The collapse of the regime in Tunisia, the rebellion in Libya (which looks to be
all but over), and the military takeover of Egypt represent profound historical
events, but not a “spring.”
All the countries whose foundations were
laid by Arab nationalism are entering a new stage. In some ways, this began with
the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Cold War. The Cold War pitted Arab
nationalism against the monarchic regimes supported by the West. The first
nationalist regime to fall was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, followed by the
victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections and the rise of Hezbollah to kingmaker
in Lebanon’s parliament. Later, the destruction of the secular regime in
Tunisia, rebellion in Libya and Yemen and the vanquishing of Hosni Mubarak moved
the ball further along.
The rebellion in Syria actually brings things
full circle. Ba’athism, as articulated by Michel Aflaq, a Syrian
Christian Arab, began in Syria in the 1940s, and it will die in
Syria. Arab socialism, nationalism, pan-Arabism; all of these secular
ideologies that once looked so strong are dying. Meanwhile, the monarchies in
the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco remain stable.
This is the long-term effect
of the insertion of Western ideas and values into the Middle East prior to the
Cold War. Arab nationalists embraced modern European concepts of
nationhood. Many were Christians who used nationalism as a means to
transcend religion, much as Jews embraced communism in Russia to improve their
social status. For a decade it seemed as if these Arab nationalists were quite
powerful. Gamal Abdel Nasser invaded Yemen and bombed Saudi Arabia, while
exporting his ideas to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya.
brought stagnation, and in almost every nationalist country it was the children
of the dictator – Bashar Assad, Gamal Mubarak, Saif Gaddafi – who were groomed
to rule following their fathers. Because the nationalists were unwilling to
murder large numbers of people, because their ideology had ossified, and because
their militaries were not beholden, they withered on the vine. Monarchy and
Islamism have proved more resolute.
Another change that the Middle East
has undergone is realignment in its relations with the US. In the aftermath of
the Cold War, the US imposed its will on the region, since the countries had
nowhere to turn for support. Those who were not friends of America, like
Syria, Iran and Iraq, became outcasts. However, after 9/11, American experts
realized that the US-Saudi relationship – a lynchpin in the American strategy –
suffered from multiple-personality disorder. The Saudis were close to the
Americans, and at the same time supported, directly or by proxy, Islamic
terrorism against the West. A Saudi established al-Qaida, and most of the 9/11
hijackers were Saudi nationals.
To wean itself off Saudi oil and a
poisoned marriage with its rulers, the US launched a war in Iraq, one of whose
corollaries was to democratize Iraq and create a new, preferably secular
American friend in the Middle East. But the war ended up costing billions, and
has resulted in a weak and chaotic Iraq.
Iran stepped into the breach,
emboldened by chastised American power. In just a few short years, the Iranian
octopus spread its tentacles through Syria to Hezbollah, engineered proxy wars
with Israel, and undermined the Gulf regimes.
The Arab spring was merely
a small afterthought in this process, a final reckoning between the weakened
Arab regimes and their slumbering masses.
To excuse internal weakness,
many Arab commentators view the Arab world as a trampled and humiliated victim.
This is particularly the case when it comes to the effects of
colonialism. Intellectuals speak often of the supposed setbacks their
countries suffered under colonialism, without acknowledging that for the most
part, Western countries colonized the Middle East for just over 20 years,
compared to 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule.
Western scholars accept
this characterization under the guise of Orientalism. The West blames the US for
weak Arab regimes, and excuses nasty dictatorships because of Israel. But the
reality is that the Arab regimes had great agency over the past 70 years, agency
they spent in acquiring weapons, building palaces, undermining one another and
If Syria falls, it will be the last nail in the
coffin of secular Arab nationalism. The media likes to focus on the tiny group
of intellectual Arab elites who supported the uprisings this spring, but
everyone is beginning to realize that it is the Islamic parties that will be the
big winners if there are elections. What few have foreseen is the degree
to which the post- 2011 era in the Middle East will be dominated by
non-leaders. After all, who are the leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and
Iraq? Even in a democracy, one needs, from time to time, a leader whose name
rings out. We are entering the era of boredom in the Middle East, boredom
backed by chaos and nonstate actors like Hamas and Hezbollah, that desire to
worm their way around state lines without taking responsibility for the state
Arab nationalism/monarchism, Islamism, the rise of Iran, the
weakening of American influence and scapegoating of the West for internal
malfeasance are the five ruined pillars upon which the next era in the Middle
East will be built.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a
fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.