Desert in Bloom: Momentous Changes Sweeping the Middle East

This will be my last entry for the year; I want to take this opportunity, then, to look back, as well as forward, and reflect on the extraordinary events that occurred this year.  It has long since become cliché to wax poetic about the momentous changes that are now sweeping the Middle East. That is not to say that these events are any less momentous than all the hype; I will try to avoid repeating it here, but forgive me if my enthusiasm shows through. The past 18 months have seen the ousting of Ben Ali, MubarakQaddafi, and Saleh, one way or another, and the explosion of popular uprisings that have not been seen in the Middle East in a long time. And although the Middle East has seen plenty of tumult in the modern period, it was previously dominated by anti-colonialism, nationalism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none of which turned out incredibly well. Now is the first time that popular movements, at least nominally clamoring for democracy, have ever really been seen as a credible alternative to authoritarianism.

Many observers outside activist movements have asked the question: Are we witnessing the birth pangs of liberal democracy? Or are we seeing just another transmogrification from one dictatorial regime to another — from a Shah to an Ayatollah?

It is worth keeping in mind that the French Revolution began in 1789, but the First Republic lasted only a short time before Napoleon and monarchy were reinstated. And even the republic’s early years were filled with Robespierre’s terror. It is said perhaps apocryphally, that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai remarked in the 1970s of the French Revolution’s legacy that it was “too early to tell.” If two centuries is not enough, then what folly are we committing to judge these revolutions in the results of two years?

Since I will not be writing over the summer, let me point out a few things that I will be watching for. First, on Monday, the Egyptian courts decided to uphold the ban on presidential candidates Khairat el-Shater  of the Muslim Brotherhood (who I wrote about last column), Salafist preacher Hazem Abu Ismail, Mubarak-era opposition politician Ayman Nour, and Mubarak’s head of intelligence services and vice president Omar Suleiman, among six others. This throws the race wide open, as these candidates were widely perceived to be the frontrunners. The reasons for these bans ranged from conviction money laundering under Mubarak rule (el- Shater), foreign citizenship of an immediate family member (Abu Ismail), to failure to receive enough petition signatures (Suleiman). There have been accusations that the judges, appointed under Mubarak, are playing politics, though the banning of Suleiman would suggest otherwise. Now, these are not important only in how they influence this current election, but also what they imply for the future of the rule of law among the country. If indeed judges establish a strong judicial independence, Egypt will be one step closer to democracy; this of course, hinges on the idea that precedent set is not only independence but judicial impartiality. More generally, in Egypt, I will be watching for a signal that the revolution will be completed by the transferring of power held by the military to the civilians. This will likely not be done magnanimously, and instead require protracted political and even re-revolutionary struggle, but if Egypt is to advance it must happen.

Second, I will be watching Syria. Though it seems like Assad and his regime have won the war of attrition, there still is the possibility of a turnaround for the opposition, made up of protesters and rebels. It remains unclear to what extent the international community will continue to intervene, or if the relentless news cycle will allow the conflict to fade into the past headlines like so many others.  Either way, Syria will be seeing a major shift. If Assad remains, there is no doubt he will work hard to consolidate what little legitimacy, power, and efficacy he has left. This could mean acting against opponents, or trying to unite the nation, but in any case it is unclear both what a restored Assad as well as a weak Assad would do, and this has implications for geopolitical stability. If Assad goes, then the question of who succeeds him is right now a misty cauldron of possibilities, and there is no predicting with any accuracy. Finally, regardless of what happens, I will be watching which players intervene in Syria and how — Israel, Iran, Russia, the United States, and the Gulf all of whom have huge stakes in this revolution and the resulting political upheaval.

Finally, that brings me to the greatest wildcard, perhaps, of all: Israel and Iran. If these two go to war, the consequences could be catastrophic. It seems likely that the escalating rhetoric is mere saber-rattling, but if it is not, it seems likely any conflict would happen this summer rather than later. Such a conflict has the potential to reorganize the balance of power in the Middle East, but again, it is unpredictable exactly how and in what way.

In any case, to fail in promise to avoid those misty-eyed meditations, it is clear that these have been some of the most eventful months in recent history. On a personal note, I was told to think that I would never see the day when the Arab peoples revolted for their freedoms and dignities, demanding popular freedom, yet here we are. These changes have been deeply moving, and even if the outcome I hope for — liberal, tolerant, secular societies that pluralistically ignite the engine of economic growth and restore at least a modicum of glory to these formerly great places— does not occur, they have been a testament to the potential for change.