Is Egypt ready for self-government? Is Libya? As questions like these are asked in the wake of the Arab revolt of 2011, Americans would do well to recall how many other people their country once deemed unready for liberty. During the 20th century, the US unabashedly argued that since Spain and Portugal had never had the tutorial of the Protestant Reformation, quasi-papal authoritarianism was the only form of government their cultural descendants in Latin America understood. During the Cold War, American realpolitik justified support for a string of dictators in South Korea. As for the Soviet Union, well, the benighted Russians had never gone through the Reformation or the Enlightenment, so what could you expect?
Egyptian dissidents like Saad Eddin Ibrahim have long argued that if such alleged contradictions in terms as Spanish Catholic democracy, Korean Confucianist democracy, and Russian Orthodox democracy have come to pass, then the alleged contradiction of Arab Islamic democracy might also come to pass. Is the revolt we have been witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and even Jordan the natal cry of a newborn contradiction? Is Arab Islamic democracy being born before our eyes—or is it being aborted?
The historic encounter of civilisations that Samuel Huntington characterised as a clash began long before September 11 and is larger, on the Muslim side, than the Arab world. Yet the Ummah still has an Arab heart. As China has broadly thrown in its lot with the international community as shaped by the West, as India has done the same despite its large Muslim minority, the result for all Muslims has been a perception of encirclement and exclusion. It has been on the one hand, A Sense of Siege, to cite the title of an astute book by Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser, subtitled The Geopolitics of Islam and the West (Westview Press), and on the other a sense of yearning and aspiration.
Such is the larger pond into which the American invasion of Iraq tossed an exploding pebble. At the cost of about $1 trillion, the US has installed a legitimately elected government in a major Arab state. In the process, by accident rather than design, it has created the first Shi'ite government that the Arab world has seen in centuries and enormously enhanced the influence of adjacent Shi'ite Iran. Are the majority Shi'ite Arabs of nearby Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni monarch, erupting as the majority or as Shi'ites? Does it matter to them that President George W. Bush said in his second inaugural address, with reference to the war he had begun in Iraq: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Some American conservatives willingly claim as much. In a CNN interview, the former CIA director R. James Woolsey Jr, a leading foreign policy hawk, quipped that there were more neo-cons in Egypt than anyone guessed. If the oppressed of Bahrain need American help, will they turn to the Fifth Fleet which anchors there? Democrats, of course, prefer to credit President Barack Obama's much-noticed 2009 speech in Cairo and his scrupulously multilateral "limited military intervention" in Libya.
Meanwhile, an entirely unforeseen eruption on the American domestic scene has provoked troubling comparisons to the eruption in the Arab world. Flush with confidence after major electoral gains in November 2010, state and federal Republicans have been implementing the mandate they claim to have received—to cut taxes and services by laying off state workers because "there is no money". However, when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tried to rush through a bill abolishing collective bargaining for state employees, the 14 Democrats in the 33-member Wisconsin Senate astonishingly moved south across the state line into Illinois, denying the governor the quorum needed to pass budget legislation.
What ensued was even more astonishing: the largest labour demonstration in generations. Government business in Madison was brought to a standstill. Then, in a rump session held at night without notice on March 9, 2011, the 19 Republicans of the Wisconsin Senate voted 18-1 in favour of a bill that cleverly segregated the real target, collective bargaining as an issue in regulatory law, from the pending budget bill and thus permitted passage without the larger quorum that a budget vote requires.
On the morning after the secret night session of the Wisconsin Senate, the Los Angeles Times headline read: "Union rights impasse broken". The New York Times headline read: "Wisconsin GOP ends stalemate with manoeuvre." And yet, one wondered, what really had ended? Wisconsin Democrats vowed to continue the fight in court, and a judge stayed implementation of the new law. Both Republicans and Democrats have initiated recall actions against members of the other party whom they believe they could defeat in a fresh election. The governor himself is thought to be particularly vulnerable. Bill Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, published a blog drawing attention to a conservative network that drafted model bills for Republicans to introduce in state legislatures and was startled when the post attracted half a million hits in two days. In response, the Republican Party of Wisconsin demanded that the university hand over all Cronon's emails that mentioned the governor's name or any of at least a dozen other names plus a list of keywords such as "union" and "recall".
It appeared a war of sorts was just beginning. If the unionised workers went on strike, as they might, and the governor declared them laid off, as he had threatened to do, or fired them outright, would they occupy the statehouse again? The pot seemed to be boiling over.
As it became clear on Tahrir Square that popular Egyptian resentment at economic polarisation and political corruption rather than Islamic fanaticism was bringing the Mubarak regime down, some began to draw pointed parallels with the US. Charles M. Blow, a New York Times columnist who specialises in demographic analysis, published a graph on February 5 charting income polarisation in 23 Middle Eastern and north African countries. Iran, concentrating its wealth in the hands of its Revolutionary Guard, was the most polarised, yet the US—included "for comparison"—was more polarised still.
American income inequality was once justified with the slogan, "A rising tide lifts all boats", but a study released by the Economic Policy Institute on February 9, 2011 reported that "during the most recent expansion between 2000 and 2007, the period that led up to the Great Recession, the richest 10 per cent accounted for a full 100 per cent of average income growth". According to a poll done by the Food Research and Action Centre, 20 per cent of Californians answered "yes" to the question, "Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?" The tide metaphor may no longer apply to the US. Too many American boats have sunk to the bottom.
Revolutions, however, rarely start at the very bottom. They start with the able, angry, and unemployed, disenfranchised or impoverished by overweening political power. The Arab revolt has riveted the world, and rightly so, but keep a weather eye on Wisconsin. As the saying goes, "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings", and she may be rehearsing a new number.