When the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid led to an avalanche of protests in Tunisia in January 2011, nearly the entire Arab world began to rock with popular uprisings. Unforeseen protests by Arab youth seemed to catch diplomats, politicians and students of Middle East politics unprepared. The initial reaction of the pundits was that a long awaited wave of democratization appeared to have arrived.
Then, the initial euphoria began to subside as the events in Yemen and Libya turned into tribal warfare, and in Syria into sectarian civil war. Since we have no evidence in human history that tribalism leads to democracy, pundits began to wonder whether the Arab revolts were ushering in democracy, tribalism or yet another form of authoritarianism such as theocracy.
Indeed, Yemen had been experiencing anti-government protests before 2011. But with the revolt in Tunisia, the Yemeni uprisings gained greater relevance, followed by those in Bahrain, Egypt and Syria. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco experienced minor stirrings, which were met with some reforms or, in Saudi Arabia, washed away with petrodollars. The Bahraini revolts were crushed by force with the military aid and intervention of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners. Formerly effervescent Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi and Algerian politics seemed not to have changed into anything more tumultuous.
Eventually, Yemen experienced merely a change of leadership as the main political actors preserved their positions. Egypt also experienced the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, his family and close entourage, where the military took over the reins of government and began to manage the transition to popular or populist rule. Libya, with the onslaught of NATO forces on the side of the rebels, slid into a tribal civil war, which led to the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi and his regime. Syria also moved from peaceful popular protests to armed conflict between Muslim Brotherhood-led Sunni communities and the Alawite-dominated regime.
Interestingly, different interlocutors took part in influencing events from Tunisia to Yemen to Syria. It looks as if the two Wahhabi political regimes of the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been playing a major role in all of the theaters of conflict through the use of soft power, bolstered by enormously deep pockets. Curiously enough, these two major Wahhabi states are not readily identifiable with democracy and individual liberties, especially when it comes to women, yet they seem to be pressuring Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria to democratize.
The United States, European powers and Turkey appear to have collaborated with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in locking horns with Iran and its Shiite allies. In contrast, Wahhabi support for the Salafist Al-Nour party in Egypt seems to precipitate serious concern for democracy in Egypt in the eyes of American and European politicians.
Israel continues to be concerned about Iran’s nuclear power while enjoying the emergence of neighboring challengers of Iran, with a Wahhabi-Israeli-U.S.-European-Turkish alliance emerging by default in the Middle East, in which Turkey and Israel are at odds with each other as well. The potential severing of the ties linking Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine seems to be the goal of this alliance. Russia and China appear to be holding to a more status-quo-oriented path as they try to keep NATO from moving into Syria in a repeat of the Libya affair.
Syria does not seem to be as easy a target as Libya. The European powers have shown no eagerness to get involved in a Syrian civil war. The U.S. also has no taste to get involved in another Middle Eastern affair as the presidential election approaches. Instead, all sides seem to be cajoling Turkey to do the dirty work in Syria.
But the Turkish government perceives in Syria the danger of intensifying conflict with Iran, and feels the weight of history as a major disadvantage in trying to redesign the Syria affair. While the conservative government of Turkey harks back to Ottoman times as a golden era, the Arabs remember it as their dark age. A Turkish intervention in Syria would intensify anti-Turkish feelings not only within Syria but probably in the rest of the Arab world – attitudes the former zero-problem and open-borders policies of the Erdogan government were trying to ameliorate.
While Syria, Libya and Iraq are grappling with tribal and sectarian strife, Tunisia seems to be enjoying calm and to have the highest chance of developing some form of democracy in the foreseeable future. Egypt appears to be following a path in-between these two extremes. Evidently Syria, the new Middle East theater of conflict pitting Sunni-Wahhabi against Shiite political forces, is robustly moving to replace Lebanon as a space of conflict. It should come as no surprise if we observe a protracted struggle of the main sectarian Muslim forces before any major change occurs in the Middle East.
Ersin Kalaycioglu is a professor of political science at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He specializes in comparative politics, with emphasis on Middle Eastern and Turkish politics. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.