we can safely say that a souring of regional tensions is likely and another Israeli-Egyptian war possible. This is simply not an exaggeration; a 2011 Pew research report found that 54% of Egyptians, after the fall of the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak, wanted to annul the peace treaty with Israel, signed in 1979, and this would surely ignite an already volatile situation.
This phenomenon has been explained by famed war theorist Azer Gat, who said, “... it has been shown that partly free states have been more war prone than non-democracies. Indeed, viewed from a longer historical perspective, democratization and liberalization in general were processes that did not consist of a one-time transition from a non-democratic regime but continuously unfolded, often over decades and even centuries.” While Gat was here speaking about the formation of Western democracies, the parallel to the Arab Spring is self evident. In other words, while Egyptian citizens are increasingly gaining access to the reins of power, we should not expect them to exercise it peaceably. If anything, we should expect more bellicosity as the process of democratization takes place. Gat: “Not only did the masses ever since classical antiquity acquire a reputation for volatility and rashness in crisis; they proved to be easily and deeply aroused by questions of national honor and national glory.”
Another telling statistic in Egypt, which in turn is unfortunately reminiscent of the rest of the Arab world, is the median age of Egyptian men. A fact of human existence is that you can directly track the likelihood of someone acting violently to their sex; again, as per Gat:
Perpetration of serious violence and crime is in fact the most distinctive sex difference there is, cross culturally.... 'Crime statistics from Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England and Wales, Germany, Iceland, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Scotland, Uganda, a dozen different locations in the United States, and Zaire, as well as from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England and nineteenth century America – from hunter-gatherer communities, tribal societies, and medieval and modern nation-states – all uncover the same fundamental pattern. In all these societies, with a single exception, the probability that the same-sex murder has been committed by a man, not a woman, ranges from 92 to 100 percent.'
As Robert Wright has noted: “ An unmarried man between twenty-four and thirty-five years of age is about three times as likely to murder another man as is a married man the same age.” There are many reasons for male violence, but the point is that men are violent; young, unmarried men especially so, and societies which are comprised largely of this group will necessarily reflect its make up – democratic societies comprised of young, unmarried men are arguably the most prone to violence and mob mentality. So consider that the median age for men in the USA is 35.6 while the median age for men in Egypt is 24 – these exactly represent the extremes of Wright's statistics. These facts can help us understand much of the prevailing attitudes in post-revolution Egypt.
There are several things to be emphasized. Many have likened the Arab Spring to the American Revolution – I have compared it to the European revolts of 1848. We see the long term benefits of democratization (i.e. liberalization, self determination, social justice, equality under the law, etc) but we, in the West, have the luxury of being historically distant from the main battles which brought about these revolutions. None of my peers fought at Saratoga or joined in the street battles in Paris. So while it is evident that the Arab world is opening up to the will of the people, and this will likely prove to be a positive development when viewed in a larger historical perspective sometime in the future, we must also prepare ourselves for exactly what this means in the short term. It certainly does not mean peace in the Middle East. As insane as it sounds, the very dictators that were so oppressive towards their own people were often protectors of the world order. Gat: “As in nineteenth-century Europe, and contrary to the prevailing cliché, public opinion in Arab states tends to be more militant than the semi-autocratic state rulers, who struggle to keep such popular pressures in check.” For proof of this startling revelation, just observe Egypt's military oligarchy and its reaction to the recent parliamentary decision to end its treaty with Israel; the military is the entity now keeping the peace between Israel and Egypt.
The Arab Spring was (and to a certain extent still is) a movement focused on removing truly oppressive regimes from power. That several of these regimes are gone (or on their way out) is something to be excited about. But we should not lose focus of the problems which continue to exist: a young, underemployed, and violent male population; rising Islamist sentiment which is antithetical to modernization, democratization, and liberalization (this is not to say that Islam is antithetical to any of these things, but Islamist government, theocratic rule, is); and sectarian crises which have been given new breath of life as the heavy handed autocratic rulers have been overthrown. The Arab world is democratizing but has a long road ahead. Remember, even after the (multiple) French revolutions, the people still endured the Reign of Terror, Napoleon 1 and 3, and two World Wars before anyone could say, at last, that France was free. We are living in dangerous but marvelous times. We are best served by keeping our eyes open.