With the top of the leadership pyramid removed, the societies left behind were rife with internal divisions. Without any historical experience, or sufficient wealth to divide among all claimants, they were never going to assemble themselves into polities and societies peacefully resolving their differences through constitutional, liberal mechanisms. Nor were they going to move toward such arrangements until new and firm rules of the game sorted out their relative relationships and control over the (or a) state. Weak rulers would fail.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
There’s been some hand-wringing recently about whether the Arab Spring has ended and the various instances of “transition to democracy” threatened or derailed. The news from Egypt has been particularly bad from this point of view. But all the region’s countries face considerable challenges: assassination and dispute between secularists and Islamists in Tunisia; ethnic clashes along the border between Algeria and its fragile neighbor Mali; a state still “under construction” in Libya; a state in violent decay in Syria; moving to elections under threat from Jihadists in Yemen. And then there’s Iraq, where the “fat lady” still has not yet sung an ending to Sunni-Shia-Kurd rivalry.
But Egypt is the big disappointment to those who expected that these countries were somehow now on the way toward becoming democratic and a particular challenge to governments in the US and Europe who face the decision of “what to do” and “how to react.” Part of the problem is that Western style democracy requires Western style history and wealth. So a transition to something that Washington, London and Brussels might call democratic was never on. But the essential problem is that the revolts in the Arab countries were more about getting rid of leaders who overstayed their welcome and had become rich and disconnected from their people in the process. Tired of abuse by police, a Tunisian set himself on fire. This led eventually to millions of common people who had been similarly abused – in most every way a government could do so – deciding enough was enough. Enough to take to the streets and confront despots with the choice of either being seen to kill large numbers of their own people or fleeing. Some fought, some went down and some flew away. But with the top of the leadership pyramid removed, the societies left behind were rife with internal divisions: secularists, fundamentalists, modernizers, traditionalists, Sunni, Shia, Christian, Arab, Tuareg, rich, poor, military, civilians, criminals, clans and tribes, etc. Without any historical experience, or sufficient wealth to divide among all claimants, they were never going to assemble themselves into polities and societies peacefully resolving their differences through constitutional, liberal mechanisms. Nor were they going to move toward such arrangements until new and firm rules of the game sorted out their relative relationships and control over the (or a) state. Weak rulers would fail.
The immediate requirement in each of the “spring” countries was to establish some degree of political stability. This appeared to have been on offer in Egypt with a peaceful transition to an elected government. But the Muslim Brotherhood apparently had no longterm commitment to democracy as a system of government but rather used the election to begin the process of imposing an Islamic state. Ultimately, this enraged enough Egyptians that they welcomed the military intervention that removed Morsi. This could as much be considered an impeachment by popular will as a military coup. Now the military – whatever personal agendas the leaders may have – is struggling to deepen control enough to achieve sufficient political stability to write a new constitution and hold elections. It faces an opponent able and willing to resort to armed violence and threaten suicide bombings.
None of this is to defend the actions of any of the regimes currently facing violent opposition. But it is not immediately clear that developments in the Arab world – or in any non-Western society having to make its way in a world dominated by the Western economies – depend very much on how we judge them. International opinion has played a role, to the degree that it has sometimes kept corrupt leaders from acting as brutally as they might have otherwise done. But to the degree it prevents the leading Western countries from continuing to engage those governments trying to maintain some semblance of order, it runs counter to the interests of everyone who wishes to see restraint and eventual progress. The situation in Syria now is very bad but not “unacceptable” because we have accepted it. Meanwhile, the West’s quickness to jump on the anti-Assad bandwagon – albeit only verbally – may have simply helped prolong civil war. We should be very careful before we make the same mistake with Egypt.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He will serve as Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year.