Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

Hopes were high a few years ago. The Arab street—that’s working people as well as the educated middle class—was waking up and demanding a better shake. Throwing off well-founded fears of brutal retaliation, thousands of people gathered peacefully in public places, calling for justice, for a say in the system, for a better life. The sweet song of “we the people” was heard throughout the Middle East and North Africa—and, oddly enough, a few springs later, during this contentious election year, it’s being heard in the streets of the U.S.

The High Noon of Hope

We in the long democratic West watched the events of the so-called Arab Spring with fingers crossed. People appeared to be waking from a long coma. With dormant talents and energies resuscitated, social and governmental reforms would surely ensue, we thought. We’d soon be welcoming new democracies.

There was one little problem. Those monopolizing the fruits of power let it be known, Mark Twain style, that the announcement of their demise was premature. They fought back with every weapon at their disposal. Blood ran in those streets.

Today, although Egypt’s ex-president Mubarak is a deposed invalid and a democratically elected representative of the Muslim Brotherhood served briefly as President, the Egyptian army is back in control—and more autocratically than ever. Efforts to reform Yemen have dissolved into a merciless proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia (the latter’s ill-targeted bombs supplied, unfortunately, by the U.S.). Squabbling Syrian moderates with no coherent goals or leadership lost the initiative to scorched earth (but equally squabbling) Jihadis, and Russia’s decision to deploy military force to assist the Assad regime seems to be turning the tide in favor of the status quo ante. Meanwhile, much of Syria has been reduced to rubble, and Yemen’s incomparable Saana has also suffered irreparable damage. As for Tunisia, where it all began, with the suicide of a young man who couldn’t take it anymore, governance teeters between an ambiguous form of democratic Islamism and—well, who knows what? Tunisia’s beaches are tourist meccas no more, and Ennahada’s model for moderate Muslim reformism, Tyyip Erdogan’s Turkey, becomes more authoritarian by the month. As for Libya, where European and U.S. intervention was anything but subtle, the post Gaddafi situation is so torn among rival militias that I.S.I.S. has gained a toehold there. (And, for what it’s worth, only continued U.S. military assistance keeps Kabul from falling to the Taliban, while disaffected Taliban fighters have given I.S.I.S. an opening into the Islamist mix that Pakistan continues to stir up to its own advantage.)

Lessons from Unexpected Places

U.S. President George W. Bush promised to set off a domino effect in favor of liberal democracy when he embarked on the second Iraqi war. The dominos fell, but not as he expected. Saddam Hussain is gone, but in those misruled countries where hope flared and faded, tens of thousands who never touched a gun are dead, many thousands of survivors are ruled by a ruthless I.S.I.S., and only a few have seen hints of the positive changes they clamored for. All of which leaves much room for reflection, especially in the U.S., where a profoundly bitter alienation from existing institutions afflicts a majority of the electorate, although—and this is important—for conflicting reasons.

Here are some of the characteristics of the ungovernability that made democracy unachievable, for now, in the Middle East and North Africa: the powerfully privileged are determined to maintain their prerogatives; ideological, tribal or sectarian loyalties have delegitimized the very notion of broad-based cooperation; weapons are readily accessible to anyone who wants to hold power or change the system by force. We should keep these not exactly unfamiliar obstacles to democracy in mind as we follow the course of presidential politics in the U.S. today. Yes, even the last one. Remember how, just a few months ago, gun-happy militia members took over the Malheur game preserve in Oregon? There are thousands of armed men and vigilantes, some in the South, mostly in the West, ready and willing to overthrow the existing U.S. government. Remember the slaughter of Black people in a church in Charleston—to say nothing of the “legal” murder of Blacks by racist police officers whose ilk have never accepted the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. And how about the people who think they are justified in killing abortion providers?

