Three years after the start of political upheaval across the region, transitional governments are struggling to maintain popular support amid rising sectarianism, poverty and violent extremism.
Of six Arab countries that have experienced revolts since late 2010, only tiny Tunisia and Yemen appear to be making fitful progress toward political pluralism. Libya is plagued by tribal and religious militia violence, Bahrain has suppressed its Shi’ite Muslim majority and Egypt has reverted to military dictatorship. Syria is the ultimate nightmare – a multifaceted civil war that is metastasizing into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, where terrorism and sectarianism is on the rise.
Even non-Arab Turkey, a NATO member and more established democracy that portrayed itself as a model for the changing Arab world, is reeling from popular protests, allegations of high-level corruption and infighting between rival Islamist-influenced groups.
While Syria presents the greatest immediate danger to regional stability because of its refugee outflow and jihadist allure, Egypt – the most populous and influential Arab state – is in some ways, the most worrisome.
It is painful to remember the euphoria in Cairo’s Tahrir Square three years ago when a wide spectrum of Egyptians gathered to demand the end of decades of authoritarian rule by president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak finally agreed to step down under a process managed by the military that led to the first free parliamentary and presidential elections in Egyptian history. But secular democratic forces long marginalized by Mubarak were unable to unite and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi eked out a slim victory in run-off elections for president in 2012.
“[Egypt's] future looks grim unless a way can be found to reintegrate Brotherhood followers into the political process and to isolate a hardline minority.” – Barbara Slavin
Morsi failed spectacularly to govern Egypt in an inclusive manner. However, the “coup-volution” that removed him last summer has also failed to restore social peace or prosperity. The military-backed transitional government now ruling the country has killed hundreds and arrested thousands in a sweeping crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Last week, the government declared the venerable organization, founded in 1928, a “terrorist group” in an extreme but pyrrhic attempt to expunge the brotherhood’s deep roots in Egyptian society.
While elections are scheduled in 2014 on a new, nominally democratic constitution, president and parliament, the exclusion of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the continued weakness of secular parties mean that the Egyptian “deep state” – led by army chief and likely next president Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sissi – will continue to dominate the country. A wave of arrests has forced Brotherhood followers underground to seethe quietly or join violent splinter groups. Terrorist bombings and assassinations are becoming all too common, spooking potential tourists and further depressing the economy and job creation. Ordinary Egyptians who have come to rely on the Brotherhood’s network of social services are also suffering. Egypt may muddle through for a while with the financial support of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, but its future looks grim unless a way can be found to reintegrate Brotherhood followers into the political process and to isolate a hardline minority.
Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and ambassador to the United States who is now vice president of the Carnegie Endowment, describes the upheaval that began in late 2010 in Tunisia as “the second Arab Awakening.” The first, Muasher notes in a new book by that title, started a century ago when Arab intellectuals questioned the control of their territories by the Ottoman Empire and sought independence from foreign rule. That movement failed to produce representative government as native autocrats replaced colonial ones. While it is too soon to conclude that this second wave will also fail, Muasher writes that success depends on the willingness of new governments to tolerate opposing political, religious and ethnic groups.
“Only when societies and their elected leaders truly embrace tolerance, diversity, the peaceful rotation of power and inclusive economic growth can the promise of a new Arab world be realized,” Muasher says.
Muasher writes that it will likely be decades before it is possible to judge whether the second Arab Awakening transformed the region in a positive direction or was just a blip between autocracies. Real change requires major reforms in the way Arab societies educate young people, Muasher says, instilling creative thinking in place of rote memorization and blind obedience to those in power. So far, however, those capable of independent thought too often wind up emigrating or behind bars. The recent dragnet that incarcerated the Brotherhood leadership is also scooping up young secular activists such as Ahmad Maher, co-founder of the April 6 movement that helped organize the 2011 revolt against Mubarak through social media.
Like Mubarak, the military regime now in control of Egypt appears determined to make sure that Egyptians are faced with a choice between an authoritarian status quo and chaos – i.e., no choice. The United States cannot force Egypt’s rulers to embrace political pluralism but U.S. officials should not pretend they are happy about the way things are turning out in such a pivotal nation.
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Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation," and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.