Don’t Give up on the Arab Spring

The democratic wave in the Middle East has spread from Morocco to Iraq, but with widely varying effects.  Morocco has seen a conservative constitutional reform, Tunisia an emerging democracy with a surging Islamist party, Libya a civil war, Egypt a struggling democracy with a resurgent military leadership; Yemen a simmering civil war, Bahrain a suppressed democratic movement, Syria a bloodily repressed revolutionary movement, and Iraq a weak democracy riven by sectarian and regional divides.

Nonetheless, the policy goals of Western powers and NATO remain the same – assist the consolidation of stable, peaceful democratic states; enable their economies to grow; limit and diminish tensions with Israel, reduce Iranian influence, and minimize opportunities for terrorists to gain bases and recruits.

Unfortunately, current tendencies in the region are moving against all of these goals.  Progress toward democracy has slowed or halted in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria; tourism and investment have fallen in response to turmoil; the post-authoritarian regimes have unleashed more popular antagonism toward Israel.  In addition, Iran’s influence is strong in Iraq and Iran will gain in Syria if its efforts to prop up the Assad regime succeed.  Meanwhile, terrorists loosely linked to Al Qaeda are seeking bases in Yemen and North Africa.

What can the global community do in these conditions?  The most important  thing to do is not over-react.  The states most affected by the Arab revolts – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen – are at a highly unstable conjuncture.  The history of revolutions has shown that ideological extremism and turns away from democracy occur some months after the old regime falls, during the struggle to rebuild a central regime and while various groups fight for power.

However, such a move is not inevitable.  Historically, extremism and renewed
authoritarianism have arisen mainly through a backlash against attempts from inside or outside to limit or rollback the revolution.  If allowed to unwind without major internal or external threats, revolutions generally move toward a middle ground.

Outside powers therefore must not try to limit or roll back the revolutions or push them to a pro-Western or less anti-Israeli stance.  Such efforts will almost certainly fail, and could well be counterproductive by igniting an increase in support for radicalized revolutionary regimes.  Turning away in disappointment, however, would also be a mistake.

Concrete steps that should be taken by Western powers and NATO include:  Ever-stronger sanctions against Syrian leaders and businesses that support the regime; support for talks between regime and opponents in Bahrain; public criticism of Iran’s hypocrisy and human rights violations; reminders to the Egyptian military that it must not revert to the behavior of the Mubarak regime; offering any requested technical support for elections in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya; using multilateral support for Israeli-Palestinian talks, aiming for a broader regional agreement to recognize Israel as part of any settlement; and progress on bilateral and multi-lateral trade agreements that will open European and US markets to manufactures from the Middle East and North Africa.

The key to understanding these revolutions is that even more than efforts to claim democracy, they are efforts to recover dignity.  Outsiders can therefore play a limited, supporting role at best.  Any efforts by outsiders to control or shift events will be seen as an affront to that dignity, and are likely to provoke outcomes contrary to what is desired.  But efforts to support that dignity will be welcomed, and therein lies the path by which outside nations may have a positive influence on the course of these revolutions.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts. Bookmark the permalink.

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