In 2001, a book came out about George Mitchell’s diplomatic work in Northern Ireland that was entitled “To Hell With the Future, Let’s Get On With the Past.” One hopes that such a book will never be written about today’s Arab awakenings. But watching events unfold out there makes it impossible not to ask: Will the past bury the future in the Arab world or will the future bury the past?
I am awed by the bravery of the Syrian and Egyptian youths trying to throw off the tyranny of the Assad family and the Egyptian military. The fact that they go into the streets — knowing they face security forces who will not hesitate to gun them down — speaks of the deep longing of young Arabs to be free of the regimes that have so long choked their voices and prevented them from realizing their full potential.
But I am deeply worried that the longer the fighting continues in Syria and Egypt, the less chance that any stable, democratizing order will emerge anytime soon and the more likely that Syria could disintegrate into civil war. You can’t exaggerate how dangerous that would be. When Tunisia was convulsed by revolution, it imploded. When Egypt was convulsed by revolution, it imploded. When Libya was convulsed by revolution, it imploded. If Syria is convulsed by revolution, it will not implode. Most Arab states implode. Syria explodes.
Why? Because Syria is the keystone of the Levant. It borders and balances a variety of states, sects and ethnic groups. If civil war erupts there, every one of Syria’s neighbors will cultivate, and be cultivated by, different Syrian factions — Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Druse, Christians, pro-Iranians, pro-Hezbollahites, pro-Palestinians, pro-Saudis — in order to try to tilt Syria in their direction. Turkey, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Iraq, Iran, Hamas, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel all have vital interests in who rules in Damascus, and they will all find ways to partner with proxies inside Syria to shape events there. It will become a big Lebanon-like brawl.
Syria needs a peaceful democratic transition set in motion now. Ditto Egypt. But that is easier said than done. Events in both countries are a reminder of the multidimensional struggle for power across the Middle East — what I once described as the struggle between “The Lexus and the Olive Tree.”
On one level, you have the very modern, deeply felt and truly authentic longing by Syrians and Egyptians for freedom, for the skills to thrive in modernity and for the rights of real citizens.
Outsiders often underestimate just how much these Arab youths are determined to limit the powers of their militaries as a necessary step for achieving true democracy. What you see in Egypt today are young people from across the political spectrum and classes who are willing to join forces, break ranks with their own parties and return to Tahrir Square to press for real freedom. This is a generational rupture. It is the old versus the young. It is the insiders (the adults) versus the outsiders (the youth). It is the privileged old guard versus the disadvantaged young guard. These young Egyptians, and Syrians, who have stopped fearing their military masters, are determined to unleash a true transformation in their world. We should be on their side.
But the weight of their history is so heavy. The new Lexus-like values of “democracy,” “free elections,” “citizen rights” and “modernity” will have to compete with some very old Olive Tree ideas and passions. These include the age-old civil wars within Islam between Sunnis and Shiites, over who should dominate the faith, the heated struggle between Salafists and modernists over whether the 21st century should be embraced or rejected, as well as the ancient tribal and regional struggles playing out within each of these societies. Last, but not least, you have the struggle between the entrenched military/crony elites and the masses. These struggles from the “past” always threaten to rise up, consume any new movement for change and bury “the future.”
This is the grand drama now being played out in the Arab world — the deeply sincere youth-led quest for liberty and the deeply rooted quests for sectarian, factional, class and tribal advantage. One day it looks as though the revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia are going to be hijacked by forces and passions from the past while the next day that longing of young people to be free and modern pushes them back.
The same drama played out in Iraq, but there the process was managed, at a huge cost, by an American midwife — managed enough so that the communities were able to write a new, rudimentary social contract on how to live together and, thereby, give the future a chance to bury the past. But we still do not know how it will end in Iraq.
We know, though, that there will be no impartial outside midwife to guide the transitions in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Can they each make it without one? Only if they develop their own Nelson Mandelas — unique civic leaders or coalitions who can honor the past, and contain its volcanic urges, but not let it bury the future.
By Thomas Friedman