Arab Spring: the revolution has only just begun
The Middle East faces a long, bumpy and bloody ride as nations struggle to build a new order while battling internal factions and outside interference.
By Shashank Joshi
8:03PM GMT 28 Dec 2011
This year, the certitudes of the old Middle East dissolved with unseemly haste. A regional order frozen in place since the death of Egypt’s Colonel Nasser 40 years ago finally thawed. It produced a torrent of uprisings, coups, standoffs, civil wars, and an orgy of state-sponsored bloodletting. This was the earthquake; in 2012, prepare for the aftershocks. But revolution is not, and has never been, an event. It is a project, and one whose gestation spans not months, or even years, but decades.
The raw violence of the Arab awakening is uncomfortable for those of us accustomed to a different sort of revolution. This month, Vaclav Havel died. His was the era of the pure revolution. The dissolution of the Soviet empire in Europe, and Havel’s ascent to the Czech presidency, was tidier than we had any right to expect. It was the age of prison-to-presidency leaps by distinguished statesmen, not undignified rabbles. Today, we confront slow-burning revolutions of barbed wire and blood, not velvet.
In Egypt, the army began the year as saviour of the revolution; it ended it as tormentor. Soldiers who once milled around Tahrir Square, posing on tanks for photographs with revolutionaries, now batter their compatriots on the same stretch of pavement. It’s tempting to call this the uprising’s Thermidor – the term given to the French Revolution’s period of retreat. The French had their “Directory”, a five-man executive body to calm things down; the Egyptians have SCAF – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But there is no Egyptian Robespierre, and in 2012 it will be the army’s own reign of terror that needs curbing.
Egypt’s new parliament, dominated by the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, will be the arena of next year’s struggles. The army, desperate to lock its political and economic privileges into any new constitution, will try to bully and cajole the Islamists into creating a “managed democracy”. This seems clever. After all, the liberals have been wiped out. The Brotherhood are keen not to rock the boat. And many Egyptians are fed up with protests. But it won’t work. The Brotherhood may be illiberal and cautious, but they’re not stupid. They will eventually use their new mandate to squeeze out the army, resulting in another wave of violence. This is the protection racket: it’s us, or chaos.
In the summer, barring a civil war, Egypt will elect a new president. Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League, could be propelled to victory. Moussa is slick, pragmatic and opportunistic – think Blair, not Havel. But, as the president takes office, Egypt’s perilous economy will catch up with its politics. Ballooning debt, dangerously thin foreign exchange reserves, and stagnating growth will produce a fresh crisis. Egyptians, exhausted by permanent revolution, will be ruled by a state in a four-way standoff, pitting protesters, parliament, presidency and generals against each other. This is the way the revolution ends: not with a bang but a whimper – for now.
Egypt is haunted by the ghosts of its future. Will it become Turkey – a muted political Islam, a chastened military, and a flawed but functional democracy? Or Pakistan – a praetorian state, beset by violence and hollowed out by its self-appointed military guardians?
Syria, by contrast, is haunted by the ghosts of the past – not its own, but those of its neighbours Lebanon and Iraq, each of whom bears the scars of debilitating and bitterly sectarian civil wars. All through the beginning of next year, swathes of Syrian territory will slip out of government hands. The Free Syrian Army, a collection of defectors hosted by Turkey, will mount increasingly spectacular attacks at the heart of the regime. Britain may be among the countries quietly extending its help. By the summer, the rebels could be engaging in controversial political assassinations.
And whereas Libya and Egypt are homogeneous – mostly Sunni – countries, Syria is a multi-ethnic powder keg. The tiny Alawite sect rules over Sunni, Shia, Druze, Christian and Kurd. Sectarian fears are being stoked by the regime. If these spiral out of control, the insurrection will fragment and result in waves of ethnic cleansing reminiscent of Iraq’s darkest days in 2007. The Syrian economy, hit by oil embargoes and drained of tourism, will contract drastically. Big cities such as Damascus and Aleppo will convulse.
Can international intervention break the impasse? Probably not. As long as Russia and China refuse to withdraw their diplomatic shield over Syria, the outside world has limited options. European members of Nato will have their own economic disintegration to worry about. Even if the Arab League imposes harsher sanctions, no one will have the appetite to police them aggressively. Smuggling networks will mushroom across the Lebanese and Jordanian borders, and Syria will become awash with weaponry. Iran, which sees the Assad regime as its anchor in the Arab world, will funnel in arms, intelligence and advisers.
Through 2012, Bashar al-Assad could be ruling over a rump Syrian state, buttressed by Iran’s revolutionary guard and Hezbollah’s thugs. Neither regime nor revolutionaries has the strength to shatter the other. Almost 30 years ago, Assad’s father slaughtered as many as 40,000 citizens in the Syrian city of Hama. By the end of next year, his son may have matched that record.
Next door to Syria, Iran will eye another opportunity. By January, there will be more American forces in tiny Djibouti than in all Iraq. The government of Nouri al-Maliki is a squalid postscript to an unloved war. Maliki’s rule will grow ever more authoritarian, and his country will drift deeper into Tehran’s orbit. Saudi Arabia – protector of the Arab-Sunni order against Persian-Shia incursions – will hit back. Bahrain, where a Sunni minority has brutally squelched a pro-democracy uprising, will be one of the playgrounds of this rivalry. The beleaguered Shia opposition there, long accused of being nothing more than Iranian stooges, will become progressively more radicalised. The US and Britain may come to regret their feeble stance and continued arms sales.
Within Iran, as the problem of succession looms closer, Supreme Leader Khamenei will begin empowering his son Mojtaba – a hardline cleric who may have overseen the assault on the British embassy. The regime is unlikely to build or test nuclear weapons in 2012 – it may not even have decided whether to do so at all – but it will keep its enrichment programme deliberately shrouded in ambiguity. President Obama, under pressure from Republicans during election season, and desperate to avert a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran, will hew to the present combination of sanctions and covert warfare. Expect more mysterious explosions at nuclear facilities.
In 1990, scarcely months after leading his country’s revolution, Vaclav Havel observed: “If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become President.” But for the Arabs, these are ad-libbed revolutions. Those who expect the choreography to come together next year will be disappointed. This takes time. The new Turkey took decades to grind down its coup-addled military. Britain took 96 years to go from the Great Reform Act to universal suffrage. Egypt has had less than a year. Vive la révolution – but all in good time.