Shelley’s words apply to today’s ‘Arab Spring’
JERUSALEM — The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley surely did not have the Arab world in mind when he penned the concluding verse of his “Ode to the West,” which reads: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind.”
Those words could apply to the abortive efforts to bring democracy to Central Europe in 1848, and to liberalize the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968, but not to the upheavals that began raging in the Arab world a year ago.
Carried away by misguided expectations harbored by naive or misinformed foreign correspondents that the North African rim and part of the Fertile Crescent had opted for genuine democracy, they invented the term “Arab Spring,” which is a totally different story.
It supposedly started when a young fruit and vegetable vendor committed suicide in Tunis due to political despair and the mass demonstrations that ensued caused the resignation and flight of the country’s corrupt president, Zine Abedine ben Ali.
But the violence that deposed his Libyan and Egyptian counterparts, Presidents Muammar Qaddhafi and Hosni Mubarak (in the former case it included military intervention by the United States and European Union), has not spawned genuine democracy in either country.
Libya still is ruled (barely) by a weak transitional government. Egypt is dominated by a caretaker regime headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which owes its existence and survival to the Egyptian army’s concurrent seizure of power. The Brotherhood won an overwhelming majority in Egypt’s first free election and with its more extremist ally, the a-Nour party, controls 75 percent of the country’s new parliament.
Syria’s case is much more tragic. The popular revolt that erupted in Damascus and spread throughout the country has pitted the Syrian armed forces against citizens who want the regime of President B’shar Assad replaced by a government committed to political freedom. The daily clashes there have cost the lives of an estimated 5,000 people.
Despite this carnage, much of it caused by reckless and indiscriminate tank and artillery fire at unarmed demonstrators, the international community has failed to stop the bloodshed. Russian, Chinese and Iranian support of Assad has kept the enlightened nations at bay.
In short, the so-called Arab Spring has little to show for itself. It resulted in free elections in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but the Tunisians were the only ones in all of the affected countries to elect an alternative government based on secular democratic principles.
Even the voters’ preference in Tunis was for a relatively moderate Islamic political party. One lesson to learn from all this is that there is an inherent and inexplicable fascination with the Arab world among Western journalists and commentators. It contrasts sharply and transparently with the skepticism bordering on outright enmity they harbor for Israel. It is as if their contact that with the Arab side of the Middle East dispute convinced them that the Arabs are the good guys who have an authentic right to rule their respective countries while the Israelis are illegitimate outsiders.
The fact that the Hebrew Bible, which was composed nearly 4,000 years ago and which describes in great detail the Israelis’ presence in the Holy Land is totally ignored. Nor are these journalistic Arabists impressed by the political geography of Palestine-cum-Israel, i.e. the survival of hundreds of Hebrew-language place names despite the passage of more than three millennia or their easily identifiable Arabic-language derivatives. Actually, some Israeli historians credit the country’s Arab population with having preserved the biblical names of cities, towns and villages that existed during that era.
A genuine Arab Spring may come about in the years to come, but this will depend on the extent to which democratic principles penetrate their various Arab populations’ mindset and replace the persistent, but essentially stagnant, sloganeering that persists today. This could prompt many if not all of the current Middle Eastern regimes to guarantee freedom of speech, press and assembly and do away with covert control by secret police or intelligence agencies known as the ominous mukhabarat — the Arabic term for intelligence.
Such regimes undoubtedly would reconcile themselves to the fact that Israel exists in the region whether they like it or not and will continue to do so, and this realization would militate for true and stable peace. It might even make the journalistic and analytical Arabists admit that contemporary Israel indeed does have some unique attributes that they could emulate.
How apt are the closing words of Shelley’s poem:
“Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy O Wind,
If Winter comes can spring be far
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)