The Arab nightmare

At the Al Jazeera Forum this weekend in Doha, where dozens of Arab political figures and activists of all persuasions gathered to discuss the dramatic events sweeping the Middle East, there was a lot of optimism in the air. One Egyptian organizer, YouTube starlet Asma Mahfouz, even expressed her hope that next year's forum would be titled "One Arab Nation With No Borders."

Pressed over lunch about the risks of it all turning sour, one Emirati political scientist told several of us, "Let them dream. These youth have never had the chance to dream before. It is good to have dreams."

But outside of Tunisia and Egypt, Arab dreams are fast becoming Arab nightmares. In Libya, a spontaneous popular uprising is turning into a civil war -- one that the rebels are rapidly losing. In Bahrain, protests that began as a call for civil rights and constitutional reform have devolved into ugly sectarian street battles; and as Saudi forces intervene to protect the ruling Sunni monarchy, the situation risks sparking a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is kicking out foreign journalists as tribes cowboy up and activists talk of an impending bloodbath. Iraq's hapless government is clamping down on political freedom. And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of rising oil prices, a hopelessly stalled Middle East peace process, and an epic natural disaster in the world's No. 3 economy.

There are some bright spots: Morocco's King Mohammed VI seems to understand at some level that he needs to embrace change lest he be swept up by it; Jordan has remained surprisingly calm even though its monarch, King Abdullah II, has thus far only pretended to get it; Kuwait already had a relatively vibrant political scene; and quiescent Qatar and the go-go United Arab Emirates don't seem at risk of any unrest whatsoever. But in general, the region's autocrats are responding as they always have to popular anger: with a combination of brute force, comically half-baked reforms, and economic bribes.

What will happen next is anybody's guess, but I find it hard to be optimistic in the short term. Much depends on how the democratic transitions in Tunisia and especially Egypt go, but it will be many months before the dust settles there. In the meantime, the rest of the region is ablaze. And as they did with Iraq, Arab leaders will now eagerly point to Libya and Bahrain as cautionary examples of what happens when citizens take to the streets.

Meanwhile, the region's two traditional problem children -- Lebanon and Palestine -- haven't even joined the fray yet. Burgeoning youth protest movements in both places are calling on their bickering, ineffective leaders to get their acts together in the name of national unity, but the forces of the status quo are far stronger. It's hard to imagine Hezbollah and Lebanon's March 14 movement in Lebanon, or Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, putting aside their differences and coming together for the common good. And Iran and its pal Syria haven't begun to make trouble yet. Now that Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet in Bahrain, the gloves may come off -- especially if the U.N. special tribunal ever gets around to indicting Hezbollah figures for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

None of this is to say that there is some magic formula that the United States could have employed to avoid this dangerous state of affairs. U.S. influence in the region is fast evaporating, as evidenced by the fact that its ostensible allies -- Israel and Saudi Arabia -- are now flaunting their rejection of Washington's advice: Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly about to debut an absurdly disingenuous peace initiative, and Saudi troops just rolled into Bahrain a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates urged King Hamad to compromise and embrace political reform. The Pentagon didn't even get a courtesy call.

But what happens next will have huge repercussions for U.S. national security, and will present President Obama will terrible dilemmas in the region. If Saudi troops kill Shiites in Bahrain using American weapons, what will he say or do? Iran wasn't behind any of these uprisings, but if it starts creating mischief, how should he respond? What if Yemen turns into another Somalia? What if Palestinians rise up against Israel in a third intifada? If Egypt's transition goes badly? Right now, coming up with tough questions is a lot easier than providing answers.

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