Tunisia and Egypt are looking like success stories early on. Libya is a mess. Syria looks like it could be the next to fall. Pressure in Iran is growing, and the small statelets of Bahrain and Yemen face on going unrest. Yemen’s President Abdullah Saleh has already said he’s stepping down, but unrest continues. This will take awhile to play itself out, and before it’s over even Saudi Arabia is likely to experience regime change.
All of this is good news in the sense that the old order was obsolete and doomed to fall. The Arab people have been victims of governments bolstered by oil hungry powers willing to enable corrupt and ruthless tyrants in exchange for their black gold. That can’t last forever, and the mix of the information revolution and demography have pushed the region to the tipping point and I suspect there is no going back. In 1982 Assad could kill tens of thousands to maintain authority, but now images and angry flow across the country and world in a way that undermines the capacity for dictators to engage in the most severe atrocities.
The bad news, of course, is that the region does not have a tradition of stable democracy, and if anything the authoritarian rule of recent years has reinforced the tradition of ruthless power politics inherited from the Ottomans. And while Turkey had Attaturk, leadership in the Arab world is diffuse. So where will this unrest lead?
1. Those who fear too much, and those who hope too much are probably wrong. One view is that this will be a peoples’ revolt leading to stable modern democracies throughout the region. Another view is that al qaeda and Islamic extremists will use this to grab power and that this will be a victory for Islamic extremism. Both views are naive. The former is naive about the difficulty in having a culture shift from pre-modern practices to a functioning democracy, the latter naively fears a force that does not have the hearts and minds of the people of the region. Some people are very comfortable fearing Islam and thus enjoy imagining it as an existential threat.
2. Iran is the most likely to succeed. Some might think it odd that the one theocracy is most likely to end up with a modern democracy, but Iran is already half way there, with a culture more modern and with less of a tradition of ruthless oppression than the states of the Arab world. Iran (which is not Arab) was never part of the Ottoman Empire, and had a period of secularization under the Shah. It was a modernization done too quickly, too ruthlessly and with too little respect for existing traditions, but it has left its mark. The Shah failed where Attaturk succeeded because he never had Attaturk’s popularity and was seduced by the West to serve as a pawn in the Cold War and energy games. This made him feel comfortable with personal power, and focused less on his country than his own rule.
But anyone watching the 2009 protests know that the Iranian people want change. Anyone who has followed the history of post-revolutionary Iran know that modernization has been continuing despite theocratic rule, and that democratic elections do take place, and are hotly contested. The Guardian Council has been keen to avoid pushing the public too hard, and has shown a capacity in the past to reform. At some point an internal coup could push less conservative clerics to the top and usher in a transition that could be gradual and popular. An Islamic democracy may not be like a western democracy, but it can be truly democratic. Iran may be closer to that point than a lot of people think, and the changes now are more threatening to Iran’s leaders than people realize.
3. This process will take decades with numerous ups and downs. Gaddafi could leave Libya tomorrow, Syria’s government could fall, or Gaddafi could hang on for years and the son of Assad could channel his father’s ruthlessness in asserting Baath party control. Likely there will be dramatic successes like Egypt’s and major disappointments. Authoritarian regimes will cling to power as long as they think they can win– and most remain in denial of the forces conspiring against them.
This means that it will be a long time before we can truly judge the efficacy of NATO policy, the UN or the US. It also suggests that oil price increases will continue, forcing us to move more quickly on alternative energy sources, as well as developing domestic oil and natural gas (especially from shale natural gas fields — a potentially very rich source). It also means that those who espouse hope and those who convey fear will each find a lot of evidence for their beliefs. You can see that in Egypt where both sides find ample evidence to prove that their hopes/fears are legitimate.
Standing back, though, one has to recognize that the old corrupt authoritarian tyrannies of the Arab world have to go. No transition will be smooth. Tunisia and Egypt are doing probably as well as one could hope for, but expect controversy and messy situations in each country for years. Look at how Nigeria is 12 years into its 3rd Republic and elections are still marked with charges of rigging and some post voting unrest. These transitions take time. If the transitions going well take time with numerous ups and downs, places like Libya and Saudi Arabia face the potential that their transitions could take over a generation. Once the Saudi government starts to lose control, oil crises will be likely. It will be tempting to think there is something we can do to “fix” things: Either prop up the old tyrants or intervene to create a new democracy.
The former would be a mistakes because the tyrants are being overthrown by their own people thanks to the force of the information revolution and ideas imported from the West. It would be wrong to help the dictators stay in power, and ultimately self-defeating. They will fall, and we don’t want to be seen as being on their side. The latter simply is beyond our capacity. We’ve seen that in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Libya is a fresh example. Libya may be a more realistic way to help — give assistance to indigenous freedom fighters — but it risks sucking us in to a difficult long term quagmire which will likely lack closure. Even after Gaddafi goes it will be a long time before the transition is complete.
In short, we are watching a major historical event, the start of a transformation of the Arab world away from authoritarian corruption towards modern democracy. It won’t be the same as the West, but it’s almost certainly not likely to revert to Islamic extremism. It’s a new era, and we need to have 21st century thinking. Perhaps the most dangerous thing to do is look at all this through 20th century political perspectives. A world in motion requires that our thinking be in motion too.