Two years in the life of the Arab Awakening already feels like an exhausted century, with the pendulum swinging from exuberance to extreme fear. Reckonings with tyranny considered unimaginable a mere five years ago have taken place across North Africa, alongside a descent into savage civil war in Syria, chaos in Yemen, violence in Lebanon and the tremors of quakes still to come in virtually every corner of the region.
Everything has changed when it comes to the exercise of power in the Middle East. And yet, in too many capitals contending with its new condition, nothing has changed.
With the rush to rename the two-year Arab Spring into an “Arab Autumn” or even, among those with strikingly short memories, an “Arab Winter,” it’s worth recalling what this revolutionary movement really was about.
Leave aside the simplistic Western narrative about the Arab uprisings representing the final unspooling of a universal urge for “democracy.” Far more threatening to this moment’s legacy is the way in which Arab leaders across the region are seeking to redirect the passion of an engaged public toward canards and chimeras, new and old.
The roots of the Arab Awakening are as explosive as they are straightforward: a demand for government that is legitimate in its relationship with the governed and one that is accountable for its actions. Has my government earned a right to exercise power, and can I remove it if I believe it has failed to deliver on its promises for greater security, opportunity and prosperity?
These are the existential questions posed today by Arab men and women — united in their quest, finally, to live as citizens, and not merely as subjects.
Instead of seeking to meet their peoples’ demands, however, too many Arab leaders are betting on a mix of fear, inertia and confusion to change the subject. Masters of distraction, they are seeking to replace the alibis of old — “resistance” to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and resentment of the power of the United States — by stoking new, and far more dangerous, fears.
Principal among these is Iran, and its challenge to the 30-year regional status quo in the Gulf dominated by Saudi Arabia and its allies, backed by the United States. Second, and related to this, is the so-called “Shia crescent” emerging from the ruins of the invasion of Iraq and spreading west through Syria and Jordan into Lebanon. Third, the emergence of political Islam as a conquering transnational movement.
Make no mistake: Iran is playing a dangerous and destructive role through every proxy at its disposal; a rising Sunni and Shiite sectarianism is threatening to unleash another wave of conflict across the Middle East; and the experience of political Islam in power (see: Iran) does not inspire confidence in its ability to respect the rules of legitimate government.
Legitimacy is the specter that is now haunting the halls of power throughout the Middle East. Much as many of the region’s embattled leaders wish to deceive their allies in the West, themselves and their people that this is about perfidious Persia, Shiite sectarianism or political Islam (as threat or savior), the reality is much simpler: The Arab young want competent, responsive and responsible rule.
Properly understood, this is an opportunity for Arab leaders — including the kings and sheiks. Difficult as it is for them to adjust to public demands for accountability and efficiency, they are far less equipped to manage the inevitable blowback from stoking sectarian war within their own countries or a greater confrontation with Iran.
They and their backers in the West would be wise to consider whether they would not be in a much stronger position to manage the new threats if they ruled with the support of their citizens.
A decade ago, as an aide to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, I took part in a meeting in Cairo with then-president Hosni Mubarak. The meeting was proceeding as usual until, in response to an expression of concern about human rights abuses in Egypt, Mubarak abruptly changed demeanor and delivered his standard ultimatum: It’s him or the Muslim Brotherhood.
Was Mubarak right? Well, yes, but only up to a point, and only because he made it so by ensuring that the only effective opposition to his rule was channeled through the mosque.
Last month, leaving a meeting in Cairo with Egyptian policy makers and diplomats struggling to make sense of life under a Muslim Brotherhood government, I entered a crowded Tahrir Square that was preparing for yet another mass protest. Only now the chants were against President Mohamed Morsi.
Power’s purpose has never been so contested, or so contingent, as it is today in the Middle East. Genuine legitimacy must now be earned, and re-earned, through the accountable exercise of power.
This is, in one respect, a major threat to the region’s leaders — as much to the new Islamist governments as it is to the unreformed monarchies and republics.
More importantly, however, it is an opportunity for forward-looking leaders in the region to create a sustainable basis for their rule — one that isn’t based on a shell game of threats and excuses.
Nader Mousavizadeh is chief executive of Oxford Analytica and the co-author with Kofi Annan of Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.