Even if the wave of upheaval reshaping the Middle East and North Africa was not inspired by Western puppet-masters, the fact that it was quick to be named the Arab Spring clearly sent out the wrong message and fueled some false expectations. The brand name was naively and glibly applied.
Smooth transitions to democracy have proved elusive and thus Spring been turned by some to Winter. Anyone who now finds it deeply depressing to survey the condition of the region should look at Hussein Agha and Robert Malley’s latest piece in the New York Review of Books. It reads like a long suicide note:
Darkness descends upon the Arab world. Waste, death, and destruction attend a fight for a better life. Outsiders compete for influence and settle accounts. The peaceful demonstrations with which this began, the lofty values that inspired them, become distant memories. Elections are festive occasions where political visions are an afterthought. The only consistent program is religious and is stirred by the past. A scramble for power is unleashed, without clear rules, values, or endpoint. It will not stop with regime change or survival. History does not move forward. It slips sideways.
Games occur within games: battles against autocratic regimes, a Sunni–Shiite confessional clash, a regional power struggle, a newly minted cold war. Nations divide, minorities awaken, sensing a chance to step out of the state’s confining restrictions. The picture is blurred. These are but fleeting fragments of a landscape still coming into its own, with only scrappy hints of an ultimate destination. The changes that are now believed to be essential are liable to be disregarded as mere anecdotes on an extended journey.
New or newly invigorated actors rush to the fore: the ill-defined “street,” prompt to mobilize, just as quick to disband; young protesters, central activists during the uprising, roadkill in its wake. The Muslim Brothers yesterday dismissed by the West as dangerous extremists are now embraced and feted as sensible, businesslike pragmatists. The more traditionalist Salafis, once allergic to all forms of politics, are now eager to compete in elections. There are shadowy armed groups and militias of dubious allegiance and unknown benefactors as well as gangs, criminals, highwaymen, and kidnappers.
Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.
Further on the writers lament: “Something is wrong. Something is unnatural. It cannot end well.”
This tragic account begs a reasonable question: What were they expecting?
Or more widely I would ask of those who view Libya as being on the brink of anarchy and Syria on the road to a decade or more of civil war: If one rejects the idea that dictatorial rule can be justified in the name of stability, do you really believe that there can be such a thing as a smooth transition in which an iron grip gently yields?
Even now, journalists conjure up images of a political reconfiguration that in theory could be like a change of clothes where nothing more than a few creases need ironing out.
The proliferation of militant jihadi groups across the Arab world is posing a new threat to the region’s stability, presenting fresh challenges to emerging democracies and undermining prospects for a smooth transition in Syria should the regime fall.
Such a smooth transition might not always have been pure fantasy but it always seemed so improbable it should have been discounted — not given the weight of a prospect that could be undermined.
There never was an Arab Spring and thus now no Winter — it began and continues as a struggle.
It is hard to see Spring in the midst of time frames that are longer than we usually consider. So often we are caught up in the minute by minute, where the hail storms still press against the shoots of change.
Libya is one of the first shoots of change, and it is changing. But it takes more than a year to turn 40 years of death into birth.