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Whither the Arab Spring?

Whither the Arab Spring?

With the first anniversary of Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation rapidly approaching (on December 17), and the second round of Egyptian voting currently underway, the tumult in the Arab world that began with the death of the unemployed young Tunisian one year ago has yet to subside. It remains far too early to tell what the so-called Arab Spring will yield, but the trends on several countries certainly provide cause for considerable concern.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has emerged as that country’s most powerful political force. While it claims it will not form a coalition with the more extreme Salafist al-Nour party, its leaders are not the moderates some in the West wish — or hope — that they are. True, they have not yet repudiated the treaty with Israel. But to do so would cost Egypt the massive assistance, both military and economic, that it receives from the United States, a development that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which benefits from that aid and retains control of Egypt’s guns, simply will not tolerate.

On the other hand, the status of Egypt’s Coptic minority, some ten percent of its population, hangs in the balance. Religious tensions are at fever pitch, and the Copts are voting virtually as a bloc for parties that strongly oppose the Islamists. How the Copts will fare in the medium term will be as much of an indication of where Egypt is headed as will be the treatment of women, which Secretary Clinton continues to emphasize to her Egyptian interlocutors.

One thing is clear, the young secularists who were at the forefront of the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak have suffered the fate of Alexander Kerensky. They are now essentially bystanders, which in truth, is all that could have been expected of them. Egyptians themselves assert that most of their countrymen are not radical Islamists by nature, but will acknowledge that, like the vast majority of Arabs, they are religiously traditional and socially conservative. Most Egyptians cannot be expected to buy into secular Western norms the way the more secular-minded, Western educated, English and French speakers would have their friends in Washington, London, Paris and Brussels believe. It is not at all a foregone conclusion, therefore, that ordinary Egyptians, who don’t have Facebook accounts, will resonate to Secretary Clinton’s message. As for the SCAF, it appears that it will let the politicians play their games, but, as with pre-Erdogan Turkey, will intervene if they feel the country is spinning out of control. Of course, if an Islamist with the talents of an Erdogan emerges on the Egyptian scene, the SCAF may find itself as outmaneuvered as, much to their dismay, have been the Turkish generals.

No two Arab countries are alike. Perhaps in contrast to Egypt, the prospects for Tunisia retaining its moderate pro-Western stance remain good, despite the Islamist Ennahda Party’s leading that country’s coalition government. One test of where Tunisia is heading will be the treatment of its small (1800 souls) Jewish community, which has lived in that country for thousands of years and has been carefully protected by the military since Tunisia’s independence from France. While Tunis has no formal relations with Israel, the government has permitted Tunisian Jews to visit their relatives there. Travel to Israel is the canary in the Tunisian coal mine; should it be banned, it can be expected that the Islamists will bare their teeth in other ways. That they are in a coalition with liberals is no guarantee of future moderation; Czechoslovakia’s Communists were in a coalition with liberals from 1945-48 before they formally brought that country behind Stalin’s iron curtain.

Libya has been another poster child of the Arab Spring. Again, in terms of achieving liberal values there is less than meets the eye. Militias abound, Islamists are active, tribal and regional rivalries remain as sharp as ever. The Libyan story is far from over, despite NATO’s having declared "mission accomplished."

And then there is Syria. The country is plunging into civil war, to the point where even the stolid Arab League has had enough of Bashar al-Assad (who declares that he hasn’t ordered the killing of anyone; it’s the Army that seems to be acting on its own). With Christians generally siding with the ruling Alawis out of fear of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover; with Kurds wary of any outcome that reduces their own prospects; with Turkey, with its "neighborhood policy" bankrupt, fearful of more Kurdish terror should Syria suffer from all-out sectarian warfare; and with Iran continuing to back Assad, "spring" is not exactly the description that seems most apt for the situation in Syria.

In addition, one should not forget that President Obama’s so-called democratic ally, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, not only has refused to back the Arab League’s suspension and sanctions of, Syria, but has continued to expand economic ties with Damascus. Moreover, it is asserted in some Middle Eastern quarters that Iraq is actively supporting Assad by permitting military supplies to enter Syria from its territory. Given that Maliki has retained the defense and interior ministry portfolios; seems bent on repressing any Sunnis dare oppose him; and while stoutly declaring Iraq’s independence from Iran, has done nothing to diminish Iranian influence in his country, one may legitimately wonder how Iraq fits into the construct of the Arab Spring.

There have been demonstrations elsewhere in the Arab world-from Morocco to Yemen-but actual changes of government are another matter. At one extreme, the popular King Mohammed VI of Morocco has changed the constitution to give more power to political parties-as in Tunisia, moderate Islamists have formed a government-but has retained control over national security and foreign policy, and, equally important, remains at the apex of the state’s religious hierarchy. At the other extreme, Ali Abdulla Saleh continues to buy time in Yemen. An extended stay in Saudi Arabia did not bring down his government.

The traditional monarchies in the Gulf remain stable. Bahrain is the notable exception. The government’s Sh’ia opponents appear to be encouraged by Hezbollah, acting as Iran’s agent, since Tehran recognizes that Arab Sh’ia will resonate more with their Lebanese cousins than with Persian big brothers. Washington should be wary about pressuring Manama; it is not merely a matter of Bahrain’s importance to America’s strategic posture in the region. It is also an issue of American credibility. It is not only the Saudis who believe that America threw Hosni Mubarak under the bus after having done the same to Pervez Musharraf, and, for that matter, the Shah of Iran.

At the end of the day, there clearly is no Middle East-wide Arab Spring. Indeed, there may not be an Arab Spring at all. Not a single Arab state is being led by the kind of secular liberals that Washington favors, and the cloud of Islamism hangs over the entire region. Whether the Arab Spring will lead directly into winter remains unclear, but Washington and its allies, including its Arab allies, have every good reason to worry that it might.