Trying to make sense out of the Arab Spring after 16 months is not simple. Since it began in Tunisia in January 2011, the reports to date are certainly a very mixed bag. This is especially true in comparing where Egypt and Syria are today. Neither is on the verge of becoming a liberal Western democracy, but the changes in both countries are dramatic and perhaps sea-changing for the Middle East. Where once Egypt and Syria were part of the United Arab Republic, today they are rapidly moving in opposite directions. In addition, the implications for what is transpiring for the West, for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism are far from clear. In all likelihood it will take several years to unravel, but neither Syria nor Egypt will be the same.
The nature of the repression and the human tragedy that has been on-going in Syria is beyond imagination. The fact is that through March, the U.N. has confirmed that there have been over 9000 people killed in Syria (some other reports suggest up to 12,000), many of them women and children. Very few would have expected that the young educated ophthalmologist with a very fashionable young wife would rule his country with an even tougher fist than did his corrupt father Hafez al-Assad for 29 years. It is unimaginable that Bashar al-Assad would outdo his father in perpetrating brutality and horror against his own people for over 15 months defying all probable odds and expectations. He has flaunted not only Western efforts to try to alleviate the carnage but brazenly defied overtures for calm and restraint from Arab leaders, the non-aligned world, and the U.N. Of all the responses to those seeking openness and democratization in the Arab Spring Assad’s actions have been the most appalling and reactionary.
On the other side of the coin are the developments in Egypt. Regardless of the outcome of the run-off election between Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammed Morsi and Mubarak's last Prime Minister, Air Force Commander Ahmed Shafik, it is absolutely clear that Egypt is beginning to undergo dramatic change. Since the repression in Tahrir Square 15 months ago and the ouster of President Mubarak, Egypt has begun to move fitfully in a new direction. While the military generals clearly still hold the keys, there have been parliamentary elections, presidential debates, and a presidential election; and now a run-off scheduled for June 16th and 17th. The results of all of this activity may well still produce a military dictatorship with a veneer of popular elected leaders, but Egypt has experienced more popular participation and engagement in politics than it has ever seen before.
Although no one is expecting true democracy in the Arab world out of the Arab Spring, many people believe that the genie may have gotten out of the box in Egypt. Unlike Syria at the other extreme, Egypt is the one clear place where the Arab Spring may have changed thing–positively–forever.