After the Arab Spring

As violence worsens in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria the rise of democracy may be cut short


A couple of days before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was finally forced from office, it rained in Cairo. When the storm passed and the sun re-appeared, one of the protesters pointed out on Twitter that a rainbow had appeared over downtown -- a sign, she believed, of the freedom and prosperity that was to come. Caught up in the romance of the barricades, it was hard for demonstrators and democracy activists, in Egypt and beyond, not to think that way. It seemed that Middle East was on the verge of a democratic breakthrough. It was one thing for Tunisians to force a tin-pot dictator like Zine Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Jeddah, it was quite another for Egyptians to dump the Pharaoh. That's not supposed to happen. And as Tunisians inspired Egyptians, what the revolutionaries in Cairo accomplished gave impetus to Pearl Square, where Bahrain's own protesters have gathered, and to Benghazi, the base of Libya's rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi. Yet the successes of Tahrir or November 7 squares have not easily translated to these other places. It seems entirely possible that the Arab spring could end on the banks of the Nile. What went wrong?

Something very different and troubling is happening in Bahrain, Yemen, of course Libya, and now Syria, where security forces killed at least 61 people since protests began last week. President Barack Obama made the case for military action in Libya when he stated, "Not only do we have a humanitarian interest, but we also have a very practical interest in making sure that the changes that are sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful nonviolent fashion." But he was too late. The defenders of the status quo in the region, having learned the hard lessons of Ben Ali and Mubarak, have become resolute in their efforts to reverse the revolutionary dynamic that began in Sidi Bouzid on December 17. For obvious reasons, the Obama administration, analysts, and other observers have focused their attention on Qaddafi. After all, the war he has unleashed against his own people is the ultimate counterrevolutionary step. Yet Tripoli is not the only center of anti-revolutionary activity; so is Riyadh.

The Democracy ReportAs Hosni Mubarak's three decades of rule teetered in early February, the Saudis, worried revolution could spread to their own capital, sought to stiffen his spine. They offered Mubarak political, diplomatic, and financial support if he would just use the full brunt of the force at his disposal to bring Egypt's uprising to an end. In keeping with their longstanding policy of riyalpolitik, the Saudis have given the al-Khalifa royal family of Bahrain billions and a contingent of about 1,000 soldiers, both of which gave King Hamad the reassurance he needed to use force, finally and decisively, to clear Manama's Pearl Square. In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia's highest priority is stability, the Saudis seem to have had enough of President Ali Abdallah Saleh. When Saleh asked the Saudis to intervene on his behalf with Yemen's breakway tribes, Riyadh demurred, suggesting the Yemeni leader come up with a plan for a transfer of power instead. But that does not necessarily mean that Riyadh has embraced the same revolutionary goals as those of the crowds along Sana'a thoroughfares. After all, Saudi Arabia is the ultimate status quo power. Progressive political change in Yemen would provide an example for Saudis that would surely make the House of Saud uncomfortable. How long will it be before some emissary of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turns up in the Kingdom seeking support? The Saudis -- like virtually everyone else in the Arab world -- loathe Qaddafi, but they may not be all that unhappy over the Libyan's determination to crush the rebellion, even under the intense pressure of Western airstrikes.

In a way, you can't blame the Saudis. When Mohamed Bouazzi lit himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, he unleashed political forces that are, from Riyadh's perspective, dangerous to its core interests and perhaps its very existence. The Saudis are now the central players in a virtual and unarticulated coalition of forces that include not only the Bahraini ruling family, Yemen's president (even if the Saudis think he is part of the problem), Qaddafi, and the Assad regime, but also remnants of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes intent on using the uncertainty in Egypt and Tunisia to their political advantage. There need not be any formal links among these countries, groups, or individuals -- indeed, other than the Riyadh-Manama connection there is no evidence of any cooperation among them. At the same time they seem to be connected through a dynamic feedback loop. The Saudis back the Bahrainis, which offers implicit encouragement to the Yemenis, who are also watching Qaddafi closely, while holdouts among the discredited Egyptian National Democratic Party and internal security forces come to believe they are not alone and that all is not lost.

Perhaps we are witnessing the "birth pangs of the new Middle East" in the words of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After all, countries in Europe that experienced revolutions of 1848 went through phases in which counterrevolutionary forces were successful, but democracy ultimately prevailed. History often provides insights that are hard to see during the present crisis, but it is not a roadmap for the future. It does not seem likely that the countries of the contemporary Middle East will follow the same path of mid-19th-century France. The defenders of the status quo will use everything from bribery to violence in an effort to try to roll back the demands for political change. These regimes are amplifying uncertainty and sowing general instability -- even if, in the end, they prove unsuccessful. Both oppositions and elites will risk fracturing under the pressure as different groups with different interests and different levels willingness to accept concession and compromise seek political advantage. Factions of revolutionaries may ultimately determine that non-violent resistance can only get them so far, and choose to take up arms in an effort to force change on unwilling elites. This kind of scenario plays directly into the hands of counterrevolutionary forces.

It seems likely that states in the Middle East and North Africa could divide into three camps. The first, composed of Jordan, Morocco, and the small Gulf states, will do whatever they can to insulate themselves from the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary fray. In the second, Egypt and Tunisia will struggle to realize their revolutionary promise and ideals while resisting the counterrevolutionary forces of the old regimes. And, finally, there is the consortium of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen (if President Saleh somehow manages to hold on), Algeria, Bahrain, and even an outlaw Libya, that all work -- not necessarily in concert --to contain and rollback democratic change. There have always been fissures and schisms among the Arab states, but never along these issues and alignments. The Middle East's two heavyweights -- revolutionary, struggling-to-be-democratic Egypt and status quo Saudi Arabia -- are likely to find one other at odds on a range of important issues including Hamas, Iran, Hizballah, and political change around the region. It is also possible that Egyptians, empowered by their revolution, will seek to support democracy activists elsewhere in the region. Many have already crossed the Libyan border in aid of the rebels there. Could they next turn their attention to, for example, Syria? Tunisians might seek to do the same in Algeria and Libya. This is not likely to sit well in Damascus, Algiers, and Tripoli, which would see regional democracy activists, and perhaps democracies themselves, as existential threats. One can imagine, in this way, the development of a divided, contested, and destabilized region.

Welcome to the new "New Middle East." The spectacle of Ben Ali's and then Mubarak's ouster gave hope to dreams of a democratic Middle East, but it may turn out to be more of a nightmare, at least in the short run.

Photo: Protesters in Sana'a, Yemen, carry the bodies of two men killed in the anti-government demonstrations. By Ammar Awad/Reuters