In the heady days of (relatively) peaceful mass mobilizations that brought down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the mantra from American observers in 2011 was: "Now comes the hard part." In 2012, it came -- with a vengeance.
But my guess is that many of those watching the Arab Spring unfold did not really believe this year would be as bloody or fraught with risk as it has turned out to be. Transitions to democracy in Eastern Europe after 1989 were pretty quick and pretty successful. Latin American and East Asian transitions in the 1980s and 1990s had long and troubled backgrounds, but once democratic systems were established, most of them turned out to be stable and peaceful. Why should the Arab world be different?
Well, there are two big reasons. Unlike in those other parts of the world, many of the countries in the Middle East lack long histories of political unity: Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen are all relatively recent creations; their borders are artificial and their populations are divided along sectarian, ethnic, and regional lines.
Furthermore, there is no consensus on core political issues in the Arab world. In Eastern Europe following the Cold War, as Francis Fukuyama famously pointed out, there was no serious alternative political ideology to democratic capitalism. Not so in the Middle East. A majority, or at least a plurality, of people in these countries now say "Islam is the solution" to their problems -- and they are opposed by an equally vehement minority. This year has shown just how potent a recipe for conflict this mix of ideological conflict and divided societies can be.
Without further ado, here is a look at the pitfalls that dashed the rosiest prognostications about the Arab Spring in 2012 -- and still loom large in 2013.
Weak States and Divided Societies
Some Arab countries have always suffered from weak governments. They've gotten there in different ways: Yemen has been hindered by a lack of resources, the Lebanese state has been kept weak by elites' agreement and then civil war, and Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya was the victim of a bizarre political experiment in direct governance. But however it occurs, the consequences of state weakness -- the strengthening of tribalism, sectarianism, and other sub-state identities and the erosion of the rule of law -- are largely similar.
The Syrian state is now suffering the same fate, eaten away by civil war, defections, and economic weakness. None of this is altogether unfamiliar; the country used to be the poster child for Arab political instability. Between 1949 and 1970, it experienced nine military coups and a brief period of amalgamation with Egypt. But upon taking power, Hafez al-Assad enforced a grim, but in many quarters welcome, stability. He maintained his rule through unvarnished realpolitik, notably building bridges with the Sunni business class and brutally crushing a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the early 1980s. The state was inefficient and corrupt, but it provided a measure of order, and Syria ceased being a playing field in which outside powers meddled and became an international player in its own right.
The nearly two years of fighting seem to have reversed whatever gains in state building that Hafez al-Assad had achieved. Public services have either collapsed or are stretched to the breaking point. Law and order has broken down. Syrians look to their own sectarian communities for safety, not the state -- if they are not fleeing the country.
The problem, of course, is not particular to Syria. Tribal, regional, and sectarian factionalism make political progress in Yemen agonizingly slow, as do tribal and regional divides in Libya. Bahrain's rulers exploit the fears of their co-religionists, the Sunni minority, toward the Shia majority to divide the opposition and solidify their control.
These sub-state identities in weak states create a vicious circle. New governments, even those freely elected, find their ability to govern severely limited. They do not have functioning bureaucracies to implement policies. Libya has struggled to rebuild police and military forces in the face of militias that are, in many cases, better armed, better funded, and better organized than the state's forces. In Yemen, the army itself has split along factional lines.
With centralized state authority weakened, these countries have become the playing fields of regional rivalry. Local actors invite the foreigners in, looking to them for money, guns and political support. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar are all playing in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran both support factions in Lebanon. The Saudis are still the monopoly players in Yemen and Bahrain, though they warn darkly of Iranian meddling in both countries. Needless to say, such proxy wars are Kryptonite for the authority of the central state.