Terms of Engagement

The Terrible Twos

Can Washington prevent the turbulent Arab Spring countries from going the way of the post-Soviet states?


We have reached the second anniversary of the Arab Spring, but no one is celebrating; the divisions inside the "post-revolutionary" countries of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have become so pronounced, and have provoked so much turbulence and violence, that a sense of grim foreboding has almost entirely eclipsed the giddy atmosphere of 2011. Optimism says that we are witnessing the inevitable birth pangs of democracy; pessimism says that the joyous scenes of two years ago will degenerate into yet deeper political and sectarian strife.

I have been trying to think about analogies that could offer some guidance for what the future holds. The obvious one is Eastern Europe after 1989 — there, too, millions of people flooded the streets to demand freedom, overwhelming the benumbed autocracies which had ruled over them. But the two situations resemble one another only in their birth: Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and the like had long traditions of liberal and even democratic rule, and shucked off communism as an alien and despised ideology. Moreover, Eastern Europe was pretty rich by global standards. A slightly closer analogy is Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s; but nations like Brazil and Argentina left behind military rule through "pacted" transitions in which political elites agreed to surrender their power, easing social tensions and creating consensus around democratic rule.

Larry Diamond, the democracy theorist at Stanford University, suggested to me that the most useful analogy is the post-Soviet space, where a dozen new nations with no prior experience of democratic rule left behind a hated system and struggled to create something new. This is not a particularly encouraging comparison. As Diamond points out in his 2008 book, The Spirit of Democracy, nine of those states are authoritarian while the other three — Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova — are "illiberal, even questionably democratic, and unstable."

Guarded optimism on the Arab Spring — if one can still use that inspirational term –consists of the recognition that societies deeply damaged by autocratic rule and economic failure take a generation to heal. It is still very early days. This is still my view. But the Soviet Union passed into history in 1991, and there’s precious little democratic light at the end of the Russian tunnel. Steven Sestanovich, a Russia scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that the crowds that filled the streets of Moscow in 1991 were every bit as large, passionate, and as filled with a sense of destiny as those in Tahrir Square. The old system felt just as discredited. But the democratic order created under Boris Yeltsin was simply too weak to curb the energies unleashed by the colossal scramble for wealth as Russia privatized its state-owned resources. Into the ensuing vacuum stepped a strongman, Vladimir Putin.

Egypt’s revolutionaries have begun to think of President Mohammed Morsy as their Putin, consolidating power and crushing dissent. But it’s much more likely, as Sestanovich observes, that Morsy will prove to be Egypt’s Yeltsin, presiding fecklessly over weak institutions and an increasingly fragmented polity. Yeltsin’s Russia resisted demands for market reform from the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Morsy’s government has spent months putting off an agreement with the IMF even as foreign exchange reserves dwindle down to a three-month supply. Morsy has been unable or unwilling to curb the hated security forces directed by the Interior Ministry, deepening the outrage at his high-handed political tactics. We should remember that Yeltsin was first seen as a bully, and only later as a weakling. Morsy’s own position is hardly secure; he may react to his growing unpopularity by becoming more autocratic, which will in turn provoke more protest.

Still, the post-Soviet space offers many different models. Kazakhstan’s oil wealth allows it to buy off protest, as the Gulf states have largely done. The Baltic nations have become fully incorporated into the West, as many Tunisians aspire to be. Ukraine and Georgia, for all their problems, have conducted fair elections in which the incumbent lost, and accepted his defeat. It’s not unreasonable to feel hopeful about them.

But here the analogy falters. The people of Ukraine and Georgia, and even more of the Baltics, and still more Eastern Europe, saw in the West — and in democracy — the salvation they sought from Soviet rule; nationalism predisposed them to democracy even where historical experience did not. Many people in the Arab world, by contrast, see Islam as the salvation from secular authoritarianism. Not only does nationalism not dictate democracy, but religious identity offers a powerful rival ideology to it, even if the two are not intrinsically incompatible. Even in Tunisia, a nation with one foot in the Mediterranean, the hardline Islamists known as Salafists have derailed what had appeared to be a rough social consensus around liberal constitutionalism. There are still good reasons to feel hopeful about Tunisia. But the question of identity will vex Arab societies much as the question of property did Russia; and only a deep commitment to pluralism will prevent resurgent Islam from splitting these countries apart.

My colleague Marc Lynch has recently challenged academics and policy experts to explain what the United States can actually do to strengthen democratic forces in Egypt. The post-Soviet experience may offer some useful lessons here. First, the United States can only be an anxious spectator on the most primal issues. In Power and Purpose, an analysis of American policy towards Russia after 1991, James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul (now ambassador in Moscow) conclude that, despite concerted efforts by President Bill Clinton,  Washington was able to do very little to influence Yeltsin. Even had Clinton been more willing to speak out in the face of Yeltsin’s democratic backsliding, they conclude, the United States probably lacked the leverage to move Russian policy. On the other hand, they add, "words do matter," and Clinton was far too constrained by the fear of losing Yeltsin as a partner on global or regional issues.

That is very much where President Barack Obama stands today with Egypt and Morsy. There’s nothing Obama can do to affect the likely Islamic cast of Egypt’s new constitution. But the White House’s reluctance to criticize Morsy after he played a very useful role brokering a truce between Israel and Hezbollah has made it that much easier for Egypt’s leader to follow his worst impulses. Obama seems to have pushed all his chips on Morsy, as Clinton did on Yeltsin — though the Egyptian leader’s secular rivals seem so feckless that it’s easy to understand Obama’s logic. The Clinton administration pushed a giant $22.8 billion package through the IMF for Russia, which Moscow promptly misused. That won’t happen with Egypt, which is now balking at the IMF’s conditions. But the Obama administration must adopt a less Morsy-centric policy. "You don’t try to pick winners," Larry Diamond says. "You defend the process." And Washington can’t issue blank checks, even though Egypt urgently needs financial help. At the very least, U.S. aid should be directed away from the military and towards security sector reform, as Congress is now considering.

The post-Soviet case reminds us that the long term really is long. The United States, Europe, and private actors made a real difference at the climactic moments of democratic upheaval in Georgia and Ukraine almost a decade ago, but now they have to engage in the slow and unglamorous process of training political parties, nurturing civil society, and giving economic advice as well as assistance. Defending the democratic process is an enterprise for the patient. It’s way, way too early to despair about the direction of Egypt or Libya, much less Tunisia. (It may not be too early in the case of Iraq.) It’s unlikely that any of them will wind up like Estonia — or, for that matter, Turkmenistan. But they’ve got a decent shot at Ukraine.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola