The Wilting Arab Spring and Subatomic Particles of Democracy

Last week, physicists at Geneva's Large Hadron Collidor announced that they had discovered the legendary "Higgs Boson" subatomic particle -- a unit of matter that had previously existed only in scientists' wet dreams, and is meant to provide the key to holding life together in our universe.

... or, at least, they think that's what it is....

"I think we have it!" said CERN director and James Bond villain Rolf-Dieter Heuer.

You see, it's apparently too soon to know for sure whether the new particle is, in fact, the "Higgs Boson" predicted by the Standard Model of physics (proof of an invisible force field imbuing elementary particles with mass) or, instead, some type of mysterious impostor particle made of unknown stuff: antimatter, grey matter, dark matter, dark knight rises matter? They just don't know, so people are describing the thing as a "Higgs-like" particle. All we can say for sure at this point is that the Rolf-Dieters of the world are pouring champagne on themselves in celebration.


We all hoped that the Arab world had discovered freedom last year. All the clinical data pointed to it: euphoria in the streets; authoritarian dictators being captured in their Artist Formerly Known as Qaddafi costumes; youth demanding accountable government on their Facebook profiles... and the optimism was contagious. Democracy, after all, is supposed to be the key to prosperity -- the "Higgs Boson" of civil life that holds everything together. The Arab masses had assembled to demand modern technological infrastructure, investment in education, poverty measures and everything else we associate with a vaguely competent government in 2012. At long last in the Arabian Peninsula, benevolent, representative government seemed like it was coming to a theater near you.

But if it looked like freedom and it sounded like freedom, is that what the Tahrir protestors are getting? Right now, the forces we celebrated look more like the dreaded antimatter pretenders, collapsing institutional control and leaving a power vacuum to be filled by something darker.

If we hop on our magic carpets and take a tour of the neighborhood, it's certainly a whole new world, but not necessarily the good kind: Nobody noticed, but Tunisia and Morocco have elected radical Islamist governments establishing sharia law (the real kind, not the kind Republicans report in Mississipi). Religious minorities, women and gays are thrilled. Libya has "elected" what appears to be a marginally reasonable central government (though theocratic, it currently looks more like Turkey than Iran), but Mahmoud Jibril is holding the place together with shoestring and scotch tape, and a tribal civil war for the oil wells is brewing.

Most terrifying of all is Egypt. Instead of inheriting the earth, the hip Twitter kids have essentially pass-blocked for Hamas's ugly cousin the Muslim Brotherhood, which won half the Parliament seats in the last election (20% went to even more fundamentalist groups, which presumably place suicide bombing higher up in their Charter). The Sinai desert has descended into utter lawlessness, with cells of militant extremists taking advantage of Mubarak's departure to reassert power at Israel's doorstep. These menacing fellows didn't just pop up out of the desert like daisies. The former terrorists were sprung from jail last year by Egypt's transition government -- and if this is all starting to sound a lot like the Russian separatist plot from Air Force One, I don't blame you. (The principal difference here being that it's too late for Barack Obama to defeat Gary Oldman in hand-to-hand combat and win back the 747.)

The Sinai extremists have already outlasted General Radic. We need Harrison Ford.

Syria, of course, is reaching new levels of evil every day.

We know that the secular pseudo-monarchs chased from power were bad guys. The Hussein-Mubarak-Qaddafi-Assad nationalist dictatorships -- modeled after Nasser's original, prototypical pan-Arab regime -- oppressed their citizenries for decades, holding corrupt bureaucracies with iron fists and squeezing oil money from the people. It's why we cheered with the Egyptian masses and pumped our fists when Qaddafi fell to NATO last year.

But this is more than a Western "devil you know" perspective: yes, the U.S. is primarily concerned with the geopolitical implications of the rise of Islamic powers, and 2011 is beginning to look more and more like 1979, but it's also far from clear that Arab citizens are moving towards greater prosperity and greater civil rights for themselves. Just ask the Coptic Christians in Egypt and the Berbers in Libya, both of whom have been the targets of the kind of jihadist massacres that the authoritarian regimes held in check for years. Ask the women of Tunisia and Morroco what democracy has earned them in the last year.

Is it patronizing and imperialist to imply that the Arab world doesn't know how to use a ballot box? Probably, but it depends whether you think democracy per se is a virtue, even when it delivers theocratic intolerance and persecution. Either way, I have a feeling this isn't what the Tunisian fruit vendor had in mind last year when he set himself on fire and sparked a revolution. And it's not what the Egyptian youth had in mind when they flooded into the streets with their smartphones to fight for their future.

It's official: we have a "Higgs-like" Arab Spring on our hands. We can still hope it's the kind of matter that binds freedom together, and not the kind that collapses it into the Middle Eastern sand dunes. But it doesn't look good.