PRINCETON, N.J. — The Arab world has entered the most dramatic period in its modern history. Oppressive regimes are being swept away, as Arab people finally take their fate into their own hands.
The excitement of the moment, however, does not tell us what the future holds. At best, democracy is still off in the distance: The military still dominates in Egypt and Tunisia, tribal forces are on the rise in Libya and Yemen, and sectarian divides between Sunni and Shiites are likely to dominate politics in Bahrain, as they have in Iraq since 2003.
There is no single narrative that makes sense of this all. Regimes throughout the Middle East, the United States and European governments, as well as al-Qaida and other Islamist groups, are all struggling to understand what comes next.
Scholars of the region, like myself, are also recognizing that our understanding of Arab politics did not anticipate this wave of successful protest. Until the uprising in Tunisia, we thought that political change would be led either by Islamist forces or by a coup by a group of military officers — not by disorganized, youth-led masses.
The Middle East’s demographic youth bulge is well known, but no one predicted that its members would mobilize social media and cell phones to topple long-established dictators. The technologies of the Internet were thought to fragment societal forces rather than unite them in a common cause. And the regimes were considered to be too brutal, as we see tragically in Libya, to go down without a fight.
By its own admission, al-Qaida has been caught off guard, no doubt because the group’s central argument has been that the fall of oppressive Arab governments could come only through violence. In response to recent events, Ayman al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida’s second in command, released a tedious PowerPoint-like analysis of Egyptian constitutional law and political history.
Like Egypt’s now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak, al-Zarqawi’s tone was patronizing and condescending. If anything, the lecture underscored how out of touch al-Qaida’s senior leaders are with the spirit of the time.
A younger al-Qaida ideologue is more convincing, however. In a message dated Feb. 16, titled “The People’s Revolution and the Fall of the Corrupt Arab System: A New Beginning and the Shattering of the Idol of ‘Stability,’ ” a Libyan who goes by the name Atiyat Allah writes, “It is true that this revolution is not the ideal that we had desired. . . . [W]e hope that this is the first step to better times yet.”
Allah goes on to argue that these revolutions did more than just topple regimes like Mubarak’s. More important, they have destroyed the doctrine of “stability” that allowed the regimes and the West to exploit the region and provide security for Israel.
Admitting surprise at the speed of events, Allah advises al-Qaida groups to engage gently with the rising forces in these countries. Tactically, he argues, this is the only way for al-Qaida to achieve its ultimate goal of taking power.
Other al-Qaida thinkers have expressed admiration for the ability of young men like Wael Ghonim to mobilize thousands of his fellow Egyptians by conveying his sincere desire for change and love of country. There is certainly a degree of envy for what others have accomplished and a sense of desperation about how al-Qaida can capitalize on this change.
Unlike the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the current fighting in Libya presents al-Qaida with an opportunity to confirm its classic narrative about the importance of change through violence. More troubling still is that Libya’s violence reveals certain features of the Middle East that had been forgotten after the heady success in Tunis and Cairo.
Most clearly, political change will not occur in the same fashion across the diverse countries of the Arab world. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, which are largely homogeneous societies, Libya has important tribal cleavages, whereas Bahrain, Yemen and Syria are riven by sectarianism. In the absence of strong national institutions, change in these countries risks significant bloodshed.
In addition, the excessive violence in Libya might send the message to other peoples in the region that the cost of change is too high to pay, and that the relatively peaceful transitions seen in Egypt and Tunisia might not be replicable.
Finally, the chaos in Libya has shown how dependent the rest of the world is on the political fate of Middle Eastern societies. Should chaos of the kind witnessed in Libya occur in the Persian Gulf countries, for example, the world could literally come to a standstill, given the quantity of oil that they supply.
While unlikely anytime soon, this possibility should give everyone pause and spur us to find policies that will help Arabs find the political dignity and good governance they deserve through an ordered, peaceful process. The alternative is a world in which we remain hostage to the region’s pathologies, which provide ample opportunity for al-Qaida to reassert its narrative and influence.
Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. © 2011 Project Syndicate