The Arab Spring, which has been raging in the Middle East for two years, has swept away seemingly irremovable regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. In Syria, where the Ba’athist leadership has preserved its bond with the armed forces and law enforcement agencies, the civil war is escalating with unclear prospects for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In terms of the democratic transformation of the region, during the past two years of the Arab Spring more has been done than in the entire history of the independent existence of Middle Eastern countries. However, the process is not yet complete: democratic change has affected the core of the Arab world and stopped in its periphery – at the borders of the traditionalist monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which are attempting to bribe their way out of long overdue transformations. Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria are immune to “twitter revolutions,” as they had earlier undergone (albeit with varying degree of success) the cycle of modernization, including foreign interventions and civil wars. The monarchies of Morocco and Jordan are adapting, with sufficient flexibility, to the imperatives of the day, and are continuing to make concessions to the opposition. Yet on the whole, the impression of the region is not that of a decisive pivot towards democracy, nor that of integration into global modernization processes.
In addition, the Arab Spring, having begun as a “twitter revolution” of the middle class, has handed power to conservative Islamic forces, from fundamentalist to extremist factions, some of which march under theocratic slogans. The regimes that passed into political obscurity were predictable; they knew and obeyed the rules of the game, not stepping over the “red lines” which determine regional stability. The political positions of the new Islamic elite are rather vague.
In this situation the important question is: Will the Middle East remain a balanced regional system, able to collectively comprehend and defend common interests while staying congruent with global development imperatives? On one hand, the Arab League and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) supported Western armed intervention in Libya, and is taking a similar position on Syria; on the other hand, regime change in the course of the Arab Spring has heightened ethnic and religious antagonisms as radical Islamists enter the political scene. The gap between Sunnis and Shi’ites is widening. It is difficult to know where the interfaith disputes will end and start (with the involvement of extra-regional actors) a struggle for territories, oil, and control over energy supply routes. In a word, the time has come to consider the options, to look for parallels in global experience, and to probe the obvious and hidden implications of the processes occurring in the Middle East.
Within a geopolitical context, the Arab Spring is the second “passionary” (to use Lev Gumilev’s term) shift in the last fifty years in the Middle East. The first shift, which occurred on the wave of the collapse of the colonial system in the 1950s and 1960s, brought Arab nationalists to power in the leading countries of the region. In general, they successfully used the confrontation between the two superpowers to reach their post-colonial development goals.
In the subsequent political evolution of the Middle East three cycles can be observed, each lasting approximately 20 years. The first cycle (which, for the purposes of discussion, began with the 1952 revolution in Egypt) saw a greater part of the Arab world coming under the influence of the Soviet bloc, which provided considerable financial and technological assistance to industrializing Arab states (Egypt under Nasser, Syria, Algeria). The Soviet Union supported the Arabs and the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel, and was the main supplier of weaponry. The Middle East became the staging area for the military and strategic confrontation between the Soviet Union and the U.S., which was occurring over the heads of the regional powers.
The situation began to change radically in the early 1970s at the start of the second cycle, when the Soviet Union lost the first technological round in the modernization contest (in “powder technologies”) to the West. Then the Soviet Union failed to rationally use the abrupt spike in oil prices (which, in essence, was the result of Soviet policies in the Arab-Israeli conflict) to overcome its lag in computer technology.
As a consequence, Moscow gradually lost the initiative in the global competition of the two socio-political systems. This process culminated (though not to date fully acknowledged) at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975 in Helsinki. One of its results was that the Soviet Union, exhausted by the arms race, ceded its function as a guarantor of postwar borders in Europe to the European community represented by the OSCE and made substantial concessions in the human rights sphere. It is unlikely that the Soviet leadership, which viewed the Helsinki Declaration as its own victory (since it guaranteed Poland’s western border along the Oder-Neisse line), could imagine the geopolitical consequences that this act would shortly create. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia became possible (from an international legal perspective) only “under the umbrella” of the Helsinki Accords.
In the regional picture, Moscow’s geopolitical retreat displayed an intermittent, uneven character. The West effectively used the inherent contradiction of later-day Soviet policy, between the ideologeme of anti-imperialist struggle and its desire to come to terms with a strategic adversary, to assure victory in the Cold War. Afghanistan, Angola, and Mozambique became tragic landmarks on the path to the geopolitical disaster of 1991.
In the Middle East, the growing inconsistency of the “elder brother’s” political conduct was seen as the main cause of the existing situation of “neither war nor peace” with Israel. The “negotiated draw” in the Yom Kippur war with Israel (in the sense that it launched Henry Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy”) was used by Anwar Sadat to re-orient Egypt’s foreign policy towards the U.S. and to sign the 1978 Camp David peace accords with Israel. The Camp David accords triggered a return swing of the Arab policy pendulum towards the West, which, so it emerged, controlled more significant and attractive resources to support modernization. The process slowly developed, with noticeable rollbacks caused by relapses of residual radicalism and mutual mistrust of the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Largely for this reason, the period after the disintegration of the Soviet Union (or the third 20-year cycle) became a time of lost opportunities for the Middle East. The chances for a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict offered by the Madrid Peace Conference formula and by the Oslo process failed to materialize, and the implementation of “the Road Map” almost immediately slid to a halt. By and large, Arab elites were late with reforms and failed to adapt in a timely manner to the political and democratic changes occurring around the globe.
The Arab world found itself on the sidelines of history, and dangerously close to the geopolitical rift between an expanding Europe and an Asia transforming into an influential economic and political player, with rapidly rising China and India at its helm. The “civilizational rift” between Europe and Asia formed a “triangle of instability” of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where, by virtue of the logic of global processes, there concentrated global risks connected to the spread of nuclear weapons and the threat of terrorism. For the foreseeable future, the region will remain a vulnerable point of Euro-Atlantic security, its “soft underbelly” in Churchill’s terms. If so, in geopolitical significance, the Greater Middle East is functionally becoming the Balkans of the interwar period, with a corresponding increase of its role in the global environment.
This circumstance largely determined the scope and radical character of the second passionary shift labeled the “Arab Spring,” which roused the region in 2011. Having begun as a social protest against authoritarian rulers, it transformed in Syria, a relatively successful country according to basic economic indicators, into something fundamentally different. The ongoing events in Syria increasingly resemble a battle on the Iranian borderlands or, if viewed broadly, on the forefront of a new “Eastern frontier” emerging as a geopolitical partition dividing the West from the East. Control over the activities on this frontier will, to a large degree, define the nature of the geopolitical struggle in the 21st century.
The subtexts of the Arab Spring defined the reaction of external players to it. For Americans, who without hesitation laid their established regional allies on the altar of democracy, the defining moment was the correspondence of the “twitter revolutions” in the Arab world to the geopolitical essence – rather than its democratic pathos – of Barack Obama’s policy speech in Cairo. It can be reduced to the incorporation of the Greater Middle East into the White House’s own idea of a multi-polar world under U.S. leadership. Fulfillment of this goal acquired special significance in the pre-election battle with Republicans, as it contrasted advantageously with their blunt schemes of territorial repartitioning of the problematic region in the spirit of the good old ideas of Woodrow Wilson.
It is difficult to say to what degree Washington might have predicted the rise to power of Islamists in leading Arab countries. One can surmise that a role has been played by the old American connections, since the time of the Afghanistan war, to moderate and not-so-moderate Islamist factions. The anti-Communism of Muslim radicals of the Cold War era seemed to guarantee their conformity with the Western value system. Life, however, once again differed from our expectations of it. Young “Green” democracies in the Arab world quickly revealed that they possess their own agendas, which do not necessarily comply with the calculations of U.S. political theorists. The September 2012 assaults on U.S. diplomatic missions that swept across the entire Islamic world and caused alarm in Europe and even Australia, and the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Tripoli indicated a generally disturbing pattern.
