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The remaking of the Middle East

by Shlomo Avineri

The Middle East’s descent into extreme violence — with mass killings of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in Cairo followed closely by Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war — has dashed the hopes raised by the Arab Spring in 2011. The question now — and in terms of the future — is how to account for what is shaping up to be a profound historical failure.

In the 1990s, when communist regimes collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe, and dictators fell in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, the Arab world stood out for its lack of popular, anti-authoritarian movements and developments. And, while the “Arab Spring” demonstrations in 2011 brought down or seriously challenged dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, the result has been instability, violence, and civil war, not democratization. Why?

The Arab Spring did not affect all 22 Arab countries equally. The regimes that were brought down, or challenged, were military dictatorships cloaked in republican garb. None of the dynastic monarchies, some of them far more repressive (like Saudi Arabia) were confronted by serious popular challenges, with the exception of small Bahrain, owing to a sectarian divide between its Shiite majority and Sunni rulers.

The reasons seem obvious: The military regimes lacked legitimacy and were ultimately based on force and intimidation, while the monarchical dynasties seem to be anchored in history, tradition and religion. In Morocco and Jordan, the king is considered a descendant of the Prophet, and Saudi Arabia’s king is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most sacred sites.

Yet, while the crowds of young people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere in 2011 created the image of an overwhelming constituency for democracy and modernity, a deeper reality soon became clear. Mass mobilization to bring down a dictator is one thing; building democratic institutions is quite another.

With the fall of the dictatorship, attention focused naturally on elections. But, as post-1989 developments in former communist countries have shown, elections are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for democratic consolidation. Where there were traditions of civil society, pluralism, tolerance, independent civic institutions, and the ability to develop a coherent multi-party system — for example, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — transitions to democracy succeeded; where these traditions did not exist, as in Russia and Ukraine, neo-authoritarian regimes took over.

Cairo was, in fact, more like Moscow than Prague. Most of Egypt’s 85 million people did not demonstrate in Tahrir; most do not own mobile phones (many lack electricity and running water); and almost half of the country’s women are illiterate. When elections did take place — parliamentary and presidential — liberal, secular candidates were easily defeated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had spent decades building an effective network of social and educational services.

As President Mohamed Morsi’s regime proved, the Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy was limited to its majoritarian features: rights for women and minorities (especially Coptic Christians), like human rights in general, were not part of the agenda to “Brotherize” Egypt. As a result, much of the secular and liberal elite, having spearheaded the anti-Mubarak revolution, turned against the democratically elected Morsi and supported the military putsch in July.

With Egypt’s two most powerful institutions being the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, the chances for liberal democracy are slim. Moreover, the army wields enormous economic and social power. Since Muhammad Ali’s leadership in the 19th century, the army has been identified with modernization, progress, and secularization — a bearer of national identity that has ruled the country for the last 60 years.

Yet the army, despite its apparently successful suppression of the Brotherhood, will ultimately be unable to rule alone. The best outcome may be some sort of cohabitation between the military and more moderate Islamist groups.

Syria’s civil war, with all its horrors, highlights a different dilemma. The conflict there is no mere democratic revolt against a murderous regime. It is a rebellion by the Sunni majority against an Alawite-led minority regime backed by other minorities (including Christian and Druze) whose members now find themselves in the difficult position of supporting the regime, despite its oppressive nature.

The more sectarian the civil war becomes, the more obvious it is that the opposition to Assad is led by various Islamist militias, some of them connected to al-Qaida. The choice has become Assad’s vicious regime or a fundamentalist Islamist alternative — not oppression or freedom.

With the exception of Egypt, most Arab countries are modern creations. Their identities and borders were established by Western imperial powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The British-French Sykes-Picot Agreement established countries like Syria and Iraq as distinct states, without regard to history, geography and demography.

It is this state system, not merely regimes, that is unraveling. Iraq after Saddam Hussein is no longer the unified Arab country that it was; the Kurdish regional government in the north controls a de facto state, and the Shiite-Sunni divide may further destabilize the rump.

In Sudan, established by the British in the late 19th century, the non-Arab, mainly Christian South has already seceded. Its western Darfur region may eventually follow a similar route. In Libya (created by Italy in the 1910s), the deep regional divide between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica has impeded the formation of a coherent unified government. Yemen’s unity cannot be guaranteed, either.

What is happening in the Arab world is much more complex than an analogy to the revolutions of 1848. The entire Arab state system is being challenged and may be unraveling (as was true in parts of the post-communist world). Given the military, Islamist, and sectarian and tribal forces in play, new political configurations are unlikely to emerge for some time. Democracy, in all probability, will not be one of them.

Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, is a former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry. © Project Syndicate, 2013.