Steven A. Cook: After the Arab Spring





[Steven A. Cook is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book on Egyptian politics will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.]

...Perhaps we are witnessing the "birth pangs of the new Middle East" in the words of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After all, countries in Europe that experienced revolutions of 1848 went through phases in which counterrevolutionary forces were successful, but democracy ultimately prevailed. History often provides insights that are hard to see during the present crisis, but it is not a roadmap for the future. It does not seem likely that the countries of the contemporary Middle East will follow the same path of mid-19th-century France. The defenders of the status quo will use everything from bribery to violence in an effort to try to roll back the demands for political change. These regimes are amplifying uncertainty and sowing general instability -- even if, in the end, they prove unsuccessful. Both oppositions and elites will risk fracturing under the pressure as different groups with different interests and different levels willingness to accept concession and compromise seek political advantage. Factions of revolutionaries may ultimately determine that non-violent resistance can only get them so far, and choose to take up arms in an effort to force change on unwilling elites. This kind of scenario plays directly into the hands of counterrevolutionary forces.

It seems likely that states in the Middle East and North Africa could divide into three camps. The first, composed of Jordan, Morocco, and the small Gulf states, will do whatever they can to insulate themselves from the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary fray. In the second, Egypt and Tunisia will struggle to realize their revolutionary promise and ideals while resisting the counterrevolutionary forces of the old regimes. And, finally, there is the consortium of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen (if President Saleh somehow manages to hold on), Algeria, Bahrain, and even an outlaw Libya, that all work -- not necessarily in concert --to contain and rollback democratic change. There have always been fissures and schisms among the Arab states, but never along these issues and alignments. The Middle East's two heavyweights -- revolutionary, struggling-to-be-democratic Egypt and status quo Saudi Arabia -- are likely to find one other at odds on a range of important issues including Hamas, Iran, Hizballah, and political change around the region. It is also possible that Egyptians, empowered by their revolution, will seek to support democracy activists elsewhere in the region. Many have already crossed the Libyan border in aid of the rebels there. Could they next turn their attention to, for example, Syria? Tunisians might seek to do the same in Algeria and Libya. This is not likely to sit well in Damascus, Algiers, and Tripoli, which would see regional democracy activists, and perhaps democracies themselves, as existential threats. One can imagine, in this way, the development of a divided, contested, and destabilized region....


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