There is a grim symbolism in the fact that the anti-American protests began on 11 September 2012, the eleventh anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York City. Especially intriguing were the fierceness and scale of the mass protests in the defense of Islam, which clearly were disproportionate to the trigger event: a hastily plotted amateurish film that exploded on social networks in the Muslim world. Is it a mutation of the Arab Spring virus that makes victims of both foes and yesterday’s friends, or is it a demonstration of power skillfully orchestrated by extremists?
In all probability, it is both. A third option is also possible. Virtual space generates too many conflicts of a similar type in different countries: Pussy Riot in Russia, the Innocence of Muslims, French cartoons featuring the Prophet. These are the worst type of conflict – collisions not of ideas, but of their reflections and clichés (viral strains) implanted into mass consciousness. It would seem that the issue is viral social network technologies that infest society with different types of fundamentalism. Moreover, it is difficult to say which mutation – liberal or Islamist – is more dangerous.
Western meandering in the labyrinths of multiculturalism does not simplify the situation. While urging opponents to display tolerance, the West ignores that it imposes on them its own values, which have never coincided with Eastern ethics, and are far removed from traditional understanding of Christian morality. Demonstrating disinclination or inability to curb its own democratic fundamentalists, the West, according to its reaction to the September popular protests in Islamic countries, simply does not comprehend what kind of genie has been let out of the bottle.
The cost of the issue is worth considering: on the wave of re-insurgent protesting moods alongside moderate Islamists and the army, a third force surfaces in Middle Eastern political life. It is Islamic extremist groups fused by one ideology and acting as a well-organized force. They rely on the moods of “the Arab street,” i.e., a union of the urban poor, farmers on the verge of bankruptcy, lumpen jobless intellectuals, the lower-middle class, dervishes, and rural teachers. In short, those who took to the streets of Cairo, Tunis, and Benghazi in the first active phase of the Arab Spring.
Fundamentalist Sunni groups of the Salafi and Wahhabi sects, who for a long time remained in the shadow of the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood, possess considerable influence on these social strata, particularly after the “self-dispersal” of the leftist, Socialist alternative to capitalism in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. They have long experience with clandestine struggle and avoid frontal attacks – at least for now. Their target is not the democracy that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, but rather the system being promoted by the West of neoliberal views on family, women’s social status, and the problem of sexual minorities. Under slogans of returning to Sharia morality, they garnered about 30 percent of votes in the parliamentary election in Egypt, and their presence is more pronounced now in other countries of the Maghreb and Mashreq. These are the segments (as was shown by events in Libya) that show support for al-Qaeda.
The future for Salafists, who idealize a golden age of early Islam, is found in the past, and the West appears to them to be a disseminator of moral degradation. They considered the borders of Arab countries to be a legacy of the colonial era. Their agenda centers on the creation of the Ummah (or mother nation) on the basis of Sharia teachings. The further course of development will depend in considerable or, possibly, decisive degree on how openly and persistently they press this agenda.
To what degree the outlooks of moderate and radical Islamists will prove to be compatible will determine the outcome of the reciprocal adjustment process, now occurring within the new Arab elites. Having become Egypt’s President, Mohammed Morsi left the Muslim Brotherhood, expressed solidarity with the Western (and, to a larger extent, Saudi) position on Syria, issued appeasing statements towards Israel, and then acted as an efficient ceasefire mediator during the Israeli operation, Pillar of Cloud, in Gaza. Simultaneously, he pushed the military with surprising ease from power, although they remain a powerful force, a state within a state.
Only time will show how durable the Muslim Brotherhood’s positions are. Before the start, in late November 2012, of their rigid standoff with the judges and secularist groups of society, one would have gotten the impression that the pattern of future Egyptian policy would be defined within the Muslim Brotherhood-Army-Salafist triangle. But the public’s reaction to Morsi’s attempt to force the adoption of a new constitution has shown that the balance of forces in Egypt is as yet far from stable. The internal structure and ideology of the Brotherhood are far from a homogeneous force. The radicals among them, who belonged in the past to its paramilitary wing, are difficult to distinguish from the Salafists. Equally complex is the army’s composition, where the ranks of enlisted and junior officers come mostly from the Arab streets. Its role in the power hierarchy will depend on whether it remains a counterweight to the Islamists (the Turkish model) or, like in Pakistan, it becomes an object of Islamization itself.
