The Arab springtime of nations?

April 25, 2012, Wednesday/ 16:05:00

JERUSALEM -- Two things stand out in the Middle East since the Arab Spring began -- one that happened, and one that did not. What happened was that for the first time in modern Arab history, authoritarian regimes and rulers were toppled, or seriously challenged, by popular demonstrations, not -- as in the past -- through military coups.

But what did not happen might be as important as what did. While dictators associated with military juntas were challenged overnight, the Arab Spring never came to the region's conservative monarchies. The dynastic rulers of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States (with the exception of Bahrain) remain more or less firmly in the saddle, even though Saudi Arabia's regime, at least, is in many respects far more oppressive than were the former Egyptian and Tunisian regimes.

Of course, oil money helps to sustain autocracy, but this is not a factor in Morocco and Jordan. It appears that these monarchies enjoy a form of traditional authority that the region's secular nationalist rulers never had. Being descendants of the Prophet, as in Morocco and Jordan, or having custodianship of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, as in Saudi Arabia, bestows a legitimacy on the countries' rulers that is directly linked to Islam.

The only monarchical regime that was seriously challenged during the Arab Spring was the Sunni ruling family in Shiite-majority Bahrain, where precisely this sectarian divide seems to have been the crucial ingredient in the uprising, which was then brutally suppressed with Saudi military help.

Yet, for all of the success epitomized by the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, bringing down a dictatorship is one thing -- a drama lasting a few weeks -- while the transition to a functioning, consolidated democracy is quite another. Here, a lengthy process is involved, and its success -- exemplified in the post-communist transitions in Eastern Europe -- depends on key preconditions.

Where these conditions exist -- for example, a vibrant and autonomous civil society, as in Poland, or a strong pre-authoritarian tradition of pluralism, representation and tolerance, as in the Czech Republic -- the transition is relatively smooth. Where they are lacking or weak, as in Russia or Ukraine, the outcome is much more problematic.

Simply put, a rosy outlook for countries like Egypt cannot be assumed on the basis of exhilarating images on CNN or Al Jazeera or the fact that masses of young, well-educated, English-speaking men and women are connected through Facebook and Twitter. The great majority of Egyptians were not in Tahrir Square, and many of them lack not only access to online social networks but also electricity and safe drinking water. Democracy and free speech are not at the top of their agenda.

Egypt's silent majority also identifies with the authenticity represented by various Islamic groups, while principles of democracy and civil rights seem to them to be imported Western abstractions. So the tremendous victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-Nour Party in Egypt -- as well as that of Ennahda in Tunisia -- should come as no surprise. A similar scenario could unfold in Syria, if and when President Bashar al-Assad falls from power, while both post-Qaddafi Libya and post-Saleh Yemen point to the difficulties that these countries face in constructing a coherent democratic regime.

Looking at Egypt's prospects realistically, one should not exclude the possibility that the two strongest forces in the country -- the military and the Muslim Brotherhood -- ultimately will find a way to share power. The Brotherhood's vision of democracy is purely majoritarian, not liberal: Winning an election, according to its spokespeople, permits the victor to rule according to his views. Minority rights, institutional checks on government power, human rights -- the liberal aspects of democracy -- are entirely absent.

Another, more fundamental, dimension to current and future changes in the region may come into view as well. Most international borders in the Middle East and North Africa were drawn by imperial powers -- Britain, France and Italy -- either after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire (the Sykes-Picot agreements), or, as in Libya and Sudan, earlier. But in no case did these borders correspond with local popular will or with ethnic or historical boundaries.

In other words, none of these countries, except Egypt, had ever been a discrete political entity. Until recently, their rulers had a common interest in keeping this Pandora's Box of borders tightly sealed.

That has changed, and we see the region's imperially imposed frontiers being called into question. In Iraq, the emergence of a de facto Kurdish autonomous region in the north has put an end to Saddam Hussein's centralized Arab-controlled state. With South Sudan's independence, the rest of Arab-dominated Sudan could face further division, with Darfur leaving next.

In Libya, the transitional authorities are finding it extremely challenging to create a coherent political structure that can unite two very different provinces, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, which were held together only by the Qaddafi regime's brutality. In Benghazi, there are already calls for autonomy, if not outright independence.

Similarly, Yemen's unity is far from assured. The divisions between its south and north, which had been two different countries -- with totally different histories -- until Saleh's dictatorship, are resurfacing again.

In a post-Assad Syria, the ethnic and religious fissures between Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, Christians and Kurds might equally threaten the country's unity. In his brutal way, Assad may be right that only his iron grip keeps the country together. And developments in Syria will undoubtedly have an impact on neighboring Lebanon.

The end of communist autocracies in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and even Czechoslovakia brought about a dramatic wave of state creation. Likewise, no one should be surprised if democratization in the Arab world, difficult as it might be, brings in its wake a redrawing of borders. How violent or peaceful this may be remains to be seen.

*Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was Director-General of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. © Project Syndicate 2012