During the past year a wave of popular uprisings was extolled by the West as the emergence of Middle Eastern democracy. Supposedly the region was about to produce its first broad scale, democratic, political revolution. The term “Arab Spring” conveniently characterized the occasion. European capitals and Washington fell all over themselves attempting to praise these complicated and often contradictory events.
The belief that a Western-style democracy was at the core of every Middle Easterner’s heart was encouraged during the Bush years. No matter what they were told by their own advisers on Arab affairs, the Bush White House became enamored of the idea that this was the high road to political success in the region. It was a laudable but historically and culturally incorrect assessment. When Obama arrived he swiftly bowed his way into the approval of traditional Arab leaders as well as offering a welcoming hand to the Persians. It didn’t work.
When Tunisia erupted in street demonstrations that led in January 2011 to the ouster of its president, Washington Republicans and Democrats heralded the demands for democratic freedoms as akin to the variously colored “revolutions” that had brought relatively peaceful changes elsewhere. The subsequent riots in Cairo were totally mischaracterized and touted as the essence of modern-day Arab political intellectual awakening in a form that crossed religious and secular lines. That there was at the same time a sustained and brutal attack on the large Coptic Christian population was for the most part ignored. It wasn’t until the stories accumulated of assaults on innocent bystanders and Western journalists in Tahrir Square that American and European governments began to reassess their analyses of the Spring’s events.
Meanwhile it was noted that the Egyptian military effectively had removed itself from the political domination of the Mubarak regime while still retaining its own ultimate authority and military power. The Obama Administration took most of 2011 to recognize this fact even though the American Embassy in Cairo all along had accurately reported the evolution of the uprising. Washington “insiders” regularly repeated the theme that the U.S. retained the political upper hand because of its annual $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt.
Meanwhile the overthrow of Gaddafi essentially by a combination of Cyrenican anti-government separatists aided by NATO weapons, air power, and technical assistance journalistically morphed (with the aid of demonstrations in Morocco) into what was touted to be a democratization of the Maghreb. The fact that the replacement of the Gaddafi dictatorship has not been followed by any seriously representational democracy has been conveniently under-emphasized by official Western observers now in their wishful thinking phase of strategic analysis.
Syria, for totally different reasons, has thrown itself into a chaotic, primarily Sunni, uprising against the Shia Alawite leadership of the Assad dynasty. The United Nations’ most recent estimates account for more than 5,500 civilian deaths. While the brutal suppression of this dissent has been roundly condemned by the UN Security Council (minus Russia and China), the term “Syrian Spring” has not been widely used. This fact is quite justified, as it is less a democratic revolt than the long awaited confessional uprising of the majority, but disenfranchised, Sunni population against the privileged ruling minority Shia.
Along with the international political support of Russia and China, the Assad regime has been backed by the material and financial aid of the Iranian government and their elite al Quds force special operations cadre. While the crowds of barely armed Sunnis are gunned down by the Assad military, the rest of the Arab Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are not demanding Arab democracy as such. They are all monarchies and do not want to overly encourage any forms of popular uprising. They definitely believe some Arabs are more equal than others, as we saw when the Saudis rushed to the aid of their nearby Sunni monarchy brothers in Bahrain and played active covert roles in the Yemen tribal conflict. No springtime there.
And now we are about to have a Nuclear Spring of 2012, if Secretary of Defense Panetta is correct. The difference is that no Arabs will be involved, as it pits the Israelis against the Iranians — neither of whom are Arabs, though the Jews are Semites and the Persians are ethno-linguistically Indo-Europeans. But that is making too fine a point when the real issue is that one country is a true democracy and the other is ultimately a theocracy. No Arabs, and no real springtime there either.
The key to all this supposed revolutionary desire for democracy is how one defines the process. Bashar al Assad wants “democracy” as long as he is regularly elected President. Mubarak had the same idea, and now the Moslem Brotherhood want their own form of “democracy” as long as it follows their version of Islamic law. “Democratic process” in Iran is a sham as long as a supreme theocratic leader stands above all elected officials, controls the military and security apparat, and autocratically guides the nation.
As far as a Western democracy is concerned, it is best simply to accept that the term and system is just not soon to be appropriate to the Middle East. Lebanon’s confessional politics has done its best to fracture its own chances for true democracy. Certainly Israel will never be praised for leading the way. There was no Spring in the Middle East — Arab or otherwise; and there most likely will not be any.