Early 2011 displayed eerie similarities to 1989—history, it appeared, was repeating itself. First Tunisia, then Egypt and later Libya overthrew long-reigning despots much like Eastern European countries did two decades ago. As the year draws to an end, what does the Middle Eastern ledger look like?
A one-word summation would be: uncertain. Tunisia is the only country that has effected a successful transition to democracy. In Egypt, the generals are proving to be reluctant democrats and in Libya, the temptations of tribalism are yet to be overcome, notwithstanding some respectable leaders the post-Gadhafi order has thrown up. Syria, a late entrant to this revolutionary club, is still in ferment.
The two countries to watch—for very different reasons—are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt—as in the wider Middle East—“secular” politics of all varieties (Nasserism, Baathism and Communism) has been exhausted in the last 70-odd years. The field has been left open for two rivals—the Muslim Brotherhood and the conservative Al-Nour party. The two “models” before the country are the Turkish or the Pakistani model. Had Hosni Mubarak departed from the scene a decade earlier, the Brotherhood would have been a clear victor. A Turkish variant of “political Islam”—free markets coupled with the conservative desires of the populace —would have stabilized matters a great deal. Today, the competition with Al-Nour complicates matters. If the generals align with Al-Nour, the “Pakistani road”—a military aligned with ultra-conservative and radical clerics—appears more likely. The global economic meltdown has made markets and, in turn, the Turkish model a tad less attractive. The year 2012 will be crucial for Egypt.
One analyst has even argued that 2011 (and 2012) has lesser resemblance with 1989 and looks more like 1848, an earlier revolutionary occasion in Europe. Turkey today looks more like a liberal England and Saudi Arabia more like conservative Russia of that age. And Egypt more like France than Romania or East Germany. There is merit in this argument.
It requires no extensive commentary that each country’s history is unique. The Middle East and Europe, however, have been exceptions in that they present trends that have continental dimensions. The Middle East, whether viewed from the prism of a pan-Arab identity or the charms of political Islam has to be, perforce, viewed in that manner. Seen from that perspective, revolutionary upheavals there will not be complete so long as Saudi Arabia and Iran remain outside the ambit of those movements. That, however, is an uncertain prospect.
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