For those of us who viewed the Arab Awakenings more as the Arab world’s 1848 than its 1989—if we can indeed draw parallels between the Middle East and Europe’s various revolutionary upheavals—this recent (and probably final) act of the Arab Spring is not so surprising. Recent events have shown that without strong, diverse institutions and a durable, diverse, fluid civil society, these states could become dominated by new, undemocratic actors and movements, or could quickly fall back into the iron grip of authoritarianism. With these nations’ economies in critical failure and their people unemployed, unhappy and on the streets, time has always been an enemy for the newly elected leaders who have inherited the consequences of their predecessors’ mismanagement. Although high expectations put these new leaders under pressure to deliver quick results, in reality, successful economic reform and democratic transitions take years, not months.
Few commentators and analysts expected that the old authoritarianism counter-currents could so quickly assert themselves in the transitional states. But from Egypt to Syria, the battered, corrupt institutions of old and the elites who lost the most from the changes in their societies since 2011 have reasserted themselves, seeking to reclaim their old power and privileges. At the same time, the secular and liberal leaders who felt the most threatened by their political Islamist competitors have embraced these counter-revolutionary forces in the naïve hope that these authoritarian institutions could somehow create a democratic process more favorable to them.
In the past few weeks, Egypt has been a particularly violent example of this new period in Arab politics. Egypt’s military junta overthrew the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s modern history and unleashed a campaign of state-sponsored violence and suppression targeting the Muslim Brotherhood and anyone who represented a potential challenge to their rule. While the Muslim Brothers have committed violent acts and extremists have attacked Coptic Churches in Egypt, Egypt’s military strongmen have chosen to employ violence and suppression over leading a substantive national dialogue that could bring Egyptians from all political spectrums together.
The military, an institution which was respected by all segments of Egypt’s population for its professionalism and ability to stay above the political fray, is now leading Egypt’s uncertain future while employing highly divisive tactics. Unable to contain the violence on the street and deepening the radicalization of the political spectrum in Egypt, the military will find it hard to extricate itself from Egypt’s unstable politics. With a number of political leaders in prison, it’s hard to see how Egypt’s military can genuinely begin a democratic dialogue and process without curtailing some its own tactics and newfound ambitions at this stage.
In the midst of these events, President Obama (focused on his domestic legacy, and other parts of the world) has shown very little interest in the region. He has preferred—much to the angst of his regional allies—to take the middle road, neither completely alienating the new forces in power nor accepting their new rule completely. This middle road has won him no real praise in the region and has deepened the impression that the United States both misunderstands the Middle East and has no interest in playing any leadership role in the region, despite all of the challenges and changes threatening American allies and US interests.
This disengagement and disinterest allows regional leaders to look away from Washington for real guidance, or to have no interest in receiving guidance from the US in the first place. One victim of the dark winter that lies in the future of the Middle East will be the US’s position in the region. President Obama’s current policy risks leaving his successor no opportunity for the US to play a leadership role in a changing Middle East.