Analysis: Short spring, long winter

The rise of Islamists following Arab Spring has complicated Israel’s approach to its regional neighbors.

Protests in Morocco 311 (photo credit: (Reuters))
Protests in Morocco 311
(photo credit: (Reuters))
The results are in: Over 55 percent of readers voted the Arab Spring as the biggest Middle East story of 2011. In second place was the Iranian nuclear threat, with almost 23% of the vote.
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One year ago, Tunisian street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest social and political injustice in his country. The flames he lit spread like wildfire across the Arab Middle East, in lands parched by dictatorship, censorship, extreme inequality, brutality and fear.
Fueling these fires was technology.
Gone were the days in which Arab regimes could monopolize information and present their propaganda on a single state television channel to the masses. Today, every citizen with a smartphone and an Internet connection could become his own correspondent or pundit. The ship of government-controlled news struck an iceberg, and sank.
Before long, the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were toppled like dominoes. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime has been massacring Sunnis by the thousands to stay alive. Sectarian strife nearly tore Bahrain apart. Iraq sans American presence may not survive the next year intact. The region is in uncharted waters.
Around the world, champions of liberal democracy applauded impulsively.
Many heralded the era of an “Arab Spring.” In Israel, however, few were applauding. Not because Israelis did not want to see their Arab neighbors live in democratic, prosperous societies – just the opposite.
Israel, situated in the heart of the Middle East, is familiar with the fundamentalist tide that has gradually been rising around the region.
Many Israeli observers knew that sudden, anarchic changes to the region were unlikely to open the gate to moderate, democratic forces; rather, they were likely to unleash fanatical ideologies and movements that have been brewing for decades within repressive Arab states.
Sure enough, the Arab Spring is turning into a dark winter. The most important Arab country, Egypt, just completed two out of three election stages, and has welcomed the Islamist, deceptively pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood into power. The even more hardline Salafi al-Nour party is in a strong second place.
Secular liberals and leftists are but a small blip on the radar screen.
They will not have a say in Egypt’s path at this juncture in history.
As a result, Israel now has to prepare itself for an Egypt ruled by the same movement – the Muslim Brotherhood – that set up Hamas, which currently runs a terroristinfested regime in Gaza.
The Egyptian military, as unpopular as it is, is the only organization that can check the new Islamist government.
It is struggling to hold on to power. If the military disappears from the scene as a political force, the peace treaty with Egypt may be downgraded to an uneasy truce at best.
The same scenario is possible, though significantly less likely, in Jordan. The Hashemite royal court enjoys more popularity than Hosni Mubarak ever did, but as 2011 has shown, it is impossible to know what tomorrow will bring.
Islamists also came to power in Tunisia.
In addition to the empowerment of Islamist regimes, the collapse of the old regional order has created whole areas that are free of government sovereignty. This is most visible in the Sinai Peninsula, where jihadi terrorist organizations are taking full advantage of the breakdown in law and order to set up bases, smuggle arms and plot attacks.
To the north, Syria, traditionally a problematic yet rational foe, imploded into a state of civil war.
Israel must surely be watching Damascus’s arsenal of weapons, which includes chemical missiles, for the first sign that they could be transferred to Hezbollah’s hands.
A collapse of the Assad regime would likely bring mixed results from an Israeli perspective. The good news would be that a pro- Iranian ally and a key sponsor of Hezbollah would vanish from the scene. Iran’s ability to transfer arms to its Shi’ite proxy in southern Lebanon would be heavily damaged, and Tehran’s leverage on the eastern Mediterranean would be minimized.
The bad news could be that a Sunni Islamist government may replace Assad and join forces with other new Sunni Islamist governments such as Egypt.
Perhaps most frustrating is the failure of Arab Spring fervor to penetrate Iran, where the opposition is still licking its wounds after being battered by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s henchmen in 2009.
For in the midst of this turmoil, Iran is still racing toward a nuclear weapon, and time is running out for Israel to make a decision on how to proceed. In such an unstable environment, the option of a strike on Iran’s nuclear program becomes much more complicated.