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Jeffrey Gedmin

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Arab Spring Two Years On - What's Wrong With the Middle East? What's Wrong With Us?

Posted: 28/01/2013 00:59

I spent a week in Cairo two years ago. It was early Arab Spring days. The atmosphere was charged. Egyptians were moving almost instantly from feelings of humiliation and rage to a new spirit of dignity and pride.

This was the Facebook revolution. Young people at Tahrir Square had taken the lead. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!" wrote Wordsworth of the French revolution. Energy and optimism on the Arab street were contagious.

What happened since?

First, it's hard not to notice that we on the outside have gone wobbly. Headlines pronounce mostly gloom and doom. The Arab Spring is turning into the winter of Islamic jihad, we're told.

Well, not exactly.

There are grave problems, no doubt about it. 2012 was the year of Syrian civil war. We've witnessed violence in Egypt and Libya, a Persian Spring in Iran which never managed to blossom, and back sliding in a number of other places.

I won't minimise for a moment the severity of the situation. There's suffering, uncertainty and threats that loom. But seriously, did we actually not understand two years ago that we were at the beginning of a long and dangerous process? Do we really think that, once shackles are thrown off, peace and prosperity automatically break out?

Look at the struggles South Africa is still facing in race relations and economic opportunity two decades after apartheid. It took the Philippines years after Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in the mid-1980s to come to terms with a truly pernicious legacy of cronyism and dictatorial rule. Portugal's first democratic transition began in 1910. Political institutions were dysfunctional. Corruption was widespread. A coup d'état finally ended the feeble experiment in 1926. There was a second try for Portugal in 1974-75, and success this time. But the start was marred by polarisation, six unstable provisional governments and a coup attempt.

We don't know the future of the Arab Spring. Each country will chart its own course. But don't write the region off. This story, bloody and difficult though it is, is far from over.

So the first counsel is patience.

The second thing that has happened the last two years has to do with Middle East societies themselves. It's easier to tear down a dictatorship than it is to build a democracy in its place. You need elections, but also rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free competitive press and a strong and healthy civil society. All this takes time. But here's the biggest rub. You also need a decent measure of social stability and consensus.

Countries like Egypt are being pulled in different directions by at least three different factions.

There are the western leaning, democratic secularists, who have in their mind's eye European social democracy as a model for the future. There are the fanatics, who demand a severe Islamic state. But then there are also fundamentalists. These are the social conservatives of various stripe, who reject apocalyptic holy war, but nevertheless want tradition and religion at the centre of things.

This last group is almost certainly the biggest in most countries of the Middle East. Neither proper friend nor simple foe, these forces are the hardest for us to come to terms with. Women's rights, minority issues, western-style pluralism with unfettered free press--hardly high on their agenda.

Yet I think it's exactly this large, prickly segment of society in Arab Spring countries with which we need dialogue and bridge building. They're not going away, these deeply rooted elements.

Is the Arab Spring doomed? I say, take a deep breath. Find sensible ways to engage. And let's  see where we are in a decade or so.

 
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