Without going deep into these tricky issues, let us note that the Muslim Brotherhood will most probably work towards making Egypt’s state structure something of a mix between the de facto Shi’ite theocracy in Iran and the Turkish model of Demo-Islam of the Sunni type. In other words, it will ensure a slightly stronger role of religion than in Turkey and a slightly stronger role of the state than in Iran.
The configuration of power in Egypt and other Arab Spring countries will be impacted by the ability or inability of the Muslim Brotherhood to work out effective approaches to a plethora of socially explosive problems: food security, unemployment, demographic imbalances, etc. Their own resources will hardly be sufficient to decide these problems; the economy is disorganized and traditional sources of revenues, such as tourism, are questionable.
Yet in conditions of a growing global crisis and the aftermath of Afghanistan and Iraq, the forcible democratization of which largely incited this crisis, there are not sufficient opportunities for the West to prevent the descent of the regional situation into uncontrollable turmoil. Hence the emergence of collective formats of financial donations, such as the Deauville Partnership being implemented following the May 2011 G8 summit in Deauville, France. Through this project, allocations to Arab countries for “democratic transformation and economic modernization” have totaled $40 billion, which includes $20 billion from the IMF, and $10 billion each from the Persian Gulf countries and from the G8. However, the money has been allocated only until 2013; there will be difficulties with the further collection of donor resources.
If the constitutional crisis is passed without serious losses, then the social and economic situation may change for the better to the extent of the “maturation” of the new authorities and their integration into the market. However, the revolutionaries will have to be fed during the transitional period. Taking into account the shrinking capabilities of “internal sponsors” like the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf, an alternative begins to emerge of a financial and economic reorientation towards Asian economic giants, with corresponding geopolitical positioning. Demonstratively, practically the first official visit of President Morsi was to China.
With regards to foreign policy, the Muslim Brotherhood will most likely appear in the roles of successors and, in a certain sense, continuators of Arab nationalist ideas, with which they not only competed but also cooperated. Naturally, they will adapt these ideas to changing regional and global realities. At one time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in his work Egypt’s Liberation: the Philosophy of Revolution, formulated the concept of three concentric circles, the framework within which were conducted the foreign policy of Egypt and the policies of Arab nationalists in other countries of the region. The first small circle included countries of the Arab world, the second, broader circle held the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement (including the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries as its allies), and the third circle concerned global policy issues.
There are sufficient reasons to assume that the foreign policy positions of the Muslim Brotherhood will be formulated on a similar pattern. Its foundation will remain the elaboration of a pan-Arab position on a range of regional problems, foremost among them the Palestinian problem. The degree of radicalism will depend on whether the U.S. and Israel will agree to re-launch the Middle Eastern peace process on terms acceptable to Arabs and Palestinians. An increase of the role of pan-Arab organizations, primarily the Arab League, can be confidently predicted, possibly on the basis of a slightly amended Saudi peace initiative.
In the second circle, the Non-Aligned Movement, the principal foreign partner of Arab nationalists, will most likely also remain in that capacity for the Islamists (at the August summit in Tehran, Iran was elected chairman of the movement for the next three years). It can be presumed, however, that the Saudis will attempt to shift the emphasis to establishing closer ties with the Islamic world through support of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In any case, one should expect initiatives directed at increasing the role of Muslim countries in the new multipolar world system that is forming. Most illustrative is the speech made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the last session of the UN General Assembly, demanding radical reform of the UN Security Council through an expansion of the rights of the General Assembly. It is entirely possible that, should the UN further stall in self-reform, Muslim countries and leading Non-Aligned Movement states such as India, Brazil, and South Africa, may assume the role of gravediggers of the Yalta/Potsdam system.
