What may happen to the Arab Spring?

The Middle East is in flux like rarely before. Only a fool would try to make accurate predictions but here’s one view by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books:

For all this uncertainty, there seems little doubt—as protesters tire and as the general public tires of them—in what direction the balance will tilt. After the dictator falls, incessant political upheaval carries inordinate economic and security costs and most people long for order and safety. The young street demonstrators challenge the status quo, ignite a revolutionary spirit, and point the way for a redistribution of power. But what they possess in enthusiasm they lack in organization and political experience. What gives them strength during the uprising—their amorphous character and impulsiveness—leads to their subsequent undoing. Their domain is the more visible and publicized. The real action, much to their chagrin, takes place elsewhere.

The outcome of the Arab awakening will not be determined by those who launched it. The popular uprisings were broadly welcomed, but they do not neatly fit the social and political makeup of traditional communities often organized along tribal and kinship ties, where religion has a central part and foreign meddling is the norm. The result will be decided by other, more calculating and hard-nosed forces.

Nationalists and leftists will make a bid, but their reputation has been sullied for having stood for a promise already once betrayed. Liberal, secular parties carry scant potential; the appeal they enjoy in the West is inversely proportional to the support they possess at home. Fragments of the old regime retain significant assets: the experience of power; ties to the security services; economic leverage; and local networks of clients. They will be hard to dislodge, but much of the protesters’ ire is directed at them and they form easy targets. They can survive and thrive, but will need new patrons and protectors.

That leaves two relatively untarnished and powerful forces. One is the military, whose positions, as much as anything, have molded the course of events. In Libya and Yemen, they split between regime and opposition supporters, which contributed to a stalemate of sorts. In Syria, they so far have sided with the regime; should that change, much will change with it. In Egypt, although closely identified with the former regime, they dissociated themselves in time, sided with the protesters, and emerged as central power brokers. They are in control, a position at once advantageous and uncomfortable. Their preference is to rule without the appearance of ruling, in order to maintain their privileges while avoiding the limelight and accountability. To that end, they have tried to reach understandings with various political groups. If they do not succeed, a de facto military takeover cannot be ruled out.

And then there are the Islamists. They see the Arab awakening as their golden opportunity. This was not their revolution nor was it their idea. But, they hope, this is their time.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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