Beware the confident

As with most cases of lumping together complex phenomena, critical nuance has been sacrificed for psychological simplicity.

Undoubtedly, we are witnessing an unusual confluence of significant events in the Middle East and North Africa: the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the ongoing attempt at revolution in Egypt, and the comparatively smaller demonstrations calling for change in Algeria and Yemen, the dissolution of the Hariri government in Lebanon, and the release of the Palestine Papers.
Superficially, these developments appear tied together by their destabilizing effects on regional regimes, and indeed, they are often presented as manifestations of a broader phenomenon, of “something big going on.”
As with most attempts to lump together complex phenomena, however, critical nuances have been overlooked in favor of psychological simplicity. The political dynamics of Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, the Palestinian Authority and every other regional state differ meaningfully from one another, as do the responses required to address each state’s fluid situation.
FOR THE US in particular, how each of these crises is handled could determine the nature of American relations with Middle Eastern peoples for years to come. It bears repeating that al-Qaida’s rise was led by the untolerated opponents of the Egyptian autocracy and the Saudi monarchy, both of which are widely seen as illegitimate and propped up by American support. As to whether these phenomena are related in any meaningful way, only time will tell.
The variety of local circumstances and the obvious uncertainty about how things will play out should give pause to observers. Nevertheless, conclusions have not been slow in coming. Alas, it is a staple of psychology that people interpret ambiguous data to conform with what they want or expect to see.
Thus the number of confident interpretations of recent regional events should come as no surprise: The Palestine Papers, we are told, reflect both the PA’s seriousness and lack of seriousness in negotiations and indicate that Israel must either act to reach an interim agreement, a final agreement, or no agreement; the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt show either how Arab democracy or Islamist domination are just around the corner; the collapse of the government in Lebanon tells us Hizbullah is either on the ropes or about to take over the country.
Among the commentators, few minds have been changed. For most, this new “evidence” has simply been incorporated into long-held, often ideological arguments. With so many contradictory, though plausible, interpretations, caution should rule the day. Prediction is easy; accurate prediction is not. Self-assured prognosticators should be met with skepticism.
If it seems that many of these contradictory conclusions sound familiar, that’s because they are nearly identical to those presented with every spasm of political instability in the Middle East. For all the talk of “never before” regarding recent events, all are primarily manifestations or confirmations of things already well known. Egypt’s overpopulation and staggering unemployment, Tunisia’s middle-class discontent, Lebanon’s shaky interfaith power-sharing agreement and the PA’s extensive security cooperation with Israel have all been recognized for a long time. Little wonder that some observers’ conclusions seem prefabricated.
With regard to Egypt, many have wondered aloud whether a post- Mubarak government will be democratic or Islamist (and there are of course other possibilities). At first glance, this might appear to be a false dichotomy, but the tension between these two outcomes is real. Of course, to alleviate this tension, the Islamist parties would have to convince the public of their allegiance to the region’s republican constitutions so consistently ignored until now.
And the public for its part would have to be truly convinced before casting their votes.
Fears of an Islamist regime are well-founded among those who value freedom of expression and religion and women’s and minority rights.
Beyond the Islamist parties’ questionable commitment to individual rights, however, the big democratic question for these movements remains: Are free and fair elections only a means for acquiring power, or for transferring it as well, if that is the will of the people? Ultimately, it is up to Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to address the fears they have aroused. This too will shape the Middle East’s relationship with the Western states in years to come.
The author is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.