In general, the Muslim Brotherhood will most likely formulate its global positions on the basis of pan-Arab and Muslim formats. Proof that this tendency is gaining momentum can be seen in consolidated Arab support at an early stage for a Palestinian Authority request to gain observer status in the UN. In a similar line is their joint position in support for an international conference planned for December 2012 in Helsinki on the nuclear-free status of the Middle East, the agenda of which includes Israel’s nuclear potential.
Naturally, the discussion here is not about trends, but the prerequisites for them. To what degree they will materialize is contingent on a range of factors: the ability of moderate Islamists to attenuate the influence of extremist organizations, the acuity of animosities within the current Arab world, the behavior of external players. Much will depend on how all parties involved will act concerning the pressing issues of the current Middle Eastern agenda. The three issues, in essence, are Syria, Iran, and the Palestinians.
To begin with Syria, the civil war in this key Arab country has gained the traits of a latent regional conflict. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar support the opposition of the Free Syrian Army, while Bashar al-Assad’s administration is supported by Iran (according to The Times of London, in the past two years Iran has invested more than $1 billion in Syria). In the sphere of involved external parties, the U.S. and the EU are siding with the Syrian opposition, while Russia and China are thwarting attempts to enclose Damascus in a ring of international isolation, tighten sanctions against it, and, eventually, create a reason for intervention.
Reacting to demands of mass protests, Assad changed the government, lifted the 48-year long national emergency, adopted a new constitution, and introduced more than 200 laws that rendered the nation’s political system considerably more democratic. The role of the Ba’ath party has been curtailed and the authority of the executive and legislative agencies has been redistributed. In May 2012, an election on a multiparty basis was held to the People’s Council, but the West did not recognize the results, presumably because all the same Ba’athists won. Of course, these steps were compulsory in the context of the fierce armed clashes that swept across the country. The Americans have defined the conditions under which they may intervene. It is understood that the main incentive, though unadvertised, is the policy of the “logistic encirclement” of Iran and its isolation from its allies in the Arab world (destruction of the ‘axis of evil’).
But what will come of the elimination of practically the last secular regime in the Middle East? With a sufficient degree of confidence it can be asserted, that the Assad regime will be replaced by a conglomerate of moderate and radical Islamists, as in other countries of the Arab Spring. The only exception is that Syrian members of the Muslim Brotherhood have experience in protracted and fierce combat engagements with the authorities in the 1980s. The period of Islamist transformation of the Middle East will then end. What consequences will it have for regional and global stability?
It is a rhetorical question. The best, and seemingly without alternative, method of external response to Syria’s problems is not to interfere, to give the sides an opportunity to sort out the difficult situation on their own, and to accept the outcome as a reality which must be considered. But the Turks and the Saudis supplying the Syrian opposition with weaponry and volunteers are so deeply entrenched in Syrian affairs that they cannot retreat. The overthrow of the Assad regime has become, for them and the West, a matter of prestige. At stake is also the issue of regional leadership, since Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and post-Assad Syria would reasonably advance to the leading roles in the rejuvenated region after, and if, Assad falls. Under certain circumstances, such a situation could be an alternative to the increasing threat of the Arab world’s consolidation “from below,” on a radical basis.
Clearly, it is not that simple. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is searching for ways to build broader regional alliances. Morsi made his first visits in the region to Riyadh and Tehran, while simultaneously suggesting that the settlement of the Syrian crisis be handled by an “Islamic quartet” of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran. It is understood that in today’s climate there are no apparent conditions for such a massive shift of reference. The Saudis do not only mistrust the Turks and see Iran as their main rival, but also have serious grievances with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members were deported from the kingdom after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The Iranians supported the Arab Spring everywhere except Syria, which has further complicated their relations with the Saudis and the Turks.
But who knows what the future will bring. The Arab Spring may present many more surprises for the world. One cannot eliminate the possibility of a political alliance between the Sunnis and Shi’ites, perhaps on the grounds of solidarity with the Palestinians. Anti-American street actions brought Sunni and Shi’ite radicals together in September 2012. This is not a likely scenario, but is still possible if no urgent steps are taken to draw the Israeli-Palestinian peace process out of deadlock.
