It is too soon to say that the Arab Spring is gone, never to resurface. But the Arab Winter has clearly arrived.
So what went wrong — and what will an Arab Winter mean for the Middle East, the United States and the rest of the world?
The reason the Middle East has long seemed like infertile soil for democracy is not because Arab peoples do not want to vote or otherwise be free — poll after poll confirms the opposite — but rather because entrenched dictators had long imprisoned or killed dissenters, bought off opponents, undermined civil society, and divided or intimidated their people. And when dictators fall, their means of preserving power do not always fall with them.
In Egypt, the military ushered Mubarak out of office, but stayed in as a supposed caretaker and is reluctant to relinquish power. Now the security forces have again shot people in Tahrir Square. In Yemen and Libya, tribes and other power centers often opposed the old order, but they saw one another as rivals, too. Throughout the region, the police and the judiciary are broken after years of dictatorship, but there is nothing to take their place.
Moreover, the demonstrations that led to the ouster of rulers such as Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali hardly offered a clear governing alternative. Although they embodied a genuine outpouring of popular rage, the protests were largely leaderless and loosely organized, often via social media; there was no African National Congress or Corazon Aquino to take the reins. You cannot govern by flash mob.
And the opposition voices that were organized were not necessarily the most democratic. With the Arab Spring, Islamist forces rose to prominence. In Tunisia, a moderate Islamist party won victory in the October elections, gaining 89 of 217 seats in parliament, dwarfing the 29 seats of its nearest — secular — competitor. In Morocco, where the king has opened the political system somewhat, the Islamist party likewise won a plurality of the vote in the November elections.
Brotherhood leaders have learned to mouth a commitment to pluralism and tolerance, but it is unclear that they would act on it when in power. More hard-line Islamists are openly skeptical of democracy, seeing it as a means of gaining power and not as a model for governing. Egyptian salafists, who espouse a more puritanical version of Islam, have also entered the political system and are performing unexpectedly well in the elections; their demands for Islamicizing society are extreme and may push the Brotherhood to pursue a more radical agenda when in power.
The Saudi royals not only worry about their own power diminishing, but fear that change elsewhere would be an opening for their arch-rival Iran and for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As Middle East expert Bruce Riedel puts it, the Saudis have proclaimed a 21st-century version of the Soviet-era Brezhnev doctrine: “No revolution will be tolerated in a bordering kingdom.”
A faltering Arab Spring doesn’t mean we will return to a world of dictators and secret police. Not only are Mubarak, Ben Ali and Moammar Gaddafi gone, but so are the cults of personality they nurtured. Bashar al-Assad may cling to power in Syria, but he will be isolated abroad and hollow at home. Even regimes that have experienced limited unrest — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria — are entering a new era.
Where old regimes survive, they will be weak; where new ones come in, they will be weaker, because old institutions can be destroyed more quickly than new ones can be built. Both new and old leaders must play to public opinion, and this may lead to rash, incoherent foreign policies, as politicians make campaign promises that are not in their countries’ interests to fulfill.
Israel, of course, is the easiest card to play. A Pew Research Center poll taken after Mubarak’s fall found that Egyptians favored annulling the 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel by 54 percent to 36 percent, and — no surprise — many mainstream leaders have criticized it. Indeed, Israel can serve as a perfect diversion to struggling governments. In May, as unrest swept across Syria, the regime encouraged Palestinians to march across the Syrian border into the Golan Heights, leading to four deaths when an Israeli border patrol shot Palestinians as they broke through a frontier fence.