The Stalled Arab Spring

High hopes for reform and power sharing falter amid realities of repression, insurgency and conflict.

More than a year into to the Arab Spring, one inconvenient and politically incorrect truth stands out: the Arabs are much better at acquiring and fighting over power than they are at sharing it.

The first round of presidential elections in Egypt last week was hailed as a major step forward. And it is for a country that’s never had a free and fair election.

But buyer beware. Unless the Arabs figure out a way to share power toward some common purpose, the prospects for anything resembling democratic and accountable polities will be slim to none.

During a break in their 1971 negotiations, Henry Kissinger asked Chou En Lai what he thought of the impact of the French Revolution on world history. Chou replied that it was too soon to tell.

Time will indeed be the ultimate arbiter of the arc of change loosed in the Arab world. Be patient, we’re told, a year or so is hardly sufficient time to judge the course of that democratic path.

Fair enough. It took our own civil war and another century and a half just to broaden a constitutional framework within which the problem of racial equality in America could be addressed. And we’re still not there yet.

Still, America’s size, natural resources, physical security and that remarkable constitutional framework (however flawed) gave it natural advantages absent from what is still an angry, broken and dysfunctional Middle East.

Looking around the region, the trend lines for real power sharing, inclusive institutions and leaders with truly national vision just don’t look all that good. Three challenges are going to make transitions to real democracies even harder.

Transactions, not transformations

First, the so-called Arab Spring turned out to be far less transformational than many had hoped. Indeed, these weren’t revolutions where new overturned old as much as they were transactions in which established powers and parties maneuvered for control.

In Egypt, the end of the Mubarak regime created new political space, but it was quickly occupied by the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the old regime. The liberals and Googlers who helped spark those political changes were quickly crowded out and now lack a real competitive voice. Indeed, Egypt’s future seems to belong to those who hold the guns and the Korans. And the prospects for a liberal order and genuine power sharing—let alone the rights of women and minorities—seem pretty bleak.

Of Sectarian Strife and Tribes

And Egypt may be the best case. In other countries, things are worse—much worse. In Bahrain, repression prevails with little prospect of a minority-Sunni monarchy accommodating the political and economic needs of a Shia majority.

In Yemen the strongman is gone, but tribal rivalries and a fractious military reflecting societal divides will make a strong, accountable and stable political system almost impossible to achieve. An active Al Qaeda presence, a southern insurgency and northern separatism will guarantee a boiling pot for years to come.

Over a year of repression, insurgency and sectarian conflict has brought Syria no closer to answering the question of who or what will replace the Assads. And there’s no reason to believe—given Egypt’s travails—that the struggle for Syria is nearly over.

No National Vision

Real power sharing requires a commitment by politicians and publics to a national vision designed to further the common good and respected institutions that govern political behavior. None of this is yet evident.

Instead, the Arabs have organized themselves into corporatist entities—military, tribes, Islamists of varying persuasions, minorities, Shia—each determined to protect their own. Where are the national leaders who can rise above such narrow partisan concerns, gain the respect and legitimacy of the public and govern effectively? And where are the mechanisms by which such leaders, once in positions of power, can cede it according to a set of constitutional procedures?

Quoting the Roman historian Tacitus, Fouad Ajami wrote recently that the first day after the death of a bad emperor is the best day. That day has now passed for the Arab Spring. Let’s hope the days ahead get better. They certainly can get a good deal worse.

Aaron David Miller is a Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center In Washington. He served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Image: Freedom House