As media commentators’ breathless enthusiasm for the youthful cyberactivists of the Arab Spring gives way to ominous warnings of a political Winter, two things have become clear: the region is not going through seasonal, but seismic change; and the US, Europe or any other democratic powers have a strictly limited capacity to shape the course of events.
“The path towards democracy will only move forward,” says Ziad Majed, a lecturer on Middle Eastern affairs at the American University of Paris. “It’s impossible for things to go back to coups and despotism after all that has happened.”
But other observers are less confident that the region’s transitions are predetermined, especially given the evident resilience of autocratic regimes and resurgence of illiberal forces.
Western politicians and analysts repeatedly – and rightly – stress that transitions in the Arab world must be locally-owned and driven by indigenous actors, while democracy assistance should be focused on supporting the process and building institutions, not backing specific parties.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that the region’s leading powers – Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – are less timid about intervening in domestic affairs, directly funding and sponsoring parties and candidates, or engaging in ideological warfare for the hearts and minds of newly enfranchised citizens.
The latest manifestation of this new battle of ideas came yesterday when a leading Iranian ideologue attacked Turkey’s system of “secular Islam” as a heretical aberration.
Turkey’s model of “secular Islam” was a version of western liberal democracy and inappropriate for a region in the throes of an “Islamic awakening”, said Ali-Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran’s initial claims that the protest movements of the Arab Awakening demonstrated the masses’ aspiration to emulate the Islamic Republic were “laughable”, a former special assistant to President Obama said yesterday.
There was always an “inherent contradiction” between the regime’s rhetorical embrace of the protesters and its ruthless suppression of their Green Movement counterparts, said Dennis Ross, addressing the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Tehran’s credibility has since plummeted further as Arab citizens observe it “giving license to a killing machine” operated by its closest allies in Syria, he said, while Hezbollah is also now viewed as the sectarian proxy it has always been.
But there are also indicators suggesting that Iran may yet emerge as a beneficiary from the current turmoil.
Despite recent setbacks, “Tehran’s ayatollahs still nurture hopes of spreading their radical model of Islamic politics,” writes Jamsheed K. Choksy, professor of Iranian, Islamic and Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University. “Because the dissatisfaction fueling Arab protest is homebred, they realize that Sunni rulers may not be able to hold the line against fundamentalism.”
As a result of recent elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, he notes, “three Arab nations will be governed by Islamists more sympathetic to Tehran’s causes and less to Washington’s – a major foreign policy shift.”
Iran stands to gain from its surreptitious courting and funding of potential Islamist allies, he suggests:
Indeed once Tunisians concluded voting, Iran’s Foreign Ministry revealed Islamic Renaissance Movement leaders were in regular contact with Tehran while planning election strategies. Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi organizers too visited Tehran frequently, since Mubarak’s fall, in preparation for Egypt’s elections and for Pan-Islamic Awakening conferences. On the military front, powerful rebel army commanders in Libya have ties to Iran’s military. As factions within the new Libyan polity contest one another, the ayatollahs could equip groups sympathetic to them.
Many Islamist groups have portrayed themselves – and been widely accepted – as democratic actors in the West while covertly cozying up to the Islamic Republic. Egypt’s Brotherhood insists that it wants a civil, democratic state to emerge from the current transition, but a prominent member of the group has called for Egypt to become “a true Islamic state” – like Iran.
“The ayatollahs’ ideology and resources remain a potent threat to the establishment of representative governments throughout the Arab Middle East,” Choksy concludes.
While many liberal Arab democrats suffer the handicap of sharing the same secular outlook as the discredited authoritarians, Islamist groups benefit by default from the popular sympathy vote, analysts suggest.
“The various dictatorships that have portrayed themselves as the shield in the face of Islamists have largely participated in raising the popularity of these Islamist parties as a sole alternative to their governments,” says Jean-Pierre Filiu, author of The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising.
While Islamists have built political credibility and constituencies among the poor and marginalized by providing social and welfare services, such ad hoc, paternalistic programs are not a feasible alternative to a genuine program for meeting the expectations for jobs, services and social justice that led citizens to support regime change.
They would “struggle to prove themselves on the ground because of the weakness of their social agenda, which will certainly be one of the main challenges facing the Arab world over the next decade,” says Filiu, a Paris-based professor of political science.
He rejects the phrase “Arab spring” because “the issues that sparked the uprisings are by no means solved….this story will go on for many seasons and many years.”
“I argue it is an Arab renaissance, a second one following that begun in the 19th century, the Nahda,” Filiu recently argued, yet “although it is ‘one revolution’ it is not a ‘pan-Arabic’ revolution [but] a transnational youth movement, similar to those in 1968.”
The shape and direction of the Arab Revolution has yet to be determined. But this would not be the first time that a revolution made by liberal-democratic actors, who prove too weak or disorganized to effect a political transition, ultimately empowers and emboldens conservative, if not reactionary forces.
Just as the monarchies of Russia and Prussia emerged as the prime beneficiaries of 1848’s republican revolutions, are Iran and Saudi Arabia poised to exploit the strategic opportunity that indigenous democrats and Western democracies lack the capacity to seize?