The spread of conflict and violence across the Middle East is dampening widespread hopes of an "Arab Spring" that followed the peaceful ousters of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain have taken on an increasingly bitter sectarian character, especially with the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the uprising in Libya has degenerated into an all-out civil war compounded by an international no-fly zone intervention. Meanwhile, the situations in Yemen and Syria continue to deteriorate, suggesting that the relatively bloodless revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia may be more difficult to replicate than was initially hoped.
And now, with escalating violence between Israel and Palestinians -- punctuated on March 23 with the bombing of a Jerusalem bus station that killed one Israeli woman -- another potentially dangerous flashpoint may be emerging that could further push the region away from orderly democratic reform.
A quiet tit-for-tat war between Israel and Hamas has been brewing along the Gaza border for almost two weeks and appears very close to spiraling out of control. For the first time in many months, rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel, and Israeli airstrikes have killed numerous Palestinians, including children and the elderly. Perhaps the most horrifying incident was the murder of an entire settler family in their beds in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, which has been widely assumed to be the work of Palestinian extremists, though Hamas denies any connection to the attack.
Even against their better judgment, Israeli politicians might again feel the need to retaliate for these attacks with a wide-scale assault on Gaza with ground forces -- a replay of Operation Cast Lead, which was launched in December 2008. That conflict resulted in enormous devastation and loss of life in Gaza. The war also had extremely damaging political effects for Israel, as it led to widespread international condemnation and the Goldstone report, which accused the Israel Defense Forces of committing war crimes during the conflict.
A redux of Operation Cast Lead could have a major impact on the popular uprisings and reform movement sweeping the Arab world. The last war in Gaza created a powerful narrative in certain sections of Arab public opinion that cast the region as being the scene of a historic conflict between "the martyrs" (largely Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah and their small but vocal left-nationalist supporters), who were prepared to struggle and die against Israel and Western imperialism, and "the traitors" (pro-Western Arab governments and the Palestine Liberation Organization). Even more dangerously, it implied a corrective corollary: The "martyrs" should defeat the "traitors" and install Islamist governments, which would be supportive of "resistance" movements and take a generally hostile attitude toward the Western presence in the Middle East.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and many other Arab states is that they have not adopted this narrative or Islamist ideology, but rather have been based on patriotism, social consciousness, and demands for democracy and accountability. In Egypt in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood has wisely kept to the sidelines, understanding that the anti-government movement was secular, ecumenical, and patriotic, rather than Islamist. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood is obviously hoping to benefit from the newly opened political space and early elections, and is stealthily inching toward a more prominent role in shaping the new Egyptian order.
The Qatari-based Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has been emerging as the regional spearhead of efforts to spin the Arab reform movement in a more Islamist direction. Most notably, Qaradawi's speech on Feb. 18 in Tahrir Square was strikingly bold in its use of buzzwords that implied the need for an Islamist orientation to Egypt's political future. While Qaradawi denounced "this cursed sectarianism" and was very conciliatory toward Coptic Christians, he explained the revolution in almost entirely Islamic terms. "Be on your guard against the hypocrites, who are ready to put on, every day, a new face, and to speak with a new tongue," he warned, employing rhetoric typically used to denounce secularists and opponents of Islamist politics.