The processes under way in the Arab world were perhaps done an injustice when the media rushed to dub them the "Arab Spring" - along the lines of the European Spring of Nations of 1848 or the Prague Spring of 1968 - for this raised hopes that these dramatic changes would lead to democracy and freedom. Now it is clear that matters are more complex.
Imaginations were fired by the novelty of it all: For the first time, Arab regimes were toppled not through violence or military coups, but in the wake of mass demonstrations. What happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 was occurring for the first time in an Arab country: in Tunisia, and then in Egypt. It turns out that the masses are not apathetic, that they have a fierce desire - at least some of them - for freedom and human rights, and long to be citizens and not subjects. This was a tremendous revolution in consciousness and in practice. The argument that the Arab world is hopelessly mired in despotism was debunked practically overnight.
Then came the disappointments: First the victory of the Islamic Ennahda party in Tunisia, and then the Egyptian Islamists - between them, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi party Al-Nour won more than 60 percent of the votes in the first round of elections last month. You could say that the Ennahda party is relatively moderate, as is the Muslim Brotherhood, certainly compared to the Salafis. But this is clearly not what everyone excited by the events in Tahrir Square and Tunis had hoped for. It's enough to hear the despair voiced by liberal and secular groups in Egypt, not to mention the Coptic minority's resounding silence, to realize that Egypt is not on a smooth path to democracy and liberalism.
It is hard to predict what will happen in Egypt, but it is clear that given a choice between an Islamist government and a military junta (or a coalition between these two elements, or perhaps a violent clash ), Egypt's odds of having a democratic future are slim. When Bashar Assad falls, things in Syria will be even more complex; likewise, it is hard to imagine the various militias that toppled Muammar Gadhafi making way for an orderly democratic process in Libya. Surprises are possible - the past year was chock-full of them - but there are several good reasons to be skeptical.
The first has to do with the image created by the broad coverage of the Tahrir demonstrations. One could not help but be impressed by the hundreds of thousands who took part in the protests. One could also not help but be impressed by the protesters' sophisticated use of social networks: Both Egypt and Tunisia have a Facebook and Twitter generation; educated, enlightened, English speaking. But these dramatic images, broadcast around the world in real time, created the impression that this is what Egyptian society in its entirety is like. There are more than 80 million people in Egypt, and not only do the vast majority of them not have access to Facebook and Twitter, but tens of millions do not have access to electricity or potable water, and many live in horrific poverty and earn less than $10 a day. These masses were not at Tahrir.
Those impressive young people we saw on Al Jazeera and CNN, speaking out against corruption, against the tyranny of the regime and the police, complained they were unlikely to get ahead given the regime's oppression. These are all valid complaints of the more-or-less-established middle class, whose members can study abroad and buy modern electronics. But they did not talk about the plight of the tens of millions of poor fellahin and agricultural laborers, and most are likely unaware of how many of their countrymen live. Is it any wonder that when push came to shove, these impressive young people did not have the masses' support, and Islamic groups, which had spent years building real, not virtual, networks, aiding the poor and promising paradise under the auspices of Islam, are the ones reaping the fruits of the democratic process?
The harsh truth is that the Tahrir revolution was a revolution of the educated middle class, which does not represent most of Egyptian society. Egypt's real problems are poverty and terrible economic distress. The middle-class protesters do not have answers to these problems, nor do they have access to the Egyptian masses.
The second reason: The return of Islam in Tunisia and Egypt (and likely in Libya and Syria ) should not surprise anyone who understands the secularization and modernization processes there. Over the past century, the Muslim world experienced quite a few attempts at modernization and secularization imposed from above, by an elite educated on Western ideas that sought to recreate secular, Western societies at home. However, because the majority of the population was religious and conservative, these processes were carried out by force. This is what Ataturk tried to do in Turkey, and the Shah tried to do in Iran: a secular school system was imposed on a religious, conservative society; public expressions of religiosity were banned; traditional Muslim garb, including the veil, was prohibited; religious groups were restricted and sometimes persecuted.
The West was impressed by these moves, but did not always understand that they were coercive, represented the views of a small elite, and violated the customs and lifestyle of most citizens. Turkey's decision to adopt the Latin alphabet in place of the Arabic alphabet, and Iran's decision to replace the Muslim calendar with one that refers to King Cyrus were symbols of this.
The forced modernization succeeded partially and temporarily. The Islamic Revolution in Iran and the victory of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey attest to their superficiality. Ultimately, you cannot impose modernization and secularism when most people feel these are alien concepts (the Jacobins tried to do something similar in the French Revolution through terror, and the results are well known ). Iran's Islamic Revolution was carried out by the poor, traditional masses in South Tehran against rich, Westernizing North Tehran. In Turkey, development brought economic mobility to traditional rural communities, enabling them to compete with the secular elites of Istanbul and Ankara.
A similar thing is happening now in Egypt. The regimes of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak were characterized by one common denominator: the exclusion of religion from public space in a society where most of the citizens rejected this. That is why the Muslim Brotherhood's slogan "Islam is the Solution" is catching on so well among the masses, who were not really helped by Nasser's Arab socialism and Sadat or Mubarak's economic "openness."
When these masses were given the chance to express their opinions for the first time, the children of the bourgeoisie who demonstrated in Tahrir had nothing to offer them. The Muslim groups had slogans - hollow as they may sound to a secular ear - that spoke to their hearts. The Islamist activists also live among their people, are active in their neighborhoods, and know them well.
The third reason is that the despotic regimes felled this year have a complex history. They are not traditional authoritarian regimes, but rather were all products of revolutions that toppled corrupt conservative regimes and promised social justice and development. Nasser in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya, the Baath regimes in Syria and Iraq - each originated in a military putsch, but they enjoyed wide social support because they promised liberation from Western imperialism and corrupt effendi rule. The leaders of these revolutions also came from the lower classes. They were the Arab world's great promise, and that is why so many Arab intellectuals got swept up in this hope and were prepared to overlook what happened to these regimes over time.
Revolutions gone sour
What happened was that despite certain economic achievements (especially in oil-rich countries like Iraq and Libya ), the regimes quickly deteriorated into tyrannies, in which military leaders in suits (or bizarre costumes, as in Libya ) gradually created dynasties - what the Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim termed "Goumlokia," a combination of the Arabic words for "republic" and "monarchy."
Members of the Arab intelligentsia do not always find it convenient to admit that the ousted dictatorships actually began as idealistic, liberating regimes. But this, too, should be taken into account, particularly given that the region's traditional monarchic regimes are managing to survive for now.
If you are aware of all this, you can see how difficult the bumpy road awaiting the Arab world is: Toppling a despotic regime is a onetime act, but forming a democratic regime is an ongoing and lengthy process.
And a reminder: The image of the upheavals in the Arab world was largely determined by the thrilling reports from Tahrir Square and its ilk. That coverage created the warped impression that all of Egyptian society had taken to the squares, rather than just some of the well-off. There are profound social and historical processes influencing events, though they are not always reflected in "real time" reporting that, although real, is not always authentic.