There are some signs that individual politicians in Israel have begun to understand this situation. In mid-September 2012, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on the Israeli government to abandon the occupied West Bank (while maintaining large Jewish settlements and military presence in the Jordan River valley). Right now it is only a personal initiative of Barak, which is why it appeared during the run-up to the January 2013 early parliamentary election. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who spoke at the session of the UN General Assembly, reiterated Israel’s well-known stance of readiness to resume negotiations with the Palestinians without any preconditions (i.e. he effectively rejected Mahmoud Abbas’s demand to freeze the construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem during the talks). It is significant that Netanyahu has characterized the new positioning of forces in the Middle East as a “conflict between the Middle Ages and progress.” The theme of the democratic transformation of the region did not appear in his speech.
Such an approach to the matter reflects, rather than a dangerously simplified treatment of such a complex phenomenon as the Arab Spring, an absence of any realistic plan of action in Netanyahu’s cabinet. Two years ago Tel-Aviv deliberately torpedoed U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s efforts to resume, at Barack Obama’s request, Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Only after the start of the Arab Spring, which considerably complicated Israel’s regional positions, did it become clear how timely were the U.S. president’s efforts to link the task of democratization of the region with the progress of Middle Eastern reconciliation.
However, the chance was lost, principally because Israel sees Iran and its nuclear program as an absolute priority. Netanyahu regards the possibility of the “Ayatollah regime” obtaining nuclear weapons as an existential threat to the Israeli state. It must be acknowledged that a host of Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli declarations prove there is a good basis for it. The Arab Spring, accompanied by the large-scale coming to power of Islamists, has only amplified Israel’s apprehensions of Tehran.
The by-products of such apprehensions could be seen throughout August and a greater part of September, as Israel seethed with public debates of an unparalleled span and intensity on the nature of further actions towards Iran. Netanyahu and Barak, claiming that the Iranian nuclear program was approaching a “point of no return,” spoke out in favor of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities before the U.S. presidential election. A significant number of Israeli political and military elite, including the Chief of the General Staff and the heads of other armed and intelligence services, objected to Israel’s striking at Iran “on its own” without military coordination with and the political support of the U.S. Obama, however, categorically refused to support the bellicose plans of his strategic ally, saying there was still time for a political and diplomatic solution of the Iranian nuclear problem, while he also reiterated that the U.S. would not allow Iran to have a nuclear bomb.
It was not difficult to predict such an outcome, as Obama clearly did not need a regional conflict with vague results on the eve of the election. Nevertheless, Netanyahu, who is thoroughly familiar with American realities, took this risky step and systematically increased tensions around Iran over the course of two months.
Why? There were many reasons, though the principal one seems to be Israel’s understanding, when it found itself in the center of a regional tsunami, that the tendency towards radicalization of the Middle East revealed during the Arab Spring narrows the window of opportunities for active operations in Iran. With a careless action, the region could begin to act like a system with advanced mobilization capacities in the interests of Islamist factions and organizations.
Similarly, this understanding defined the subtext of Israel’s November armed operation in Gaza, including in particular its rapidity (compared with the previous Gaza War of 2008-2009). In the better scenario of further developments, a “draw” in the Pillar of Cloud operation may facilitate, by analogy to the Yom Kippur War, a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks, starting with territorial issues and later the entire range of problems about the final status.
The necessity of urgent steps in this direction was manifested in the reaction of European countries to the decision by Netanyahu’s cabinet to expand the construction of Jewish settlements in the critically important zones of the West Bank and in East Jerusalem in answer to the UN General Assembly’s support of the request by the Palestinian Authority to grant it observer-nation status in the UN. Among other things, the renewal of the Arab-Israeli peace process offers the most reliable, if not the only possible, path to prevent the radicalization of the region as a possible outcome of the Arab Spring.
