At first glance, the recent news cycle provides plenty of reasons for skeptics of the Arab Spring to feel vindicated. The killing of Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi following his capture, and the gruesome display of his body at a meat market in Misrata, expose a disturbing side of a movement that many had been inclined to romanticize. In Tunisia, the clear win of the Islamist party, Ennahda, in the first elections since the start of the region’s uprisings would appear to justify the fear of the Arab Spring turning into a long Islamist winter. And shocking reports of Egypt’s official television network calling on citizens to support security forces during their recent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators — a call that resulted in the brutal massacre of scores of mostly Christian demonstrators and an exacerbation of sectarian tensions — suggest that that country’s transition out of autocracy may not result in an inclusive and pluralistic new order.
The initial euphoria of witnessing the transformation of a region previously dismissed for being exceptionally resistant to representative and accountable governance was bound to be followed by some let-down. However, observers can easily point to reasons for optimism. The generally free and fair Tunisian elections highlighted the political maturity of a society that suffered under decades of uninterrupted autocracy. The massive revenge killings that were feared in Libya have not occurred. Egyptian activists have reacted with renewed vigor to the sectarian killings, forcing authorities to take corrective measures. Optimists could argue that setbacks are incidental to the larger forces shaping what is a truly revolutionary outcome in the region — the end of Arab autocracy.
If both fear and hope drive much of this analysis, it is because the region’s volatility is entirely unprecedented. The Arab Spring has introduced new variables into a strategic context that was always precariously stable, at best. The feared loss of Egypt as a cornerstone of efforts to dampen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leaves both the United States and Israel scrambling for remedies. The long-standing Saudi-Iranian rivalry may spillover into new arenas, while countries such as Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates might be inclined to seek local allies in their attempts to safeguard their interests and balance risks. The rulers of Syria and Yemen have been successful so far in fending off regime change, but the price of their ephemeral success is likely to be further decay in the already weak fabric of their societies. The implications of collapse in both cases would be dramatic, with safe havens for terrorists already emerging in the southern Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant promising to become a powder keg of political and communal instability affecting Israel, Turkey, and Iraq.
The dramatic political transformations underway are not a matter of choice. The autocratic lid may have been firm enough to project an illusion of permanence, but it was always clear that repression had to yield to political, economic, and generational grievances that remained largely unaddressed and provided an impetus for the diverse protests that coalesced into the Arab Spring. Obfuscating this original cause has been the primary approach of both autocrats, in their efforts at maintaining their grips on their threatened regimes, and theocrats, in their efforts at appropriating popular mobilization for their ideological goals.
Consequently, the West cannot pretend to be a neutral bystander to the unfolding events. The path to stability in the region will be a long and arduous one, and lending a hand to those forces seeking to address legitimate grievances — whether through sound governance or sustainable development — is necessary. While recognizing their differences, secular, democratic, liberal, and progressive local forces are aware of their limitations and are seeking remedies through networking, mutual collaboration, and international support. However, these groups are often disorganized and face better-resourced opponents, and this has resulted in their slow retreats after their initially successful mobilizations. The West, having gained considerable experience during the post-1989 transitions in Eastern and Central Europe, should not shy away from responding to their urgent needs at both the government and civil society levels. Their success may be the only true antidote to the volatility that threatens to drain the region of its potential and become a serious challenge for the international community.