3. Don't look for strong, national leaders anytime soon.
So how do you make the transition from authoritarian rule to democratic governance? How do you produce credible leaders who are accountable to accepted and legitimate institutions and empowered to take big decisions for the good of the country as a whole?
In the Arab world, the answer is very, very slowly. For the past half century, the Middle East has lacked truly competitive democratic politics, let alone established and broadly accepted channels that might produce such leaders.
But leaders will be necessary all the same. You can't run a society with a Facebook page.
Getting leaders who can see beyond the narrow corporatist or party interests will be a real challenge. In May, Egypt will have a first round of presidential elections. Candidates representing the Islamists, the left, and the old order will run. The fact that former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman came forward as a candidate and was disqualified reflects Egypt's love/hate relationship with strongmen; it also reveals the challenge of creating credible institutions, including a legitimate electoral process.
The risk is that Egypt gets neither strong leaders nor credible institutions. No matter who wins, the new president will be sandwiched between a strong, Islamist-dominated parliament and a military determined to protect its economic stake and its influence over national security policy. A popularly elected president will start off with some legitimacy. But how he'll gain the real legitimacy of modern politics -- producing and delivering what people want and need -- is another matter. It may be just as well that Egypt now has group politics rather than individual leaders. The economy is a mess; security is deteriorating. Governing the country is next to impossible. Who would want the responsibility?
Egypt has always found a way to muddle through without imploding. Tunisia, smaller and more Western-oriented, represents a bright spot in the region, but even there, tensions between Islamists and secularists guarantee a bumpy road ahead. In places like Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where repression, sectarian violence, tribal and provincial tensions, and lack of real institutions now prevail, it's still a mystery how credible, enlightened leaders will emerge. There's a real danger that the hopes and aspirations of the Arab Spring -- already hijacked -- will get lost and swallowed up in an Arab version of the Bermuda Triangle. Middle Eastern leaders are masters of acquiring power; they're not so good at sharing it. And yet share it they must if they are to improve the fortunes of the vast majority of their peoples.
4. America's bind: Where are its partners?
America's traditional friends are either gone, trying to get by, or increasingly unhappy with Washington's policies.
The oil-for-security bargain that cemented the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been weakened, and the Saudis are still upset over America's reform agenda in Bahrain and have long been unhappy over its policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. A weak Yemeni president can't be a reliable partner on counterterrorism, and the recent brouhaha over the NGOs and military aid to Egypt heralds troubled days ahead. America is reaching out to the Islamists, but the Brotherhood's vision for Egypt, let alone the Salafist one, is one that America won't easily abide. The Palestinians, who have no strategy themselves to gain a state, have all but given up on the possibility that Barack Obama has one.