Arab Spring

The witches' cauldron is boiling furiously with momentous effects all over the world. An Arab Spring of popular protests against autocratic governments has spread to almost every country in the Arab world, resonating also in Iran and parts of central Africa and eliciting protective responses as far away as China.

The most remarkable thing about the Arab Spring is the rapidity of its spread and of its two seeming successes so far in Egypt and Tunisia. The protests of 1968 spread over more of the globe, but much more slowly and with no comparable or particularly swift successes. The revolutionary movements across Europe in 1848 were by and large defeated quickly by the deployment of government force. Another remarkable thing about the current wave of demonstrations has been the willingness of the protesters to persist, nonviolently for the most part, in the face of lethal violence, and this willingness to sacrifice also is an important explanation of their successes. The fact that Syria and Iran are among the countries affected is yet another distinguishing feature: Protests have occurred with similar objectives both within Washington's "allies," such as Egypt and Jordan, as well as its "enemies."

Libya is a case onto itself: Once an enemy and truly terrorist state, more recently a tolerated member of the community of oil-producing countries that host U.S. and other western producers. Libya is also unique thus far in the defection of only part of its armed forces and the subsequent assault on civilians and rebel soldiers by the sizable portion of the military still loyal to the regime. Much of this can be explained by deep tribal divisions between the east and the west of this artificial country, something like the dramatically different political and social alignments of Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iran. Libya is also distinctive, at least for now, as the only country that has catalyzed a military intervention from Europe, the U.S. and the Arab League. The avowed intention is to protect the lives of innocent civilians from a murderous regime. But it seems quite obvious that all the participants would like to topple the Gaddafi regime in order to put an end to the perceived source of violence and to earn favor with the successor regime in this oil-rich country.

The idea that these objectives can be satisfactorily achieved by simply dropping bombs from the sky attests to the persistence of disproven ideas despite in this case over 65 years of evidence. Bombing Tripoli in an effort to kill Gaddafi and his numerous offspring and minions will only intensify the hatred and resentment of the inhabitants of western Libya against any new government based on the eastern tribes or sponsored by countries now dropping the bombs. Another glum prospect is Libya divided into a Gaddafi ruled west, well-armed and suffering from a Western-Arab blockade and a rebel-controlled east, with an incomplete economy and government, suffering from sabotage and other attacks from Tripoli despite the no-fly, no-drive zones.

The hopes aroused by these protests and uprisings are clear and great. The potential problems are as well. Aside from the difficult tangle of forces now interacting in Libya, the consequences of democratic regimes emerging to govern Egypt and Jordan, or remaining in power in Lebanon and Turkey, could ultimately lead to tragedy. While there is no evidence that any of the rebellions embrace Islamic fundamentalism or favor a new jihad against Israel, there is every reason to believe that a democratic Egypt, for example, would not countenance continuing participation in the blockade of Gaza based solely on that region's democratic election of a Hamas government some four years ago. Why would Egyptians want to deny food and medicine to their neighbors in Gaza?

Senator, and Secretary-of-State-in-waiting, John Kerry has already explained the Washington, and certainly also the Israeli view of this possibility, consistent with the view both countries now take in support of the Gaza blockade. After noting that "democratic elections in Lebanon and in Gaza had produced victories for militant groups that sometimes used their power to subvert freedoms," he went on to say that "an election alone does not make a democracy." A fair translation of this is that when Egypt opens its border with its neighbor Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, a consistently nonviolent, democratic element in Egyptian life, will be labeled a terrorist organization and Egyptian democracy will be denounced as fake. A democratic Egypt that reflects its peoples sympathy with the Palestinian plight will certainly face multiple and intense pressures from Washington. Worse still, Egyptians might wake up some morning to find Israeli, perhaps even U.S. armed forces occupying their side of the Gaza frontier.

A similar menu of fates could well be in store for other new Arab democracies, assuming of course, that U.S., UK and French interference does not kill such democracies before they are born. Why else did our Secretary of Defense fly to Cairo to meet with the Egyptian military and proclaim that democracy had to be implemented more slowly than the Egyptians were planning in order to develop (with U.S. advice and money) the political capacity of groups other than the Muslim Brotherhood? And why else have the British and American ambassadors to Yemen been participating in the negotiations between President Saleh and General Amah about the civilian panel that will replace them as an interim government -- with the most recently failed deal calling for Saleh's son and nephews to remain in charge of the US created, trained, armed and financed "counter terrorism" forces? If history repeats itself, few of the democracy movements will ultimately succeed in replacing autocracies with democracies. In addition, if the history of the 1930's repeats itself, the current escalation in violence will prove only the beginning.