When discussing the series of popular uprisings commonly known as the Arab Spring, pessimism seems to be the prevailing attitude among experts these days. But one observer, who has been monitoring and analyzing the Middle East for decades, is surprisingly upbeat.
“People were warning us about the rise of Islamism, but from day one my attitude was exactly the opposite: I was shining,” said Yigal Carmon, founder and president of MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute. Carmon’s assessment, as someone who hails from the heart of Israel’s security establishment, might bear particular significance.
“It is indeed an Arab Spring,” he told The Times of Israel this week, “where people are fighting for freedom, putting their lives on the line every day against dictatorship. There can be no other name for it.”
Before the Arab Spring, Carmon said, the Middle East was “a frozen swamp of repression, on every level.” But that stagnation, which he said left Arabs and Muslims “outside the world in its progress,” is gone, never to return.
Claiming that Arabs cannot build real democratic societies is simply racist, Carmon argues. Similar arguments, he recalls, were made about the Japanese during World War II and about the Soviets during the Cold War. In both cases, history proved the skeptics wrong.
“They have begun their long quest to join humanity. This is an honorable journey which I have the utmost respect for,” he said.
Carmon served in the military in the mid-’60s as an intelligence officer and later as a consultant on Arab affairs to the Civil Administration in the West Bank. He advised prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin on counterterrorism, and participated in negotiations with Syria as a senior member of the Israeli delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.
In 1998, Carmon founded MEMRI, tasked, according to its mission statement, with “bridging the language gap between the Middle East and the West by monitoring, translating and analyzing Middle East media.” Based in Washington, DC, and with offices across the world, MEMRI researchers monitor news in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Urdu (among other languages), and produce reports, translations and video excerpts in English, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and several European languages.
From his office in downtown Jerusalem, Carmon derided his naysaying friends who still believe the Arab Spring is bad news as Islamic regimes win election after election across the Arab world.
“If these critics had been around during the French Revolution, they would have said, ‘What kind of revolution is this? It’s terrible. We wish the king had remained.’”
“If these people had been around during the French Revolution, they would have said, ‘What kind of revolution is this? It’s terrible. We wish the king had remained.’”
Progress, Carmon said, takes time. Today, the parties taking power in the Middle East believe they can impose their views on their opponents by force, on the merit of being democratically elected. But within a few centuries — yes, centuries, he stressed — they will learn how mistaken they are, and that their survival depends on everyone’s freedom.
“There are no shortcuts in history,” Carmon said. “Europe took hundreds of years to agree on a progressive set of values.”
Carmon scoffs at the notion that a monolithic Islam has taken root in the Arab world. For him, that is far from a foregone conclusion. In Tunisia, Islamists won only because they were united within the Ennahda party; not because they comprise a numeric majority. In Egypt’s presidential elections, Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi and secular candidate Shafiq were almost tied, despite the latter being an apparent representative of the detested Mubarak regime.
Even in Gaza, where observers were convinced Hamas had taken root, tens of thousands of Fatah supporters recently took to the streets, waving photos of Muhammad Dahlan, the controversial icon of the PA’s security apparatus.
“Hamas did not take Gaza, and it cannot take it,” Carmon said.
Far from an amorphous “Islam” taking power, states are rapidly disintegrating into smaller structures representing region, tribe, religion and ethnic group.
“The struggles between these groups will continue, but they will be authentic struggles for a change,” he said.
For all his faith in the Arab Spring as a precursor to true liberalization, however, Carmon did not mince words when discussing American diplomacy during this time. By endorsing Morsi’s Islamist regime, he said, the US had gambled on the wrong horse.
“America should have stood with the progressive forces, not the Islamists,” Carmon said. “But we see that at least in Egypt it clings to the Brotherhood. This is really tragic. It is both morally shameful and politically unwarranted for America to support elements that take humanity backwards.”
When backing the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States was likely unaware of the true balance of power within Egypt, Carmon said.
“I suppose they thought that the Islamists are the power to reckon with, and they just need to deal with it,” he said. “Now they continue to stick to that policy even when realizing that political Islam doesn’t have a majority in Egypt.”
How will Israel fare in all of this? Carmon said the Arab Spring brings more opportunities than risks for the Jewish state.
The threat of invasion by neighboring conventional armies, which has taxed Israel since its birth by dominating the defense budget, has decreased significantly. Today, countries such as Egypt and Syria simply have no money to maintain advanced armies. Other threats to Israel, such as terrorism and and an Iranian attack, pale in comparison, Carmon maintained.
Now, he added, for the first time in decades, Israel can finally allocate more resources to education and health.
“Israel should only take advantage of this historic opportunity,” he concluded.