This week’s U.N. General Assembly meetings gave pause to reappraise the Arab Spring of 2011. There is a general consensus that during the spring of 2011 there indeed was a spirit of change that swept through the Arab world. Whether it was truly a movement for democracy, or the institutionalization of a religious fundamentalist regime, or a military coup, a move toward a new alternative authoritarian regime, or some combination thereof is still not obvious. It is fair to say that 20 months later, it is still not clear where all the upheaval that continues in the Middle East is going. Perhaps that is why the events in Libya and Cairo a few weeks ago have shaken so many in the West. At this point there appear to be a number of very clear directions evolving in the Arab world, but which one will dominate remains to be seen.
Muslim fundamentalism is very much on the rise in the Middle East and indeed throughout the world. This is noticeable in the U.S. and throughout the West; but it manifests itself most visibly in the Middle East. The growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region–most clearly in Egypt–suggests that there are very real religious forces seeking to channel fundamentalism into political power. What is particularly noticeable is that a democratically elected President in Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, is determined to transform Egypt into a democratic state under Islam. (Whether these two concepts are even compatible is a problem that all religions face when they seek to function as a full liberal democracy.)
At the same time, militant radical Muslim groups generally affiliated with Al Qaeda have clearly spread their poisonous message throughout the Gulf and into the Magreb as well. Anti-regime forces, have supported and organized lethal attacks against Americans and their allies in the West. Like terrorists that Israel has been fighting against since the 1980’s and continue to threaten them today, so too do these militant radicals now seek to enhance their military aptitude. Al Qaeda, other militant Moslem groups, and suicide bombers represent the most dangerous force in the region.
Finally, the fact that Bashar al-Assad has remained in power after more than a year of a violent, rebellion in Syria is shocking. The brutal repression by his military suggests that the more conservative elements including the Kingdom in Saudi Arabia remain very much capable of causing an abundance of damage. While the authoritarian dictatorships and kingdoms may appear to be on the decline, they have by no means vanished from the map.
Continued growth of democracy necessitates economic opportunities, jobs, increased education, housing, and a public that believes it is progressing forward. Alternatively, the forces of radicalization and angry militancy will dominate and attract mob followings. It will also let Assad and the Saudi rulers believe that they can continue in power without responding to the change in the street.
The dilemma for the West is how to encourage positive political change without being seen as interfering. The film incident which sparked the riots in Libya and Egypt and throughout the Muslim world was not the fault of the West and certainly not of Israel–which of course was immediately blamed; but it demonstrated how far the awakening in the Arab world still must go. It will undoubtedly take years if there will truly be a new direction in the region and that will require much patience.