Why the Arab Spring jumped off the rails.
Impatient journalists and disappointed Washington officials shake their heads at the confusion, intolerance and violence that has followed the “Arab Spring.” They’re being naïve. Undoing the damage of 14 centuries of despotism, several centuries of economic decline and social repression, and a full century of failed Arab nationalism is going to take time. And none of the states involved in this series of revolts and waves of strife has any real tradition of democracy, meritocracy or impartial justice.
And that’s just the start.
It will be generations before we know the enduring results of the current upheavals, and it will be decades before any of the states involved – if those states continue to exist – can compete in a globalized system. The odds are that many won’t make it, but will continue to falter and foster radicalism.
Complicating these uprisings and civil wars is the fact that each is multi-sided and multi-layered. This isn’t Yankees and Rebels, or Cavaliers and Roundheads. Hundreds of interest groups are involved, often with irreconcilable agendas. Some seek to recapture a golden age, while others want to embrace a transformational future. Consider the following conflict layers at play in the bloodshed, mayhem and power grabs now unfolding:
Religious wars. Throughout the Arab world (and beyond), they’re a multi-sided struggle for the future of Islam. On a macro-level, it’s Sunni against Shia, an age-old conflict renewed. But the strife grows more complex within each branch of Islam. Extremists want to “purify” their faith and return repressive values. Others want to modernize and humanize Islam. Some just want religion to stop deforming their lives. In every ruptured state, secularists, moderates, hard-liners and fanatics wrestle in ever-shifting alliances. And minority faiths are persecuted.
Modernizers vs. the old regimes. Virtually all of these uprisings began as those excluded from a regime’s privileged circles demanded economic and social justice. The Baathist and other nationalist regimes had merely replaced emirs and beys in robes with bullies in Western suits or khaki uniforms. Millions of people were sick literally to death of societies in which connections always trumped talent and hard work, and in which bribes ruled the law. Aware of how the rest of the world had progressed, they demanded fairness. And women, the most oppressed of all, came out to demand basic rights.
Re-unionists. In Syria and Iraq, the fighting is not only between religious factions or rebels vs. the regime, but between Arabs, Kurds and other minorities, too. In Jordan, Bedouins face off with Palestinians. In North Africa, Arabs and Berbers tangle. The grossly dysfunctional, arbitrary borders left behind by European empires thrust peoples together who hate one another, while dividing peoples who feel they belong together. Those borders are going to change: Like will seek like. Looking just at Syria and Iraq, we’ll eventually see a larger, Sunni-dominated Syria that’s gobbled up western Iraq; a rump Shia Iraq under Iranian hegemony; and an independent Kurdistan – protected by (one of history’s great surprises) Turkey. Lebanon might become a refuge for Arab Christians and Alawites – or come apart.
Power brokers. Iran’s engaged in Syria. So are the Saudis and Gulf Arabs – on the other side. The United States blunders along, unable to make tough decisions, alienating all in the end. Moscow clings, for now, to Damascus. Tehran reaches out to Cairo. Israel watches every player, acting behind the scenes. Iran wants a “highway” of clients stretching to the Mediterranean, while the Saudis and Gulf Arabs want to insure the triumph of conservative religious factions (and not modernizing, openminded democrats). And we don’t know what we want, so we spout a few platitudes.
Watch: Will Washington ever figure out that the Saudis, especially, have goals opposed to our own?
Crisis Watch Bottom Line: Every reader of this magazine will be dead before the Middle East returns to political, social and religious health – if it ever can.
Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the “Armchair General” team and the author of the new novel “Hell or Richmond.”
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.