Springtime for Civil War

Shia radicalization. Iranian terrorism. Libya as lost cause. Our only hope lies in Egypt.

Seen from the Arabian Sea the winter of Arab discontent that toppled dictators has turned into a spring of civil war and outside intervention. The Saudi-UAE intervention in Bahrain and the French-British-American intervention in Libya have diametrically opposite goals but both will set in train new waves of change and unrest. Old American alliances in the region are shifting, perhaps even shattering. For the United States, the region's unprecedented changes pose huge challenges. Priorities are key.

The Arab revolt is rooted in youth bulges and dictators. For the 60 percent of Arabs under thirty years of age (the median is twenty-six), there are no jobs and thus no marriages. India has almost the same demographics but is a democracy with 9 per cent growth in annual GDP. Most Arabs have neither. The 2011 redress is really revolt. Only at the extremes of the Arab world—Oman and Morocco—have Arab leaders offered true reforms. King Muhammad and Sultan Qabous have the confidence and legitimacy to promise sweeping reforms. Now we will see if they can deliver. The rest of the Arab autocrats have chosen to stand pat and offer minimal change.

The Saudis goal in Bahrain is clear; no revolution in the gulf monarchies especially by Shia. They intervened in Bahrain to back anti-Shia Sunni hardliners led by the Prime Minister who has ruled since 1961. The aim: to marginalize reformers like the American-backed Crown Prince. The Saudis sent a clear message to the two Shia republics in the gulf, especially Iran but also Iraq, that they will not tolerate Shia takeovers in Bahrain or the Kingdom's eastern province. They also sent a message to Washington: Bush naively gave Iraq to the Shia, Obama won't do the same to Bahrain. US-Saudi relations have gone into a deep freeze. The Saudi-US alliance which dates back to 1945 will survive but much reduced. Riyadh will increasingly look east to India and China.

The Shia will be further radicalized. Expect more Hezbollah-type terror like the 1996 attack by Iranian-backed Saudi Shia on the US air base in Khobar.

The Western intervention in Libya has no clear goal. For now it seeks to protect Libyan rebels from Qadhafi's terrible revenge but how can it do that without toppling Qadhafi? Are we ready to live with a Tripoltania under Qadhafi and a Cyrenecca under the rebels? Arab support is tepid at best and all too likely to vanish if military operations are prolonged.

Egypt remains the key Arab state for historic, demographic and cultural reasons. So far it is transitioning from dictatorship to democracy with a minimum of violence but it is still early days. The old US-Egyptian partnership is gone but a new one may replace it if we play our hand well. This should be the top priority for the Obama team now. Successful change in Egypt will do more to enhance the likelihood that this year of Arab change ends well than any other venture