Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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The Remaking of the Middle East

JERUSALEM – The Middle East’s descent into extreme violence – with mass killings of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in Cairo followed closely by Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war – has dashed the hopes raised by the Arab Spring in 2011. The question now – and in terms of the future – is how to account for what is shaping up to be a profound historical failure.

In the 1990’s, when communist regimes collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe, and dictators fell in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, the Arab world stood out for its lack of popular, anti-authoritarian movements and developments. And, while the “Arab Spring” demonstrations in 2011 brought down or seriously challenged dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, the result has been instability, violence, and civil war, not democratization. Why?

The Arab Spring did not affect all 22 Arab countries equally. The regimes that were brought down, or challenged, were military dictatorships cloaked in republican garb. None of the dynastic monarchies, some of them far more repressive (like Saudi Arabia) were confronted by serious popular challenges, with the exception of small Bahrain, owing to a sectarian divide between its Shia majority and Sunni rulers.

The reasons seem obvious: the military regimes lacked legitimacy and were ultimately based on force and intimidation, while the monarchical dynasties seem to be anchored in history, tradition, and religion. In Morocco and Jordan, the king is considered a descendant of the Prophet, and Saudi Arabia’s king is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most sacred sites.

Yet, while the crowds of young people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere in 2011 created the image of an overwhelming constituency for democracy and modernity, a deeper reality soon became clear. Mass mobilization to bring down a dictator is one thing; building democratic institutions is quite another.

With the fall of the dictatorship, attention focused naturally on elections. But, as post-1989 developments in former communist countries have shown, elections are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for democratic consolidation. Where there were traditions of civil society, pluralism, tolerance, independent civic institutions, and the ability to develop a coherent multi-party system – for example, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – transitions to democracy succeeded; where these traditions did not exist, as in Russia and Ukraine, neo-authoritarian regimes took over.

Cairo was, in fact, more like Moscow than Prague. Most of Egypt’s 85 million people did not demonstrate in Tahrir; most do not own mobile phones (many lack electricity and running water); and almost half of the country’s women are illiterate. When elections did take place – parliamentary and presidential – liberal, secular candidates were easily defeated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had spent decades building an effective network of social and educational services.

As President Mohamed Morsi’s regime proved, the Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy was limited to its majoritarian features: rights for women and minorities (especially Coptic Christians), like human rights in general, were not part of the agenda to “Brotherize” Egypt. As a result, much of the secular and liberal elite, having spearheaded the anti-Mubarak revolution, turned against the democratically elected Morsi and supported the military putsch in July.

With Egypt’s two most powerful institutions being the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, the chances for liberal democracy are slim. Moreover, the army wields enormous economic and social power. Since Muhammad Ali’s leadership in the nineteenth century, the army has been identified with modernization, progress, and secularization – a bearer of national identity that has ruled the country for the last 60 years.

Yet the army, despite its apparently successful suppression of the Brotherhood, will ultimately be unable to rule alone. The best outcome may be some sort of cohabitation between the military and more moderate Islamist groups.

Syria’s civil war, with all its horrors, highlights a different dilemma. The conflict there is no mere democratic revolt against a murderous regime. It is a rebellion by the Sunni majority against an Alawite-led minority regime backed by other minorities (including Christian and Druze) whose members now find themselves in the difficult position of supporting the regime, despite its oppressive nature.

The more sectarian the civil war becomes, the more obvious it is that the opposition to Assad is led by various Islamist militias, some of them connected to Al Qaeda. The choice has become Assad’s vicious regime or a fundamentalist Islamist alternative – not oppression or freedom.

With the exception of Egypt, most Arab countries are modern creations. Their identities and borders were established by Western imperial powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The British-French Sykes-Picot Agreement established countries like Syria and Iraq as distinct states, without regard to history, geography, and demography.

It is this state system, not merely regimes, that is unraveling. Iraq after Saddam Hussein is no longer the unified Arab country that it was; the Kurdish regional government in the north controls a de facto state, and the Shia-Sunni divide may further destabilize the rump.

In Sudan, established by the British in the late nineteenth century, the non-Arab, mainly Christian South has already seceded. Its western Darfur region may eventually follow a similar route. In Libya (created by Italy in the 1910’s), the deep regional divide between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica has impeded the formation of a coherent unified government. Yemen’s unity cannot be guaranteed, either.

What is happening in the Arab world is much more complex than an analogy to the revolutions of 1848. The entire Arab state system is being challenged and may be unraveling (as was true in parts of the post-communist world). Given the military, Islamist, and sectarian and tribal forces in play, new political configurations are unlikely to emerge for some time. Democracy, in all probability, will not be one of them.

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  1. CommentedKir Komrik

    This is a very interesting piece, thanks,

    "It is this state system, not merely regimes, that is unraveling. Iraq after Saddam Hussein is no longer the unified Arab country that it was; the Kurdish regional government in the north controls a de facto state, and the Shia-Sunni divide may further destabilize the rump."

    I have wondered about this for some time. Most of these modern nations had national borders laid out to serve the colonial powers ... and prevent cohesion of the indigenous peoples. I wonder what kind of power vacuum might exist for a charismatic Arab leader to rally several Arab nations based on a federation not of the "States" we see now but of the tribal or ethnic areas with which many Arabs might more closely relate?

    - kk

  2. CommentedScott Wolfel

    It seems like there are a number of, not necesarily mutually exclusive, scenarios.

    One would be a return to the status quo ante, with the previous or a different, authoritarian regime. The Communist Revolutions in Russia as well as Iran and China may provide the template for the latter as the "rebels" seize the instruments of the state and impose their own ideology.

