What is the most powerful force in the modern Middle East? (Hint: It’s not change)

It is not the narrative we had hoped for. It is certainly not the story line that would have been most uplifting. It is not even the scenario that seems most consistent with the course of centuries of human progress. But it is one we have to consider because with every passing day, it does ...

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images

It is not the narrative we had hoped for. It is certainly not the story line that would have been most uplifting. It is not even the scenario that seems most consistent with the course of centuries of human progress. But it is one we have to consider because with every passing day, it does seem the direction events are now headed.

Judging from developments throughout the Middle East, it seems quite possible that the primary outcome of the "Arab Spring" may be the reinforcing of the power of the old guard.

In Egypt, recent reports such as David Kirkpatrick's in the New York Times this weekend suggest that the military is working tirelessly to retain its traditionally dominant behind-the-scenes role in that country's political life even after any further reforms are implemented. In addition, political candidates -- like former foreign minister Amr Moussa -- with close ties to Hosni Mubarak's regime may fare well in upcoming elections.

It is not the narrative we had hoped for. It is certainly not the story line that would have been most uplifting. It is not even the scenario that seems most consistent with the course of centuries of human progress. But it is one we have to consider because with every passing day, it does seem the direction events are now headed.

Judging from developments throughout the Middle East, it seems quite possible that the primary outcome of the "Arab Spring" may be the reinforcing of the power of the old guard.

In Egypt, recent reports such as David Kirkpatrick’s in the New York Times this weekend suggest that the military is working tirelessly to retain its traditionally dominant behind-the-scenes role in that country’s political life even after any further reforms are implemented. In addition, political candidates — like former foreign minister Amr Moussa — with close ties to Hosni Mubarak’s regime may fare well in upcoming elections.

In Jordan, Yemen, and Tunisia, promises of reform have thus far outnumbered any substantial steps in that direction. (See, for a thoughtful analysis, my Carnegie colleague Marina Ottaway’s "Tunisia: The Revolution Is Over, Can Reform Continue?")

In Syria, while Bashar al-Assad regime has been weakened by protests, even weaker has been the international response to its brutality. The regime could well survive. Perhaps more importantly vis-à-vis the region at large, take how it has thus far faired compared with toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and the message to autocrats threatened in the future may be: strike hard, strike without mercy, the worst you will have to contend with from the rest of the planet is a flurry of diplomatic wrist-slaps. The fact that similar crackdowns in Iran and Bahrain were also effective only underscores the point.

In Bahrain, the formula is a little more pernicious. It suggests for regimes lucky enough to be located in the Gulf — because of the oil, because of America’s desire to contain Iran, because of old friendships — you can get away with virtually anything. See today’s article in the Independent titled "Poet jailed in protests claims she was beaten by Bahraini royal." It is a credible account of just one more ugly dimension of a protracted repressive episode that the United States and the rest of the world effectively chose to ignore … which in such cases is much the same thing as complicity.

Indeed, with the exception of the protracted, expensive, muddled Libya episode, as important to the current conditions in the region as the entrenched nature of elites has been the comparative passivity of the rest of the world. While some of this may be a byproduct of the natural tendency to be wary of the devils we don’t know — borne out perhaps in the drift of Egypt toward being a state run by the same old elites but this time with a considerably less constructive attitude toward Israel, for example — it still feeds the notion that the most powerful force in the Middle East is not new technologies, or religion, or demographics, but inertia.

This is not only bad for the aspirant millions of the region, but it does not bode well for future stability because while elites may retain their hold on power, the challenges they face are not likely to go away. Indeed, for all the reasons that brought uprisings to the fore this year, they are likely to continue to fester and be more difficult to handle.

Worse still, however, is that perhaps the only thing less dependable than a Middle East roiled by political upheaval is one that is not. History has repeatedly shown that among the few things the West can depend on from its allies in the region is duplicity — whether the issue is maintaining stable, affordable supplies of oil or combating terrorism. A particularly unsettling glimpse into this phenomenon pertaining to America’s most important and therefore possibly most dangerous Arab ally comes in the current issue of Vanity Fair. The article is titled "The Kingdom and the Towers," and despite the spottiness of the story it sketches out, it only further underscores the degree to which our thirst for Saudi oil has forced us to tolerate the intolerable from some among the al-Sauds and those close to them.

Since that thirst has not abated and won’t anytime soon and since the leading powers of the world are showing less rather than more cohesion among their views thanks to the entrance of emerging powers into the mix and the self-absorption caused by economic turmoil and weak multilateral institutions, the result is likely to be even less resolve in the near future to actively support needed reforms in the region. And given the power of the status quo within the region, that suggests that the unintended consequence of recently celebrated upheavals may ultimately send precisely the opposite message that many of us envisioned — that for the foreseeable future at least, the story of the region is likely to be one of hopes dashed or deferred.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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