In medieval times, areas known to be dangerous or uncharted were often labeled on maps with the warning: ‘Beware, here be dragons.’ That is surely how mapmakers would be labeling West Asia today.
After the onset of the Arab awakenings, it was reasonable to be, at worst, agnostic and, at best, hopeful about the prospect of these countries making the difficult transition from autocracy to democracy. But recently, looking honestly at the region, one has to conclude that the prospects for stable transitions to democracy anytime soon are dimming. It is too early to give up hope, but it is not too early to start worrying.
Lord knows it is not because of the bravery of the Arab youth, and many ordinary citizens, who set off these awakenings, in search of dignity, justice and freedom. No, it is because the staying power and mendacity of the entrenched old guards and old ideas in these countries is much deeper than most people realise and the frailty or absence of democratic institutions, traditions and examples much greater.
“There is a saying that inside every fat man is a thin man dying to get out,” notes Michael Mandelbaum, the foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We also tend to believe that inside every autocracy is a democracy dying to get out, but that might not be true in West Asia.”
It was true in Eastern Europe in 1989, added Mandelbaum, but there are two big differences between Eastern Europe and West Asia. Many Eastern European countries had a recent liberal past to fall back on — after the artificially imposed Soviet communism was removed. And Eastern Europe also had a compelling model and magnet for free-market democracy right next door: the European Union. Most of the Arab-Muslim world has neither, so when the iron lid of autocracy comes off they fall back, not on liberalism, but Islamism, sectarianism, tribalism or military rule.
You see in Syria how quickly the regime turned the democracy push there into a sectarian war. Remember, the opposition in Syria began as a largely peaceful, grass-roots, pan-Syrian movement for democratic change. But it was deliberately met by President Bashar al-Assad with murder and sectarian venom. He wanted to make the conflict about his Alawite minority versus the country’s Sunni Muslim majority as a way of discrediting the opposition and holding his base.
You see the same kind of manipulation of emotions in Afghanistan. US troops accidentally burned some Korans, and Obama apologised. Afghans nevertheless went on a week-long rampage, killing innocent Americans in response — and no Afghan leader, even our allies, dared to stand up and say: “Wait, this is wrong. Every week in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, Muslim suicide bombers kill other Muslims — holy people created in the image of God — and there’s barely a peep. Yet, the accidental burning of holy books by Americans sparks outbursts and killings. What does our reaction say about us?”
In Egypt, every day it becomes clearer that the army has used the Tahrir uprising to get rid of its main long-term rival for succession — President Hosni Mubarak’s more reform-minded son, Gamal. Now, having gotten rid of both father and son, the army is showing its real hand by prosecuting American, European and Egyptian democracy workers for allegedly working with ‘foreign agents’ — the CIA, Israel and the Jewish lobby — to destabilise Egypt. This is a patently fraudulent charge, but one meant to undermine the democrats.
The Arab/Muslim awakening phase is over. Now we are deep into the counter-revolutionary phase, as the dead hands of the past try to strangle the future. This is their fight. They have to own it, and I just hope it doesn’t end — as it often does in the land of dragons — with extremists going all the way and the moderates just going away.