Where stands the Arab Spring? It may be more illuminating to regard it as the Arab Eruption, ripping fissures in the tyrannical bedrock of the Middle East and North Africa and releasing pressures that are right now enormously volatile. Nor is it strictly the Arabs who are involved. Uprisings have rocked the region, from the city streets of Iran to the tribal areas of North Africa. It is hugely compelling to sympathize with oppressed people risking their lives to dethrone their despots. It is also deeply dangerous, because the region is rife with terror-linked Islamist forces seeking to co-opt these uprisings — from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Iranian-backed terrorists of Hezbollah who have already hijacked Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution.
In landscapes such as this, what usually matters is the man with a plan and the resources to back him — whether a Vladimir Lenin, Ayatollah Khomeini, or George Washington. There are Islamists with plans galore, from the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, to the mullahs of Iran, to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and its terrorist brethren, such as Hamas. The democratic forces are unentrenched and far less well-organized. This is where American policy matters. So far, it has been volatile, with the U.S. abandoning Iran’s protesters in 2009; leading from behind to provide genocide-prevention services in Libya; and taking much longer to call for the resignation of Syria’s terror-sponsoring, bloody-handed Bashar al-Assad than that of Egypt’s now-deposed and relatively pro-U.S. Hosni Mubarak. Much now depends on whether the U.S. provides leadership in the Middle East — by promoting the interests of the free world, including those of its beleaguered democratic ally, Israel — or alternately stands by watching and following the crowd.
— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.
This summer, the Arab Spring is doing well — in fact, better than I had expected. Even if Qaddafi manages to do some more mischief, Libya is set to move on. As for Assad, he seems determined to implement his father’s policy of rule by mass killing. However, he, too, is sure to run out of options. The model of the Arab state based on the military-security axis has failed.
As far as democratization is concerned, the situation varies from country to country. Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria have the potential needed for such a shift. Libya does not. However, NATO’s deep involvement in Libya gives the Western powers a big say, which they could use in support of pluralist forces. Yemen has been a semi-democracy, in Arab terms, at least since the late 1990s and would also be able to move further in that direction. Ali Abdullah Saleh is unlikely to return from Saudi Arabia, at least not as president. The West should treat what is happening in the Arab world as something on par with what led to the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. This requires genuine commitment and a strategy to support democratic change.
I don’t expect the Western powers to mobilize the kind of resources they provided in support of Central and Eastern European nations throwing off the Soviet yoke. However, I think a similar effort, though on a more modest scale, could help Arabs emerge from their dark night of despotism and terror.
Of course, history is not written in advance, and the current Arab revolt may produce as disappointing a result as the first Arab revolt almost a century ago. Nevertheless, keeping my fingers crossed, I remain optimistic and expect other Arab despots to be toppled. We are witnessing a change of context as Arabs look for a new model of government to realize their hopes and aspirations.
— Amir Taheri’s forthcoming book is The Kingdom of Allah: The Struggle for Saudi Arabia.