The Arab awakening is a tale of three battles rolled into one: people against regimes; people against people; and regimes against other regimes. The first involves the tug-of-war between regimes and spontaneous protesters. The demonstrators, most of them political only in the broadest sense of the term, are stirred by visceral, nebulous emotions—paramount among them the basic feeling of being fed up. Many don’t know what they want or who they support but are confident of what they refuse—daily indignities, privations, and the stifling of basic freedoms—and who they reject, which makes them formidable adversaries. Neither of the instruments used by rulers to maintain control, repression and co-optation, can easily succeed: repression because it further solidifies the image of the state as hostile; co-optation because there are no clearly empowered leaders to win over and attempts to seduce convey a message of weakness, which further emboldens the demonstrators.
The second struggle involves a focused fight among more organized political groups. Some are associated with the old order; they include the military, social and economic elites, local chieftains, as well as a coterie of ersatz traditional parties. Others are the outlawed or semitolerated opposition, including exiled personalities, parties, and, most importantly, Islamists. In Libya and Syria, armed groups with various leanings and motivations have emerged. Little of the enthusiasm or innocence of the protest movements survives here; this is the province of unsentimental dealings and raw power politics.
Relations between young protesters and more traditional opposition parties can be tenuous and it is not always clear how representative either are. In Egypt, where the street battle against the regime was quickly won and Mubarak rapidly resigned, organized opposition groups—from the Muslim Brotherhood to long-established parties—subsequently stepped in and sought to muscle the disorganized protesters out. In Yemen, street demonstrators coexist uneasily with organized opposition parties and defectors from the regime. In Libya, rivalry among strands of the opposition has led to bloodshed and could portend a chaotic future. Some of the local popular committees that spontaneously emerged in Syria warily eye and distrust the exiled opposition.
The third struggle is a regional and international competition for influence. It has become an important part of the picture and assumes an increasingly prominent role. The region’s strategic balance is at stake: whether Syria will remain in alliance with Iran; whether Bahrain will drift from Saudi Arabia’s influence; whether Turkey will emerge bolstered or battered; whether stability in Iraq will suffer. One suspects more than faithfulness to reforms and infatuation with democratic principles when Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which both ruthlessly suppress dissent at home, urge Syria to allow peaceful protesters; when Iran, which backs the regime in Damascus, castigates the oppression in Bahrain; and when Ankara hedges its bets between the Syrian regime and its foes.
Interlopers are legion. The sense grows that what happens anywhere will have a profound impact everywhere. NATO fought in Libya and helped oust Qaddafi. Iran and Saudi Arabia play out their rivalry in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria; Qatar hopes to elevate its standing by propelling the Libyan and Syrian opposition to power; in Syria, Turkey sees an opportunity to side with the majority Sunnis yet simultaneously fears what Damascus and Tehran might do in return: could they rekindle Kurdish separatism or jeopardize Ankara’s delicate modus vivendi in Iraq? Iran will invest more in Iraq if it feels Syria slipping away. As they become buoyed by advances in Libya and Syria, how long before Iraqi Islamists and their regional allies rekindle a struggle they fear was prematurely aborted?
The US has not been the last to get involved, but it has done so without a clear sense of purpose, wishing to side with the protesters but unsure it can live with the consequences. The least visible, curiously yet wisely, has been Israel. It knows how much its interests are in the balance but also how little it can do to protect them. Silence has been the more judicious choice.
Any number of outcomes could emerge from this complex brew. Regional equilibriums could be profoundly unsettled, with Iran losing its Syrian ally; the US, its Egyptian partner; Saudi Arabia, stability in the Gulf; Turkey, its newly acquired prestige; Iraq, its budding but fragile democracy. A wider Middle Eastern conflict could ensue. At the domestic level, some uprisings could result in a mere reshuffling of cards as new configurations of old elites keep control. There could be prolonged chaos, instability, and the targeting of minority groups.
The uprisings, partly motivated by economic hardship, ironically make those hardships still more severe. Where elections take place, they likely will prompt confusion, as groups with uncertain political experience compete. As with all upheavals, there will be a messy chapter before clarity sets in and the actual balance of power becomes evident. Increasing numbers could well question whether emerging regimes are improvements. Nostalgia for the past cannot lag far behind.
Some states might fragment because of ethnic, sectarian, or tribal divides. Civil war, a variant of which has broken out in Yemen and is deeply feared in Syria, may emerge. The region is ripe for breakdown. Sudan is partitioned; Yemen is torn between a Houthi rebellion in the north and secessionists in the south; Iraqi Kurdistan teeters on the edge of separation; in Palestine, Gaza and the West Bank each goes its own way; in Syria, Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Druze, and Bedouin tribes might push for greater self-rule. The upheaval could accelerate the drift. The uprisings revitalized symbols of unity—the national flag and anthem—yet simultaneously loosened the state’s hold and facilitated displays of subnational identity. Even the often ignored Berbers of North Africa have become more assertive.
For all this uncertainty, there seems little doubt—as protesters tire and as the general public tires of them—in what direction the balance will tilt. After the dictator falls, incessant political upheaval carries inordinate economic and security costs and most people long for order and safety. The young street demonstrators challenge the status quo, ignite a revolutionary spirit, and point the way for a redistribution of power. But what they possess in enthusiasm they lack in organization and political experience. What gives them strength during the uprising—their amorphous character and impulsiveness—leads to their subsequent undoing. Their domain is the more visible and publicized. The real action, much to their chagrin, takes place elsewhere.
The outcome of the Arab awakening will not be determined by those who launched it. The popular uprisings were broadly welcomed, but they do not neatly fit the social and political makeup of traditional communities often organized along tribal and kinship ties, where religion has a central part and foreign meddling is the norm. The result will be decided by other, more calculating and hard-nosed forces.
Of all the features of the initial Arab uprisings, the more notable relate to what they were not. They were not spearheaded by the military, engineered from outside, backed by a powerful organization, or equipped with a clear vision and leadership. Nor, remarkably, were they violent. The excitement generated by these early revolutionary moments owed as much to what they lacked as to what they possessed. The absence of those attributes is what allowed so many, especially in the West, to believe that the spontaneous celebrations they were witnessing would translate into open, liberal, democratic societies.
Revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it. Revolutions almost invariably are short-lived affairs, bursts of energy that destroy much on their pathway, including the people and ideas that inspired them. So it is with the Arab uprising. It will bring about radical changes. It will empower new forces and marginalize others. But the young activists who first rush onto the streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow. Members of the general public might be grateful for what they have done. They often admire them and hold them in high esteem. But they do not feel they are part of them. The usual condition of a revolutionary is to be tossed aside.