Rampant Polarization Feeds Distrust

The campaigns of “Democrat” Bernie Sanders and “Republican” Donald Trump are fueled by people passionately convinced that American institutions are failing and that traditional parties no longer represent them, but the ideology of the disaffected camps differs considerably. The Sanders wing is motivated mostly by dreams of economic justice for the 99%. Trump followers are lamenting the loss of a traditional way of life that’s also left them in the economic lurch. For better or for worse, these agendas for change do not massively coincide, which suggests that there will be no coherent majority for reform, no matter who wins the election in November. And which of the likely winners, will have the patience or inclination to locate nuggets of agreement?

So far, in fact, with the exception of Hillary Clinton, there’s not much indication that any of the potential winners of the presidency has much interest in bringing the country together. On the Right the insurgent candidate runs a racist, anti-immigrant campaign and flirts with threats of violence if his route to the presidency is impeded, stirring memories of Hitler and the Munich putsch, earning accusations of fascism. Meanwhile, whatever the outcome of the election in November, the passion for St. Bernard is so intense that profound and dangerous disillusionment is inevitable, because rapid total economic reform is simply not possible in this non-homogenous country. We are, then, in a bad place. It’s not certain that the supporters of several candidates will accept the legitimacy of the nominated candidate of their own party let alone the accession to the presidency of a representative of the other party. Is this a recipe for yet more resentment, anger and deadlock? Does this make the notoriously my-way-or-the-highway ideology of the Tea Party the paradigm for the future? And should the Republicans settle on Paul Ryan at a contested convention, he may be handsomer (oh, those blue eyes!), a bit younger and certainly more sophisticated than Trump, but he’s still a charter member of the Party of No. Let’s hope that the candidates we’re stuck with remember that what often lies at the end of protracted disfunctionality is chaos, lawlessness and despairing prayers for a savior, who usually decides that democracy is too inefficient and cumbersome for his purposes.

At this unhappy point in these reflections, I’m happy to exclude one baleful variable in the sad saga of the Middle East and North Africa, one reason why misrule has not been succeeded by healthy democracies. That’s foreign interference. Outside powers can topple dictators and turn the tide of war, but they can’t rebuild a society. Iraq, Libya and Yemen come to mind. Strong American endorsement hasn’t given the valiant Kurds an independent state, and the shot gun marriage of Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani hasn’t made for productive government in Kabul. Yes, Russia may keep Assad in power, but the likelihood that he will ever again rule anything more than a remnant of the old Syria is nil, something to be noted by those who are now disfavorably comparing Obama, he of the ingloriously ignored Red Line, with Russia’s strongman Putin. Even the well-meant new humanitarian doctrine involving “the obligation to protect” helpless citizens from vicious regimes cannot reconstruct a polity its people are unable or disinclined to rebuild themselves.

So here’s a bright spot as we look at American politics today. No matter how alarmed outsiders may be about the emergence of Donald Trump as a potential president, the U.S. doesn’t have to worry about external interference. We can and will handle things ourselves, thank you very much.

We’re Smarter Than We Think

In fact, we already know the formula. The candidates fight hard for contrasting platforms, then move to the center to govern a united country, the consolation prize for cooperation being a certain advantage in nudging policy left or right as the case may be. This works perfectly until some party or faction or individual sets out to force the country to reflect wholly to its own, inevitably, minority image. Granted, pragmatism and  incrementalism aren’t glamorous or pure. They offer no fast-acting medicine for what ails us, and something always does, since we’re far from perfect. But already the minimum wage is being boosted around the country, gay rights are irreversible, and the health system is working better for a lot of people.  Would I like faster progress?  Of course.  But we really don’t need another civil war.

In short, instead of aping the take-no-prisoners approach to leadership transition that makes such a mess of so many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, instead of tearing America apart by increasingly militant polarization to fulfill pundits’ decades old yearning for ideological clarity, we should be proudly, busily, selling our own miracle potion for stable evolutionary change—and selling it by example, I suggest.

A little more emphasis on we the people might be a good start.