‘It’s the brotherhood, stupid.’ Values and the Arab Spring

By Jill S. Russell:

I attended last week a very interesting panel discussion on the Arab Spring [1], its meanings and the response it deserves. A theme that was shared across the panel was that the West [2] owed the movement its support because the latter was promoting the values held to be sacred by the former.

Before going any further, I have to confess here that I am an unrepentant Kennanist and have a hard time letting go of his standard that interest and not values (or the morals which sustain them) must drive foreign policy. His summary of the essential problem for such a policy framework assays the fullness of the issue, and I think it a wise explication of the flaws and  worth quoting here at length:

But at the heart of [a foreign policy based on morality] would lie the effort to distinguish at all times between the true substance and the mere appearance of moral behaviour. In an age when a number of influences…all tend to exalt the image over the essential reality to which that image is taken to relate, in such an age there is a real danger that we may lose altogether our ability to distinguish between the real and the unreal, and, in doing so, lose both the credibility of true moral behaviour and the great force such behaviour is, admittedly, capable of exerting. To do this would be foolish, unnecessary and self-defeating. There may have been times when the United States could afford such frivolity. This present age, unfortunately, is not one of them. [3]

Functionally I cannot argue with his formula that values abroad do not necessarily serve the responsibilities of the government in either domestic or foreign policy. Nor can I ignore the ghastly spectre of how such a basis for foreign policy could be horribly perverted. But I am willing for the sake of argument to live briefly in a world where Kennan might be wrong. [4]

Even in that world, I am troubled that the values of the Arab Spring on the ground, and in the swelling centres of grass-roots power, do not match my own. As it is a question of my support, not of the movement’s legitimacy, my values matter.

As the beacon of this piece, let us first consider the Muslim Brotherhood and its rise and – has it fallen or is this just ‘rise interrupted’? – in Egypt. How can you expect me to believe this group shares my values? From the outset the name excludes me. Insofar as they accept women, that role has been marginalised by the imposition of restraints based in the recourse to a traditional culture which define a woman’s role in public life. Even as women are even now on the front lines of the political struggle against the military junta [5], one worries (expects) that this sacrifice will be forgotten in the case of victory. Seriously, Egypt has been past such strictures upon women for decades. So whose culture is this? And if the Muslim Brotherhood is in fact the legitimate heir to Egyptian political culture it becomes extremely difficult to argue that my values are represented.

Moving abroad from Egypt, I worry even more that the conflict in Syria has been terminally overtaken by fundamentalists [6], and that should they oust Assad the future for women in Syria will be unpleasant. The status quo ante was brutal, but as far as women are concerned what could come next might be even worse, with political, legal, and social repression a distinct possibility. This would be the same perversion as in Egypt, where the service of women in the struggle will not translate to real power in the aftermath. I am reminded of the similar bait and switch played upon the African slaves who served honorably in the American War for Independence -8 years a soldier and a slave came well before 12 years a slave.

Finally, what of the initial Tunisian protest that has been enshrined as the spark of this movement? What of the revelations that the fateful act, the offending slap that is said to have driven Mohamed Buazzizi to self immolation in protest, never occurred that day in Tunisia? What if it was not a rejection of tyranny but a man angry at a woman in a position of authority, the police officer Fedia Hamdi? [7] If the latter were true, then what would this change in its origins mean for the terms of this revolution? What if the heart of the rebellion is really aimed at secular norms and not corruption? It is certainly the case that the rise of the Taliban was in part the result of their reversal of corrupt practices in governance. But that was only a small part of what they sought to ‘reform’. Nevertheless, and quite importantly, even as this information on the event has been in the public domain for nearly three years, the apocryphal slap remains in the legend. An indictment of the former system’s corruption does not require this detail, so why does it figure so prominently in the retelling still?

And so, as I sat in the audience, one of only a handful of women, and part of an even smaller group that eschewed a head scarf, I felt distinctly odd. I am not unused to the predominance of men in my professional life. Nor am I unfamiliar with men who think I should not be there. I do not begrudge them their dislike of me. But in the West, the accepted value is that legal sanction based on gender is not an option. The Arab world, across its broad political and religious spectrum, does not fully hold to this belief. And it is important, if the question is whether to support the Arab Spring on the matter of values, to recognize that these are also our values, and they are what make ‘democracy’ something more than tyranny by vote.

Looking only at this one issue it becomes clear that selling the Arab Spring on a perversion of Western values merely for the sake of gaining the latter’s support will not, in the end, serve the cause. Attracting the West on the basis of interest – mutual interest – is the approach that will best serve both sides. That it has been defined as crass, and demonized as selfish, is unfortunate and serves no ultimate purpose.


Jill S. Russell is a regular contributor to Strife, Kings of War and Small Wars. She is currently a doctoral candidate at King’s College London, researching military history. 



[1] I had a long discussion with colleagues as to the validity or usefulness of the collection of these many events under a single banner. I absolutely take their point that events on the ground in each theatre must be addressed singly, specifically and uniquely. And while I am likely in agreement that no single name could describe the individual events well, it is certainly the case that there now exists, in the world’s consciousness, an idea, an event, known as ‘the Arab Spring’. It could aptly be considered as the foreign policy/diplomatic international face of the movement. It packages the ideals, broad message and news to the world.
[2] And here we have more problems with mass or meta categories. The matter of what constituted “the West” arose, and for the purposes of that evening’s discussion the understanding was that it was meant to denote the states of the EU, North America, and the Anglophone Pacific.
[3] George Kenann, ‘Morality and Policy’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Winter, 1985), pp. 205-218.
[4] At the worst extremes of the moral spectrum I am happy to ignore Kennan completely. I am not a monster.
[5] Enas Hamed, ‘Egypt’s ‘Muslim Sisterhood’ moves from social work to politics‘, AL Monitor, 20 November 2013; Bulletin of the Oppression of Women, “Muslim Brotherhood” Category . Also worth a view, Mona Eltahawy’s appearance on Al Jazeera’s program, ‘Head to Head: Do Arab Men Hate Women?
[6] Let us be clear, I am no fan of Christian fundamentalism. This is not about Islam or Muslims, it is about extremism.
[7] Elizabeth Day, ‘The Slap That Sparked a Revolution’, The Observer, 15 May 2011.

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