Middle East Revolutions Off the Rails: What Comes Next

As Mideast revolts hit the skids, the West is naive to believe that, with a few power plays and diplomatic pleas, everything will calm down, argues Christopher Dickey. The Arab Spring won't end this year—or even this decade.

Anti-government protestors gesture during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa,Yemen, Wednesday, April 6, 2011. (Muhammed Muheisen / AP Photo),Muhammed Muheisen

One of the more astute commentaries on the situation in the Middle East comes from Greg Sutcliffe, a British ad man based in Hong Kong, who put subtitles on a viral video of toddling twins talking to each other in an utterly unintelligible baby language. In Sutcliffe's imagined dialogue, one of the diapered duo is big on "stomping" Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (complete with appropriate sumo-like gesture), while the other frets about the lack of an exit strategy and the possibility that arms will fall into the hands of al Qaeda. The baby-talk dialogue is circular, inconclusive, and, even without the subtitles, a pretty good reflection of what you'll hear from pundits and politicians all over the map.

In less than four months, as uprisings have swept through the Arab world, we've seen that the once-comfortable Arab elites and their backers in Europe and the United States not only don't know what to do, they don't even know what to say. Regimes in Tunisia and Egypt toppled. Libya sank into civil war with NATO's desultory participation taking it toward stalemate, maybe even break-up. Bahrain erupted and Saudi Arabia intervened. Yemen continues blowing up and the dictator is finding himself utterly friendless while al Qaeda exploits the chaos. Syria is facing an uprising the likes of which it hasn't seen since the Hama massacre of 1982. Jordan is looking shaky. Palestinians are growing bitterly impatient with their own leadership and, now under bombardment from Israel, their anger continues to intensify. The Iranian regime is making mischief among the Arabs wherever it can, all the while worrying about a resurgence of the 2009 uprising that shattered whatever credibility its theocracy had left.

As this beat goes on, there's an ill-disguised hope in Washington and in European capitals that somebody can be stomped—a dictator here, a rebellion there—and somehow everything will calm down. (Does anybody in any Western capital, or in Israel, really want to see Bashar al-Assad go down in Damascus? The "what next" is almost too complicated and crazy to contemplate.) But no matter what Washington or Paris or London does, the unrest throughout the Arab world inspired by the self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable seller on December 17 is going to continue.

In Egypt over the last few days a military and police crackdown on Tahrir protesters cost two lives, and ex-President Hosni Mubarak made a speech defending his record. This isn't so much democracy as déjà vu, and there's doubtless worse to come. As Al-Hayat columnist Raghida Dergham puts it, the Arab Spring will be followed by summer, fall—and winter.

The Arab Spring will be followed by summer, fall—and winter.

Babak Dehghanpisheh: America’s Islamist Allies in LibyaAllan Dodds Frank: Gaddafi’s Exit Strategy Leslie H. Gelb: Give the Libya Cease-Fire a Chance Ultimately, if we want to take the very long view, all this is to the good. Decades ago, historian David Fromkin put his finger on the essential problem in his classic history of the partition of the Middle East after World War I, A Peace to End All Peace. "The characteristic feature of the region's politics," he wrote, is that "in the Middle East there is no sense of legitimacy—no agreement on rules of the game—and no belief, universally shared in the region, that within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such."

What we're watching right now is the painful creation of a new Middle East where, eventually, countries will be recognized as legitimate reflections of their people's national identities, and governance will have the legitimacy of popular support. As Fromkin pointed out, after the fall of the Roman empire, it took Europe more than 1,500 years, and many disastrous wars, to get that far.

In the Middle East, the process won't last that long. We're probably talking decades rather than centuries. But those decades will be tough. And one of the great frustrations for the Western powers is that they're not really going to be able to do much to affect the outcome. What Libya has shown us is that these powers only find the political will to act in extremis, to stop a massacre, not to build a country.

So, whether as spectators or erratic participants in events, there are a couple of key points we in the West would do well to keep in mind.

First of all, it's time to get over the idea that Arabs really aren't up to the job of governing themselves. This has been the quasi-racist subtext of Western policy toward the Middle East at least since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when European powers drew lines on maps and called them national borders. The presumption is that those countries had to be ruled by colonial powers or strongmen more or less beholden to them. The protests, uprisings, and revolutions we've seen in the last few months are entirely Arab, focused on Arab interests, and the governments that eventually emerge will be, too.

But it's also true that the Arabs of today—the two-thirds of the population that are under the age of 30—are connected to the world and to each other to an extent never before imagined by their parents, by their rulers, or by the Western powers who thought those rulers were secure.

In December and January, Burson-Marsteller conducted a poll of Arabs aged 18 to 24 in 10 Middle Eastern countries, and the results published last month show just how quickly, and potently, political awareness has been growing. In 2008, only 50 percent of the respondents in that age group said "living in a democratic country" was important to them. At the beginning of this year—before any dictators had actually been overthrown—that figure had gone up to 92 percent. Clearly the Internet and social networking have played a role: In 2009, 56 percent used the Web daily, in 2010 the number was 80 percent, although most still get their news mainly from television.

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Westerners ought to be delighted with the results, which show a society taking shape that embraces so many values we think we hold dear. Attitudes toward the U.S. and Europe at the beginning of this year were increasingly positive, and young Arabs saw themselves as global citizens involved with the wider world—even as they clung to the importance of family and of close relations with their parents. On the economic front, in these societies where for generations the height of achievement was a government sinecure, most young Arabs today want to work in the private sector, and many want to be entrepreneurs.

But nobody in the West can make these things happen for them. And nobody will.

Christopher Dickey is a columnist for The Daily Beast and Newsweek magazine, where he is Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor. He is the author of six books, including Summer of Deliverance , and most recently Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD.