The Arab Spring has met its Cassandra. While countless analysts and observers gushed that an era of democracy was at hand, John Bradley sat down to write a book that defies almost every assumption underlying the conventional wisdom about the Arab Spring.
Bradley believes that his worst fears have already been realised. In his view, the liberal vanguard of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt has been overwhelmed by the Islamists, who have begun radically reordering their societies for the worse. (Bradley calls Egypt today an "action replay of Iran in 1979", when Islamists pushed out liberals and leftists after the revolution.) He predicts that the same thing will happen in Syria, asserts that Bahrain crushed its revolt with Saudi assistance and tacit US approval, and maintains that the Libyan and Yemeni revolts were dominated by tribes and Islamists from the start.
Bradley is a British journalist with three other books to his name - including one on Egypt, in which he predicts an uprising against Hosni Mubarak. He has spent years in the region, and brings to After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts a copious amount of first-hand knowledge. He also enlivens his otherwise downbeat and enervating argument with a potent dose of caustic wit, so that even readers relatively confident of democracy's triumph in the Arab world will look about furtively, hoping that Bradley isn't around to add their names to "those who subscribe to the kitten-loving, Facebook Arab Spring narrative".
Nevertheless, one cannot but conclude that Bradley's doomsday prophesying is premature. His pessimism rests largely on two arguments - both of which relate only indirectly to the current situation. The first is that a number of the Islamist leaders who claim to be moderate have made extremist statements in the past. (Bradley pays special attention to Rachid Ghannouchi, chief of Tunisia's Ennahda party.) The second is that when Islamists have secured a share of power in other countries - such as Malaysia and Indonesia, which Bradley discusses extensively in an informative but digressive chapter - they have not moderated their earlier views, despite having initially pretended otherwise. Bradley extrapolates that Islamists in the Arab world will be the same.
While Bradley deftly analyses Islamists' political strategies, he tends to overestimate their long-term success. He is correct that Islamists often compensate for being a numerical minority both by utilising long-established grassroots networks and by voting en masse, ending up with a share of power disproportionate to their true numbers. "The Islamists, to put it simply, do not need majority support from the total population to triumph in elections," he notes. "They need a majority within the minority who vote." Bradley adds that, in post-revolt elections in Tunisia and Egypt, overall voter turnout was low, and attributes this phenomenon to the masses having risen up due to lack of economic opportunity, not a desire to engage in party politics.
But what about the day after the elections, when the Islamists find themselves in power and the people expect tangible improvements in their lives, as opposed to increased personal restrictions? Bradley makes no mention of Gaza-governing Hamas having softened its initial zeal with time. And even though he observes that in Indonesia, voters turned against the Islamists in 2009, he apparently cannot conceive of a similar phenomenon occurring in any of the Arab countries currently falling under the Islamists' sway. In fact, Bradley seems to think that Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere will subvert the nascent democratic process so thoroughly that there will be no way to dislodge them.