Writing at The New Republic, Paul Berman picks up on something that I think clear-eyed observers of the Arab Spring will have sensed:
It appears to be the case that, in one zone after another, the vast regional revolution that used to be known as the Arab Spring (except that springtime has lasted two years now, and not everyone is Arab, and Mali testifies to the fact that revolutions do spread) has entered its Phase Three. The liberal origins back in 2011—the beautiful cries, “Peaceful! Peaceful!”, the days of Facebook glory—amounted to Phase One, the utopian heyday. Then came the Islamist triumphs, which marked Phase Two. Phase Two had a look of permanence, or so we were told, if only because, in the estimation of a certain school of Western thinking, Islamism, which may not be to our taste, is nonetheless authentic, which signifies: inevitable.
Even President Obama appeared to dabble in this kind of thinking, to judge by, at least, his Cairo speech in 2009, with some of the Muslim Brothers in attendance. Obama orated about the relationship of “Islam and the West,” as if this were the crux of the matter, and he felt it necessary to criticize implicitly the French for their headscarf law, and generally he seemed to accept as givens the geopolitical categories of the Islamist worldview: the notion of Islam in conflict with its Western enemies, the notion of Western persecution of Muslims as central to the conflict, and so forth.
The Arab Spring’s Phase Three has nonetheless arrived. Phase Three adds up to a series of mass protests and revolts and even wars against Islamists of every stripe—against the mainstream Islamists in Egypt, against the moderates in Tunisia, and against the radicals in Mali. The people want to topple the Islamists!—a significant number of people, anyway. Events have by-passed the experts. Islamism, even in its mainstream and moderate versions, turns out to be less democratic than advertised; and the demos, less Islamist.
And Berman is quite right to chide the Obama administration for being behind the curve on these trends.
At least in 2009 the American master-thinkers could have argued that, in Iran, the Islamist government was not about to tumble from power, and there was no point in encouraging the protesters. But in these early weeks of 2013, when no one can pretend any longer that Islamism has some automatic claim on the entire region, the several mutterings and complaints and cries of betrayal from our own friends and fellow-liberals and closest allies ought to be getting under our skin.