By summertime, we will begin to see a new clarity in the Middle East. The old narratives — that American support for authoritarians undermined democratic awakenings; that Iraq was a catastrophe; that we need to reach out to totalitarian regimes like Iran, Libya, and Syria to ensure peace; that Israel continues to impede the future of the region — will, with the new unrest, be proven valid or invalid in a way impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago.
Questions to be answered: Will promised new plebiscites reflect a desire for constitutional government and human rights, or simply advance, in Hamas style, the illiberal prejudices of the masses?
Will the removal of authoritarians in Egypt and Tunisia, and perhaps a few in the Gulf, end roadblocks to better popular relations with the U.S., or sadly suggest that pro-Western strongmen were more liberal than their constituents?
Will popular resistance to a Gaddafi, Assad, or Ahmadinejad translate into pro-Westernism, given those leaders’ hatred of the U.S. and its allies, or will the reformers, in conspiratorial and Pavlovian fashion, manage to blame the U.S. for their own anti-American nightmares?
Will observers acknowledge that the current unrest really has little to do with Israel, or find a contortion that blames the Jews for their past realpolitik relations with leaders like Mubarak and the Jordanian monarchs?
Let us hope that we are not looking at the emergence of something akin to the insidious erosion of Turkish democracy by elected Islamist forces — or, worse, either a military regime that holds onto to power in hopes of finding a new Mubarak in its ranks after zeal dies down, or a careful aggrandizement to theocracy in the style of Khomeini between 1979 and 1981, characterized by simultaneous denials of any desire for religious government and progressive intimidation of and violence against secular idealists.
So far, the only two governments in the Middle East that are both popular and constitutional are in Israel and Iraq, the former a Westernized liberal society and formerly irreplaceable friend of the U.S., the latter an experiment in novel consensual government under the watchful eye of tens of thousands of U.S. troops.
In some quarters, it will be said of these protests that this was the Arabs’ moment to take destiny into their own hands and prove that both right-wing authoritarians and Islamist and statist totalitarians were aberrations, artifacts of Cold War rivalries, imposed by sinister foreign forces or resulting from uncharacteristic religious zealotry and intolerance in reaction to understandable provocations. That may be, or it may be that these awful governments — from Baathism to theocracy to seventh-century monarchy to lunatic Gaddafism to military dictatorship — were all pretty much reflective, in varying degrees depending on local histories, of the values and customs of the masses.
Should be an interesting spring and summer, as the Middle East either proves the doubters prescient or the optimists and idealists justified in their confidence.