    In Egypt, as Dr. Avineri points out, the military has regained power, but this is inherently unstable. They can either ally themselves with moderate, or not-so-moderate Islamists, that represent civil society, and form a relatively stable reversion to the status quo ante, or they can take the more courageous, and difficult step, of supporting and building pluralistic institutions, which is the second choice. As elsewhere, this process will be slow, and not without peril, and the military will have to play a central role in ensuring basic rights and building democratic institutions.

    A third option, which applies to Libya, Iraq, post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine among others, is a continuation of hot or cold civil wars and sectarian conflicts. Where there is a weak or non-existent state, this is the likely outcome, until someone can recapture the state and reassert the status quo ante under a new regime.

    This chaos also provides an opening for regional and global hegemons to ally with, and arm, the competing factions and extend their spheres of influence.

    As with the long transition to democracy in Europe, which took hundreds of very bloody years in what Hegel called, "the slaughterbench of history," transitions in the Middle East to inclusive, pluralistic societies (including Israel which was also arbitrarily formed after the fall of the Ottoman and European Empires, "....without regard to history, geography, and demography," and is only pluralistic for some as in pre-Civil War America), will take a long time. The fall of Communism was only the latest Act in the centuries' old play. After the defeat of Fascism in Germany and Japan, pluralistic democratic and economic institutions were imposed, and took root, quickly. The operative word here being "imposed."

    Given the deep, millenia old nature of the conflicts, and generations of hatred and resentment built up in the post-Imperial era, there needs to be a "higher authority" (in the Old Testament it was "God") to get nations to, "....beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks."

    As in Biblical times, the post-Imperial Middle East has been the sectarian and ideological battleground of regional and global powers, with the individual states, and underlying people, suffering as a result.

    It took Western Europe hundreds of years to transition to democracy and the same ethnic and sectarian battles chronicled in the Old Testament and the Quran continue to play themselves out today in the Middle East. If you believe that you are fighting God's battle against your, and his enemies (even in secularized form), then you are willing to go to any lengths to carry out God's will.

    In Egypt, and elsewhere, those with influence must support the development of pluralistic institutions and civil society wherever possible and oppose extremism on both sides. Why aren't the supporters of liberal transitions doing everything they can to help the millions of Syrian refugees, so there is a built in constituency for liberal institutions when the civil war ends?

    A missing piece of Dr. Avineri's analysis is the economic component. The Arab Spring was triggered by global food inflation after the U.S. Federal Reserves' QE2 policy. While Egypt made an aborted democratic transition, the Morsi government, flawed as it was, was not able to deliver economic improvements. In post-War Europe and Japan, the Marshall Plan and other policies were crucial to legitimizing the new governments and forging democratic institutions. On the contrary, the Treaty of Versailles led to Weimar and then Nazi Germany. While not always tied, democracy and the economic fruits of capitalism are liberal twins. Without economic development, people question the legitimacy of regimes and latch onto extremist ideologies that offer simplistic solutions, and ready-made skapegoats, for their suffering. In order to build liberal societies, you need to build liberal democratic and capitalist institutions and a robust civil society with an interest in maintaining a pluralistic, secular regime. Egypt may have been a missed opportunity or those who support a transition to liberalism can attempt to ally with the military in building those institutions.

  3. CommentedAhmed Hasanein Alhasania

    Democracy, in all probability, will not be one of them. By this conclusion Mr. Shlomo Avineri finished his article.
    I cannot agree with him, because democracy was the first demand for us as Egyptian people who made the revolution of 2011, which is the only real popular Egyptian revolution in 21st century till now.
    The view of Mr. Shlomo Avineri, is the traditional view of many traditional ( conservatives ) academics and politicians in the West, it is not new at all and we listen and read it from Jan. 2011 tell now, and the world will listen and read it tell the fall of house of Saud.
    View of Mr. Shlomo Avineri is the view that was adopted by House of Saud and promoted by its supporters in the West and Middle east.
    House of Saud is the main obstacle for establishing real stable democracy in Arab World.
    In 31st of Aug. 2013 I wrote in the following account in twitter, @takebackegypt :
    There will be no real stable democracy in any Arab state while House of Saud in power. Ahmed h. Alhasania.

    I wrote the same tweet in Arabic too, on the same day, 31 August 2013, in the same twitter account and also in google groups, and the readers can find it in the following link:

    https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en&fromgroups#!topic/allegyptparty/rcJbDEA1Dfw

  4. CommentedAhmed Hasanein Alhasania

    Democracy, in all probability, will not be one of them. By this conclusion Mr. Shlomo Avineri finished his article.
    I cannot agree with him, because democracy was the first demand for us as Egyptian people who made the revolution of 2011, which is the only real popular Egyptian revolution in 21st century till now.
    The view of Mr. Shlomo Avineri, is the traditional view of many traditional ( conservatives ) academics and politicians in the West, it is not new at all and we listen and read it from Jan. 2011 tell now, and the world will listen and read it tell the fall of house of Saud.
    View of Mr. Shlomo Avineri is the view that was adopted by House of Saud and promoted by its supporters in the West and Middle east.
    House of Saud is the main obstacle for establishing.
    In 31st of Aug. 2013 I wrote in the following account in twitter, @takebackegypt :
    There will be no real stable democracy in any Arab state while House of Saud in power. Ahmed h. Alhasania.

    I wrote the same tweet in Arabic too, on the same day, 31 August 2013, in the same twitter account and also in google groups, and the readers can find it in the following link:

    https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en&fromgroups#!topic/allegyptparty/rcJbDEA1Dfw

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