December 7, 2012

Arab Spring overplayed & underestimated

This week, as I made my way to the region, I've been following the dramatic downturn of democratic governance in Egypt. A few initial thoughts before I hear more informed  perspectives:


While President Morsi's Mubarak-esque combination of autocratic proclivities and astounding detachment from reality are deeply alarming, the Egyptian people are again rising up in protest. So, the biggest beneficiary and hallmark of the "Arab Spring" is proving to be More Of the Same, but the democratic spirit of the movement -- the citizens themselves -- is unabated. They still expect functional, legitimate democracy, whether from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood or someone else. And anyway, few reputable analysts were banking on Morsi's prospects as a democratic visionary. But elections do have consequences, especially when they're held too early.


We need to excise Morsi as the face of the Arab Spring, lest his blowout come to symbolize the whole Arab Spring. If Egypt's experiment fails, this by itself does not prove the Arab Spring was a ruse or a mirage -- as some of my fellow American observers have been blogging in recent days. Owing to its size, intellectual history and strategic importance, Egypt easily took first place as the symbol of the Arab Spring. Egypt may still prove to be the big test of this sweeping movement, yet other countries are also processing their own versions. 

Tunisia, where the democratic tide started last year, is showing the kind of measured progress that Western news anchors take for granted, and thus makes for few headlines. Despite continued uncertainty, including the recent Benghazi attack that killed four Americans including the U.S. Ambassador, Libyans remain optimistic and supportive of their new democratic-trending government. 

In Bahrain, last year's protests and the ensuing crackdown were largely limited in time and scope. The grievances remain and will need to be addressed one way or another, but this is not the garden-variety Arab Spring, especially since Bahrain is sandwiched between Iran and Saudi Arabia -- two of the least democratic regimes in the region. 

Syria's Assad regime is holding fast, for now, amid popular unrest and armed rebellion. Much will depend on Bashar Assad's individual mindset: He could hold out until the end, leave town just after his kids open their Christmas presents, or start using chemical weapons against his own citizens. That third option could provide a casus belli for U.S.-NATO intervention, which will horribly escalate the violence but may also end the dictatorship and keep Iran out of the post-Assad politics.


The role of non-Arab states within the Middle East will also help determine the direction of political change in the region. Iran's support for Assad and its opportunistic use of Morsi's election in Egypt have been a negative influence on the Arab Spring, and should inspire greater resolve by reformers rather than a Western retreat. Turkey, once the moderate Muslim referee, needs to regain its composure and recapture its influence with Egypt and Syria in particular. Its recent military counter-attacks on Syria, its second fiddle at Morsi's Gaza cease-fire negotiations and the angry posturing against Israel are keeping the Islamist government from realizing its potential as mediator and guarantor among its neighbors.

The Arab Spring is definitely incomplete, even dangerous in spots. But this is the Middle East, after all. And the story remains unfinished and -- in too many cases -- untold. Instead of dismissing the significance or permanence of the democratic moment, Westerners should be joining with Arabs and others to see where and why the Arab Spring is faltering, and what we can do together to facilitate real, measurable and even lasting results.

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