Frontpage Interview’s guest today is John R. Bradley, the author of the new book After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts. He has been reporting from the Middle East for more than a decade. Fluent in Arabic and a frequent contributor to The Daily Mail, The Jewish Chronicle and The Spectator, his previous books include Saudi Arabia Exposed (2005) and Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (2008), which uniquely and accurately predicted the Cairo uprising.
FP: John R. Bradley, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Bradley: Thanks, Jamie. It’s nice to be back. The last time we chatted was back in 2008, when yours was one of the only media outlets that took my prediction of an imminent Egyptian uprising seriously.
FP: Thanks John, so let’s begin with your prediction of the Egyptian revolution.
Bradley: To be honest, it didn’t seem so much a prediction to me back in 2008, more like a statement of fact. I think I had a pulse on the reality because, firstly, I don’t have a TV, and I haven’t had one for more than two decades. So I’m not exposed to the dominant media narratives about the Middle East, which from what I can tell from watching the occasional clip on YouTube remain for the most part as shallow and pointless as they ever were. And in more than a decade of living and reporting in the region I’ve never met another Western foreign correspondent or Western diplomat.
Instead, in Egypt especially, I lived for years among ordinary locals in poor neighborhoods, speaking to them in Arabic and sharing their daily routines and life stories. A decade later, it was perfectly obvious to me when I published Inside Egypt that a revolution was going to happen very soon in that country. The Mubarak regime had consumed itself, and the impoverished and tormented masses had lost all hope that meaningful reforms would ever be introduced. What surprised me was not so much that the revolution happened pretty much as I predicted, but that until it did all the so-called “experts” on the region poured scorn on my idea that it was about to happen–the very same “experts” incidentally who again mocked me as an alarmist when I published articles at the beginning of the year warning that the Islamists would hijack the Arab Spring.
FP: Expand for us on the Arab Spring and the blind enthusiasm we saw in the early days that “democracy” in the Arab Middle East would somehow drain corruption, extremism, poverty and authoritarianism from the region.
Bradley: There was some cause for hope at the beginning, because there were indeed liberals among all those protestors from the outset, and the Islamists in early stages shunned the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. These liberals are mostly young people who want greater freedoms and a secular state. And they do still look to the West as a model for their future. For them, freedom and pluralism are enormously attractive ideas, and their hopes and dreams are easily understandable and translatable in the West.
But it was misplaced hope, and now that they have failed to materialize these dreams look implausible in the Middle East to the point of madness. Collectively, the liberals are an ever-dwindling minority in the Arab world. We should remember that even during the revolutions the biggest demonstration in Tunisia drew just 50,000 to the streets, this in a country of 10 million. Some estimates put the largest gathering in Tahrir Square of Egyptians, of whom there are some 84 million, as low as 300,000.
These figures show that while the progressives had enough support to topple the dictators, mainly because they were able to bring the economy to a standstill, they didn’t have the massive popular support needed to fill the chaotic aftermath. In contrast, the Islamists can and do draw much vaster crowds. And the Islamists possess the ruthless political skills, and the simplistic campaign slogans, needed to gain power. They speak a language the masses instantly understand and relate to, especially in a country like Egypt where a large percentage of the population is illiterate.
In both Tunisia and Egypt, moreover, the young, tech-savvy revolutionaries had foolishly declared their revolts leaderless, having learned nothing from history about how revolutionary movements lacking a vanguard are crushed by more entrenched and better-organized forces in the aftermath of massive social and political upheaval. Most self-destructively, they had learned nothing especially of the 1979 Iranian revolution, likewise in its early stages drawing people from all walks of life but then hijacked by the Islamist mob. Essentially, Egypt is an action replay of the Iranian revolution, as I warned very clearly in Inside Egypt it would be.
More to the point: in the contemporary Arab world, the liberals have even less of a constituency than that which existed in 1970s Iran. The vast bulk of the protestors knew nothing of secular political ideology, Islamism being the only one on offer for popular consumption for decades. Polls have consistently shown that demonstrators were brought into the streets, not by a burning desire for free and fair elections, but by the awful economic circumstances in which they lived. For that they blamed their corrupt regimes, Israel, and, yes, the West, too, as they had long been accustomed to doing.
The final nail in the coffin of the liberal Arab Spring myth was the excesses and abuses of secular regimes like those of Saddam Hussein, Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, Ali Abullah Saleh, and Hosni Mubarak. They only succeeded in giving secularism itself a bad name and, by extension, giving credence to the Islamist argument that godlessness was the cause of all their country’s problems. For decades, these regimes failed to nurture the imagination of young people with anything but dim-witted propaganda. The result was that fundamentalist Islam grew from the obsession of a few thousand straggly-bearded crackpots a few decades ago into the sole respectable political alternative many, perhaps most, Arabs are now capable of imagining.
FP: Share with us how Islamists exploit the chaos and fill the vacuum.
Bradley: The Islamists work on two levels. There are the so-called “moderate” groups, who claim to gullible Western journalists that they embrace democratic principles and secularism and freedom of expression. They claim that they do not want to impose strict Sharia law. This is the song sung by mainstream Islamists in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, where they have triumphed in recent elections. But they work in tandem with more radical Salafi groups, sometimes officially and sometimes implicitly, who get their huge funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar and who busy themselves by terrorizing the population into submitting to hardline Islamist dogma. The “moderate” front groups, in other words, don’t need to introduce Sharia to achieve their goal of an Islamist theocracy.
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