The Arab Spring has elicited different responses from regimes across the Middle East, indicating that this is going to be either a short-lived spring or a very protracted one that drags on for years.
Three fascinating circles of political players have emerged that deserve tracking: the Arab countries, the non-Arab neighbors, and major foreign powers. Among all three, there is plenty of bafflement, a sure sign that something important is going on that is refreshingly being driven and defined by Arab popular will rather than by local or foreign thugs.
The pattern of regime response is now clear, and comprises three categories. A few regimes like Tunisia and Egypt will tumble and give way to constitutional pluralistic democracies with varying degrees of armed forces participation, mimicking the situation in Turkey a decade ago. Others (Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya) will fight back with arrests, shootings and pro-regime street demonstrations. Some of these regimes will collapse soon and be replaced by more democratic systems (Libya and Yemen); others (Syria and Bahrain) will probably remain in power, but with considerably more stress within their systems, making it likely that domestic protests and serious political challenges will recur in the near future. The third group (Jordan, Oman, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia) faces varying degrees of less ominous domestic challenges, to which the countries will respond by negotiating constitutional changes that bring about limited reforms.
Changes within Arab countries will redraw the map of regional relationships and power politics. The most intriguing and important countries in this respect are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Iran; and, a fascinating aspect of this is how the three powerful non-Arab states of Israel, Turkey and Iran are simultaneously disoriented and almost flailing in their unimpressive attempts to come to terms with changing Arab realities.
In response to the sustained and often profound incompetence of the Arab countries in asserting their roles in defining the security architecture of the Middle East, in the past several decades Turkey, Israel and Iran have emerged as the leading regional powers (with the United States in Iraq and elsewhere being the fourth one). Now, all four of them have been caught off-balance, not sure how to respond to the Arab Spring because they are aware of what they might lose if the Arab world democratizes and is governed according to the will of its citizens, rather than according to the narrow fears and expensive greed of small ruling families and associated elites.
It is clearer than ever that non-Arab powers have a limited long-term impact in the Arab world when the Arabs themselves assert their identity and sovereignty. Turkey and Iran in particular now understand better the limits of their soft and hard power. Turkey has made substantial inroads into the Arab world with its commercial and contracting sectors, and elicited much populist support for its tough postures toward Israel and even the United States. Iran has also elicited widespread Arab applause for its foreign policy positions on Israel, Hezbollah, or nuclear power (though it also generated equally strong Arab opposition among many in Lebanon and the Gulf).
However, Arab applause for Iran and Turkey has proven to be limited in its depth. Ordinary men and women across the Arab world like to see Iranians and Turks stand up to and criticize the United States and Israel – especially when most Arab governments failed to do so in the recent past. Many Arabs cheered Iran and Turkey because they had little to cheer about in their own sovereign Araby. But when Arab governments start showing some self-respect and sensible policies that touch the hearts and minds of their citizens, Iran and Turkey suddenly become less enticing, because Arabs can once again turn to themselves to satisfy their sense of dignity and self-confidence.
Israel, Turkey and Iran all seem confused about how to respond to the changes under way. They are caught in a dilemma of whether they should support Arab citizens’ democratic rights or stay with the proven legacy of the predictable and largely stable relations they have with Arab autocrats and dictators. Major foreign powers face the same challenge, especially the United States, the Europeans, Russia and China. They have mostly come down on the side of the freedom-seeking citizens in Libya, but in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen there is more ambiguity in their responses.
What makes this moment so satisfying to many in our region is that for the first time in almost a century, Arab citizens are driving many of the changes under way. The regional and foreign powers that used to define our world now have to respond to indigenous Arab rights and rational national policies with a measure of clarity and consistency that they had long ignored in the recent past.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.