AN ATTEMPT AT GENERALIZATION
The two years of the Arab Spring occurred at a time of a profound break in the old structures and ideas of the Middle East. This process is not yet complete neither horizontally (as the scope of the countries undergoing modernization will continue to expand), nor vertically (as the restructuring continues of state power in the countries of the victorious Arab Spring). New occurrences of civil uprising cannot be precluded across the entirety of the Arabic East, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, or, as the Arabs say, from the Ocean to the Gulf. It is possible that they would be less haphazard and more controllable, since they would involve not the overthrow of lifelong leaders and presidents, but the readjustment of already functioning forms of rule in the context of the Arab world’s collective search for a new identity.
And, if so, a natural question arises: to what extent will this readjustment and, more broadly, a model of democracy born of the Arab Spring with a clear Islamist component meet the requirements and expectations of the outside world? The characteristics of Arab democracy are determined by the realities of the Middle Eastern economy, politics, and way of life. In other words, the arrival of Islamists to power is not an anomaly, but a logical consequence of these realities, and the fact that it came as “an anticipated surprise” for the outside world changes nothing essential.
In its second part, the situation is more complex. Clearly, the Arab Spring does not satisfy all the expectations of the outside world, and yet the harmonization of interests is possible, provided there is a reciprocal movement towards creating a culture of inter-civilizational and inter-religious compromise. In this plan, Western countries should not only once more ponder their own votes in the Human Rights Council and in sessions of the UN General Assembly on draft resolutions declaring the impermissibility of the defamation of religions, but also look closely at Russia’s experience in reacting legislatively to insults to the feelings of believers and to the desecration of shrines. Otherwise, conflict situations akin to the September anti-American protests across the Islamic world will occasionally arise. In the East they are the idiosyncratic instinct of self-preservation, a civilizational identifier.
The first general conclusion is that the formation of a new Middle East as a rationally developing system compatible with global trends is possible only on the condition that the West accepts the emerging regional model of democracy and the subsequent adjustments of the existing system of monitoring democratic processes and human rights based on greater consideration of local specificity.
The second is that the cyclic periodicity in the process of social and political modernization of the Middle East discussed above indicates that the second passionary explosion in the Middle East, launched by the Arab Spring, considered with a long view, will last through the middle of the 21st century, and will include phases of growth, stabilization, and decay, as displayed in the period from 1952-2011.
In the initial, current phase it is reasonable for the external players to fashion their policies on the basis of the long-term strategic principles of this process, and not on changing political situations, like the Sunni/Shiite and Arab/Iranian clashes. Much less should they be based on their conventional ideas about how a new political map of the region should be drawn, in which the arc of ethnic instability in the region stretches from Western Sahara, to Iranian Azerbaijan, and to the Turkish province of Hatay, formerly the sanjak of Alexandretta. Many good intentions are buried in the minefields of separatism.
Third, there are two principal scenarios for the development of the situation in the Middle East. We can call them ‘à la Versailles’ (in analogy to the repartitioning of Europe after World War I) and ‘à la Westphalia’ (a reference to the Westphalia Peace Treaty of 1648). The first scenario concerns postwar settlement, specifically, the division of Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire, in which the lead was taken by external forces. The second scenario is a protracted and painful process of self-development of a democratic community of nation states.
The collapse of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, which started in the course of the Arab Spring, may become a new stage of a single democratic process. Following in the footsteps of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the Middle East may join a community of nations whose relations are built on shared values: democracy, respect for human rights, and the free market. It may not join if it does not sense a reciprocal movement and a readiness to play by shared rules on the side of other parties in the formation of a multipolar world. The crucial component is an unconditional respect for state sovereignty and a renunciation of attempts to supplant it with policies of political expediency. If Europe, the United States, and Russia summon enough common sense, political will, and responsibility, the situation in the Middle East will be, if not favorable, then bearable.
Finally, a reiteration of the crucial conditions: yesterday’s revolutionaries should be well fed and provided with jobs; Pastor Terry Jones should not decide to burn the Quran in public again or make a sequel to The Innocence of Muslims. Otherwise a prophetic statement, made by the Russian diplomat and philosopher Konstantin Leontyev at the very beginning of the 20th century on the eve of the Russian revolutions, should be remembered: “The most ominous weapon of a global revolution is the European philistine.”