The Arab Spring narrative as told and endlessly repeated in the West is fundamentally flawed. I shall begin with a brief recap of said narrative: A wave of popular discontent swept away the ruling dictatorships from Tunisia to Egypt. The electoral processes that followed are the first act in a long-term transition process toward some form of representative democracy. The Islamist parties empowered by these elections, primarily the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its various offshoots, have abandoned their thoroughly anti-democratic positions from the past, have evolved into "moderate Islamists", and are now truly committed to the democratic process and a bulwark against the real radicals.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no transition process toward democracy in the Middle East. There is no such thing as "moderate Islamism", and the MB remains as anti-democratic as ever. Instead, the region is further descending into the dark ages of totalitarianism, tragically endowed with the stamp of approval of "moderate Islamism" by the clueless West.
Take Egypt as an example. The propagators of the MB moderation myth invoke the group’s alleged pluralistic culture as proof of its moderation. The West tends to think of Islamist groups as rigidly structured, homogenous entities. The MB has never fit that profile. Internal divisions and splinter groups are an integral part of the movement's history. But such divisions have never led to a sustained ideological moderation. A recent example is the 'Current Party', formed in June 2011 by members of the MB's youth wing. The party advocates secular policies, including the separation of church and state. Unsurprisingly, the MB has since kicked out most of these dissidents. Despite all its pseudo lip service to democracy, with which it has successfully fooled scores of Western journalists and academics, it remains firmly committed to its totalitarian ideology.
In Egypt, all commonly consulted indicators of democratic governance have deteriorated. According to Human Rights Watch, the climate for free expression has worsened. Egypt’s Coptic minority has been subjected to increased repression, including the burning of churches, abductions and forced conversions. The hopes of Egypt's women for empowerment and emancipation have been all but crushed. The recent acquittal of a doctor who performed "virginity tests"; on female protestors is only one example.
Let me briefly consider the other 'Arab Spring' countries. Elections in Tunisia have empowered the radical Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) movement, a MB offshoot. As far as human rights are concerned, the picture is very similar to the situation in Egypt. And what happened to Libya, the great success story of NATO’s drive-by interventionism? The country is descending into chaos, breaking apart under the pressure of radical Islamist groups, regional autonomy militias and Gaddafi loyalists.
Comments made by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle epitomize the barely fathomable nuttiness of the 'Arab Spring' narrative and the infinite naivety of the elites that are trumpeting it. Westerwelle opined that apprehension about the electoral victories of totalitarian Islamist movements in Egypt and Tunisia stemmed from their designation as 'Islamic'. He then pointed to the Christian Democratic Parties in Europe as an example of the compatibility of religion and democracy.
So how should NATO deal with this whole mess? The faultiness of the 'Arab Spring' narrative does not change Europe's security relationship with the Mediterranean.
First of all, NATO needs to come to terms with reality. The alliance cannot continue the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) under the false pretext of an elusive democratic transformation. Also, by giving legitimacy to totalitarian Islamist movements, NATO is tragically robbing true secular reformers of any chance of making their voices heard. While NATO needs to continue the MD, it has to do so with caution, and refrain from making any formal commitments such as new or expanded Individual Cooperation Programs. Measure the new governments by their deeds, not their words.
Secondly, the political upheavals in the region will inevitably usher in a new period of instability. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is effectively dead, even if it may still exist nominally. NATO should use the MD to state unequivocally that any aggression against Israel or support to organizations that enable terrorist acts against Israel will entail the termination of all cooperation with NATO.
Thirdly, NATO should use the MD to stand up for those who cannot help themselves. Namely, the extremely vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities in the "liberated" countries. The treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt and the deteriorating situation of women are ominous signs. Just as NATO members were quick to denounce the old regimes for their use of violence against protestors, the same standard now needs to be applied to the new regimes' treatment of minorities.
In its 2010 strategic concept, NATO avows itself to being a community of freedom and shared values. Now is the time to prove it.
David Vielhaber is a researcher with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). The views expressed here are his own.