Many people would like to believe Tom Friedman when he writes, as he did on Nov. 27, that the Arab Spring is truly going to move the Middle East into a new era.
Unfortunately the ongoing unrest and violence continue to raise more questions than answers. Only naive optimists expect stable democratic rule to emerge from this chaos.
Admittedly, something new and profound is occurring in the Arab world, but the intransient, authoritarian, and corrupt rulers are not likely to become benevolent despots, let alone the harbingers of a new world order. What is most troubling are the new series of questions that suggest a turn in the Arab world that defies all logic and tradition — in an extremely tradition-based society.
What is behind the Arab League’s decision to condemn Syria, one of its own members, for the first time and then to move for the imposition of economic sanctions? Did the Arab leaders truly expect Bashar al-Assad to jump immediately to their demand for Arab League observers and to acquiesce to a “peace process?” Why did the Arab leaders single out Syria and try to muscle into Assad’s problems? Are they more afraid than even Assad himself that the military will continue to mow down Syrian civilians and some new “colonel” in the Army will arise and say “that’s it, I’m taking over?” Were they more concerned that, even in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood is getting ready to try to move into power? Is the Arab League seeking to legitimate or discourage the West from intervening in Syria as it did in Libya?
Over a period of several weeks, the Arab League warned and then expelled Syria from membership, threatened and then agreed to economic sanctions. But to what end and how is it to be imposed and monitored? Will the sanctions be honored by Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon? Why ratchet up the pressure specifically on Syria?
Perhaps the most reasonable answer may be the simplest: the Saudis and the Gulf States want Assad to remain in power, but the bloody attacks on civilians have become a source of embarrassment. They might even be willing to facilitate restoring order in Syria with a multilateral Arab force. Such actions would prevent radical Islamic groups from taking over and prevent Syria from becoming a new beachhead in the Hizbullah/Iranian revolution. Sunni Arabs don’t want to see even more Shi’ite power in the northern flank of the region.
Meanwhile, the Arab League sees more danger in Egypt as it holds the first round of a three-part parliamentary election. In Egypt, the military leadership wants to avoid a power shift to Islamists or radical allies of Iran in Syria. The Saudi rulers fear that electoral victory for a too-powerful clergy could undermine their own two-faced regime, in which many of the ruling family behave one way in public and very differently in private or abroad. If the Muslim Brotherhood were to demand that power be wrested from the military, it is doubtful that the people in Tahrir Square would rise up as they did against the 30-year-old regime of Hosni Mubarak. A devastating bloodbath could ensue.
Nor is the West likely to intervene to save the military regime and the prospect of a civil war is low. Stability will not come to Egypt without the military and prospects for genuine democracy are virtually nil. If Egyptians decide to follow the Muslim Brotherhood, this too would not produce a supportive voice from the Saudis and their friends. The powerful Gulf leaders do not want democratic rule if for no other reason than it could heighten levels of expectations among their own stirring populations.
Ironically, the situation within the Arab family is getting so tense and complicated that they are no longer even willing to blame internal unrest on Israel or the West. This could change, especially if and when Iran truly goes nuclear. All bets will be off as to how far some of these rulers would be willing to go to protect themselves, join their brothers, or fight the infidels.