I’ll admit to having some hope that change was coming to the Middle East back in 2011. The Arab Spring had set so much in motion: Egyptian President Mubarak was forced to step down, Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddhafi was defeated in the Libyan civil war, and even Syria seemed likely to see major shifts. In Turkey, the AKP government was finally wresting power away from the military that had interfered so many times over the past few decades. And violence began to decline in Iraq.
Since then, there have been reversals on every front. Egypt’s first democratically elected president was ousted for his increasingly dictatorial behavior in 2013, only to have a new strongman come to power in a bid to return to an authoritarian presidency. Libya has not recovered its stability. The civil war that the Syrian government seemed likely to lose has shifted clearly in its favor. This hasn’t calmed the crisis in Lebanon over the choice of a new president, another return to past dysfunctions.
In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party government has been given a shot in the arm by recent local elections rather than being punished for its efforts to silence internal dissent. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan persists in his quest for a more dominant role for the party and a new presidency in an effort to assure control over Turkish politics into the foreseeable future. And elections in Iraq may bring some changes, but are most likely to return to power the Shiite-led coalition of Prime Minister Maliki, who has demonstrated his own demagogic tendencies.
A deeper problem is the new division and shades of Cold War polarization arising between Western states and Russia in the wake the Crimean crisis. No longer an ideological divide, the rivalry between the United States and Russia is now about naked self-interest. While it may not involve the danger of nuclear annihilation, the strategic rivalry will once again limit resolution of key issues and fuel the ambitions of the power-hungry over the principled.
Russia has cast its lot with Syria and may have won the game for its Arab ally. It recently offered support to the Lebanese government in its efforts to root out militancy as well. While this may boost Russia’s feeling of significance, fueling the ambitions of countries such as Syria or Iran, each of which have been caught pursuing nuclear ambitions, is a poor strategic choice for a country whose unique nuclear arsenal is its primary claim to influence. Russia’s involvement in the Middle East undermines moves toward democracy and justice and the United States must continue to provide a more constructive alternative.
The greatest problem is that the contemporary Middle East remains in a state of suspended animation just as it was during the Cold War – and the powers that be seem eager to keep it there.
But taking the longer view, I’m not sure it is all quite as depressing as it seems. True, the Arab Spring did not triumphantly bring democracy to the region. However, it did force governments run by aging dictatorships to alter the terms of power and listen to voices of change and dissent. Some kind of political change seems inevitable this year as five countries have elections of one sort or another.
Syria is poised to complete a sham election, but the regime will continue to have to fight to maintain any level of control. In Egypt, presidential elections are likely to bring a new pharaoh into office in the person of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, but the protests of 2011 and of 2013 will likely give him pause before going back to politics as usual. Iraq has held its second autonomous and competitive election, a momentous achievement for a place where Saddam used to oversee elections with a giant gun in his hand. Although Turkey’s prime minister seems intent on running for a newly populist style presidency, his efforts to silence dissent among his former political allies, the Gulenists, seem to suggest that his impunity has limits. Someday the novelty of civilian control of the military in Turkey will wear off and more normal politics will ensue. In Lebanon, factions are bickering over who will be able to win the presidency. A compromise candidate will likely come forward, but not before that country goes through another tortuous decision-making process.
The United States faces equal dangers in allowing the Middle East to remain in suspended animation and in renewing efforts to foster democratic change and justice in the region. But handing it over to the forces of the status quo promises only to postpone the inevitable explosion of the powder keg. The United States must remain involved in fostering the changes set loose by the Arab Spring and support voices of change across the region.
- Paul S. Rowe is Associate Professor of Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada.