A little over two years ago, the world was enthralled by the peaceful overthrow of two of the Middle East's most repressive military leaders, Zine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. And these two seismic political shifts exposed the fault line of embedded authoritarianism throughout the Arab region, launching successful anti-authoritarian rebellions in Libya and Yemen, and calls for reform nearly everywhere else. Suddenly Arabs and outside observers were exhilarated by rapid steps towards political accountability and a less arbitrary rule of law, despite reasonable words of caution from experts to not expect democracy overnight.
Two years later, not only have these clear-headed caveats proven correct, it is also easy to fall back on a different flavor of the despair that dominated analyses of Arab politics before 2011. Tunisia's moves towards a more representative democracy with a constitution that protects civil rights robustly have been stalled by problems maintaining a politically diverse coalition government following the assassination of a prominent opposition figure. The situation in Egypt is worse, with the heavy-handed authoritarian tactics of President Morsi widening the fissure between his Islamist political supporters and everyone else, while the country's severe economic problems spiral out of control.
If it even makes sense to compare bad Arab political situations, things are worse still in Syria, where the horrific toll of life since the civil war to remove Assad started is rivaled only by the uncertainties of what kind of government, if any, will be able to rule that country after the dictator is gone. And don't get me started on the many recent developments in Israel and the Palestinian territories that dim the prospects for a Palestinian state or a war-free Israel.
In all of these places, two general trends stand out. First, common ground between activists seeking to more fully Islamicize state politics and less explicitly religiously-focused activists has decreased dramatically in recent months. Current practices such as members of these different political orientations in Egypt marking their paper currency in order to clarify their Islamist position underscore how far current Arab politics has moved from the alliances that cut across religiopolitical lines to overturn decades of dictatorship.
As my own research has suggested, Arab political systems which have developed ways to allow, rather than repress, some degree of open official or activist Islamist politics since the 1980s have been spared the degree of bipolarity that we are seeing in the countries that banished the expression of contemporary political Islam. Yet all Arab countries have unresolved issues around modern communal pluralism and the place of Islam in national political life.
A second troubling trend throughout Arab countries is the persistence of authoritarian political structures and practices. Again, experts like me were careful even in 2011 to temper our enthusiasm for the real and dramatic changes in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, with the likely entrenchment of repressive institutions or individuals that had many years to embed themselves in Arab countries. Nonetheless, there is no pleasure in observing how similar to Mubarak has been Morsi's recent use of emergency powers.
All of this notwithstanding, there are still signs that Middle Eastern politics is moving in directions that warrant long-term hope and American support, if not necessarily short-term optimism. Here as I well I should mention two basic points. First, Islamist politics as a vague, uncompromising and/or extremist tendency is likely on the decline. The problems Morsi and his supporters are facing governing Egypt and the shift of operations of al-Qaeda affiliates from Southwest Asia to Northwest Africa, though definitely challenging to democratically-inclined policymakers, are also signs of decreasing popularity for Islamist movements that flout citizen rights or advocate anti-Western violence.
It is critical that outside observers distinguish between the desire many Arab Muslims have to integrate their values more closely into their political systems, which is and will stay of central significance, and success for political Islamists with a violent, uncompromising or anti-Western agenda, which appears to be dimming with every post-2011 authoritarian move or attack. If Islamic politics are here to stay, extremist Islam loses power every day.
The second point for hope is the ongoing political ferment and reformist pressures throughout the Arab world. If the aftermath of two years ago is much more messy and less immediately democratic than we might have wished, authoritarian politics are no longer business-as-usual in most Arab states. Arab monarchies, generally more secure than army regimes because of their relatively greater ability to incorporate Islamist politics and separate the kings from particular government officials, have accelerated reforms amid growing demands for greater accountability.
Even in Saudi Arabia, a political system unusually resistant to change and highly stratified along gender lines, headlines have been made recently by the inclusion of women for the first time in the country's equivalent of Parliament, the Shura Council. Of course, in Egypt and Tunisia, the newly-elected leaders have already learned that their Islamist credentials do not insulate them from bad decisions or, in the case of Morsi, authoritarian power grabs.
The Middle East remains at a highly delicate moment, with effective Western policies and medium-run trends far from clear. Like most observers, I watch events with concern, mindful that divisive politics and authoritarianism remain strong, and well-aware that Iran, the Palestinian occupation and Islamist militant forces remain significant drags on broader regional progress. Yet the current regional delicacy is all the more reason to step back, avoid rash judgments of the Arab Spring's failure, and continue to ponder how the U.S. and other interested parties can help sustain and empower the genie of legal and political accountability, now that is definitively out of its bottle.