Unfinished Mideast Revolts

Unfinished Mideast Revolts

Mini Teaser: The era of U.S.-approved, iron-fisted Arab dictators is over. Washington must get used to a Middle East in which public opinion matters to a much greater extent, anti-Western sentiment abounds and political Islam emerges as a major force.

by Author(s): Jonathan Broder

These threats to stability also included, of course, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian tensions, which defied persistent efforts at negotiation and erupted intermittently into violence of varying degrees of magnitude and intensity.

And yet, for all that, the fundamental contours of the region remained relatively intact as those strongman leaders, many allied with the United States to one extent or another, held firm to their autocratic regimes, their agencies of control and their citadels of corruption. Once again, Egypt set an example for the region. If Nasser’s brand of politics was fueled by an idealistic Arab nationalism and Sadat’s contribution was a search for accommodation with Israel (for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize), the next Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak, seemed fixated on the status quo and the politics of self-aggrandizement. He was the embodied symbol and acknowledged leader of Middle Eastern corruption, and his brand of politics was embraced by other leaders in the region.

For nearly sixty years, these leaders generally managed to enforce the Old Order. But now, with the Arab Spring and its aftermath, that Old Order is fading fast, and much of the region is being remade from the bottom up. What’s emerging is a strong sense that the Middle East needs to join the rest of the world and that popular sentiment should direct the destinies of the region’s nations and peoples.

AS THE countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe joined the West in developing modern global economies, the Arab world lagged far behind. And ordinary Middle Easterners were reminded of that fact every day as new Arab satellite-television networks such as Al Jazeera brought the modernizing world into their homes, over the heads of the state-controlled media.

Anyone who visited the non-oil-producing countries of the Middle East over the past thirty years could see how far behind the rest of the world they were in economic development. In Tangier, legions of unemployed young Moroccan men sat around with nothing to do but stare across the Strait of Gibraltar, hoping for a job on the European side. It was a tableau of despair that was repeated throughout the region.

One of the Arab world’s most glaring problems was its outdated educational system. According to the UN’s “Arab Human Development Report 2002,” few Arab schools could keep pace with the changes caused by globalization and technological advances. Clinging to old teaching methods that emphasized rote learning, Arab schools failed to teach critical thinking. Across the region, these schools produced legions of young Arab graduates who were unprepared for a modern, information-age global economy. In some countries, women were denied education altogether.

“With so little human capital available, relatively few entrepreneurs have invested in the Middle East, other than to harvest the region’s plentiful oil and gas resources,” wrote Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, in a 2011 study of the Arab Spring. Those investments, he added, “have benefited the regimes and their cronies, but not the vast majority of the people.”

The result was massive unemployment, especially among the young. Many emigrated to Europe in search of work. But many others remained, living with their parents and unable to afford marriage.

Other problems included the lack of democratic rule and the endemic corruption that these regimes tolerated and sometimes encouraged. In most countries, so-called elections consisted of referendums in which voters could choose whether they approved or disapproved of the sitting leaders. Not surprisingly, the leaders often claimed 98 percent approval.

The leaders not only enriched themselves and their cronies but also developed pervasive internal-security forces and questionable legal systems to quash any dissent. In Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states, torture was a regular practice in government jails, according to the State Department’s annual human-rights reports.

With the pressure cooker of unemployment, official corruption and government repression building up for more than three decades, it was simply a matter of time and human nature before something snapped. It came on December 17, 2010, when a Tunisian vegetable peddler named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the humiliating treatment he persistently received at the hands of a government inspector. His self-immolation would ignite the entire Arab world and eventually help bring down the Old Order.

BUT WHAT will the new order in the Middle East look like? It is still emerging. The discontent in Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and the Palestinian territories, which also share the demographic profile of high unemployment among young people with few economic prospects at home, has not yet reached a critical mass. Perhaps that is because the memories of civil conflict are still fresh in all of those countries. But unless the governments there take steps to address their economic problems, they easily could become targets of a new round of popular protests.

So far, the only rulers who have managed to hold back the popular pressures of the new Middle East are those who lead oil-rich monarchies. Saudi Arabia succeeded in buying off the malcontents in the kingdom by distributing more than $36 billion in additional benefits to a tiny population that already enjoys cradle-to-grave care. For a few months last year, protests by Bahrain’s Shia majority appeared to threaten the tiny island nation’s ruling al-Khalifa family, which is Sunni. The United States, which maintains a major naval base in Bahrain, pleaded with Bahrain’s rulers to make political reforms. But Saudi Arabia, already aghast at the failure of the United States to support Egypt’s Mubarak, a faithful U.S. ally for nearly thirty years, intervened on behalf of the regime. Without informing the Americans, Riyadh sent armored units across the causeway that links Bahrain to the Saudi mainland to help crush the Shia rebellion. For now, at least, Saudi Arabia and the other wealthy Gulf states have bought compliance with the status quo.

But Jordan and Morocco, the Arab monarchies that don’t have oil, are talking seriously about political changes in an effort to stay ahead of the revolution. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI is considering a new form of government that would transform his country into a constitutional monarchy.

As for the countries where the old autocrats fell, the Arab revolutions are still a work in progress. Public opinion will direct events to a much larger extent, in foreign policy as much as in domestic affairs. This can be seen in Egypt, which seems to be reclaiming its former role as the region’s center of gravity. If the recent contretemps over the detention of Americans working for several prodemocracy NGOs is any indication, Washington can expect more anti-American episodes in the future. Israel can also expect greater hostility. It is wildly unpopular in Egypt because of its treatment of the Palestinians. Few, however, expect the Israel-Egypt peace treaty to unravel. The Egyptian military still maintains enough power to keep both the peace treaty and U.S. ties intact.

But the West will have to get used to political Islam as a major force in the Middle East. In Tunisia, Islamists are behaving in accordance with the country’s moderate, pro-Western traditions. The Islamist Al Nahda party, long banned under Tunisia’s former rulers, won parliamentary elections last year but assembled a coalition with two liberal parties in an effort to form a government of national consensus. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, also banned under Mubarak’s rule, captured one-third of the seats in parliamentary elections, while the more conservative Salafist party won another 20 percent. Democracy in Egypt is pushing the country toward some form of Islamist structure, though its precise nature remains unclear. The test in Egypt is what kind of constitution the Islamists will write. Will it move the country from autocracy to the rule of law? Will the constitution guarantee individual rights for both men and women as well as protect minorities such as Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic Christian population? Will sharia law play a role? And how will the country’s ruling party behave the next time there is an election? Will it hand over power peacefully if it loses?

Only the future can answer these questions. After decades of political stagnation, the political ferment in the Middle East is only beginning, and any new order there could take years or even decades to develop. Adding to the region’s uncertain trajectory are the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the growing threat of a war between Israel and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear-enrichment program.

Indeed, the only certainty in the new Middle East is the countless opportunities for statesmanship—and miscalculation—that will lie along the way.

Jonathan Broder is a senior editor at Congressional Quarterly. He spent seventeen years in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, NBC News and the Chicago Tribune.

Part of TNI's special issue on the Crisis of the Old Order.

Image: Kodak Agfa/Alvesgaspar

Image: Pullquote: Recent developments have left the Middle East forever changed, and yet there is no reason to believe the region has emerged from the state of flux that it entered last year.Essay Types: Essay