Don't Party like It's 1989: Today's Turmoil in the Middle East Looks More like the Stillborn Revolutions of 1848

Article excerpt

THE UPRISING IN EGYPT and challenge to the Middle East's autocratic rulers could have produced a sense of deja vu for the late German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt. Notwithstanding her reputation as a progressive thinker, Arendt believed that the erosion in the power of Europe's conservative ruling elites and the strong national states they controlled helped set the stage for rise of totalitarianism and the horrific wars that engulfed Europe in the first part of the 20th century.

As Arendt pointed out in her classic study The Origins of Totalitarianism, the inability of these ruling elites in France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Slavic states to retain their legitimacy in the face of waves of nationalist convulsions ignited by "the people"--the opening chapter being the uprisings of 1848--led to the collapse of the post-Napoleonic European order that had been negotiated in the Congress of Vienna. This created the conditions for the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian empires and resulted in decades of tyranny and bloodshed. A direct line connects the "Spring of Nations" and the wars of the last century.

From that perspective, the protests in Egypt may not mark the beginning of a peaceful transition to liberal democracy along the lines of what happened in the former Soviet bloc in 1989. Instead, the insurgencies in the Middle East look more like the revolts of 1848, the start of a long and chaotic era that will not necessarily bring about political and economic progress. The narrative that romances the revolution could be replaced with a much more complex story, one with no happy ending.

Under this scenario, the U.S. as the current upholder of the global and regional status quo has become weaker, less confident, and more constrained in its ability to secure the foundations of the world order--including the shaky Pax Americana in the Middle East, where the U.S. might not be able to prevent the decline and fall of its Arab minions.

The U.S. has been the last in a series of global players trying to achieve hegemony in the Middle East since the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Britain and France took over control of the region and divided it between themselves. In pursuing their Mideast strategy, the British relied on two major players: the mostly secular Arab-Sunni elites ruling states that included large nonArab and non-Sunni groups--the Kurds, Berbers, Shiites and Christian Maronites, Copts and Assyrian--and the Zionist leadership in Palestine that con fronted growing opposition from the local Arabs.

After World War II, a bankrupt British Empire--which had lost the power and will to confront the rising anti-imperialist Arab nationalists and manage the growing confrontation between Jews and Arabs in Palestine--passed the torch of securing Western interests in the Middle East to the Americans. Then, in a process that accelerated after the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, the U.S. placed the Middle East on the top of its foreign-policy agenda, with a succession of presidents (Truman, Nixon, Carter) committing Washington to containing Soviet expansionism in the region, securing Western access to oil resources, and protecting the Jewish State.

Under the bipolar system of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed for hegemony in the Middle East through their regional clients--the Arabs states, Israel, and the non-Arab powers on the "periphery," including Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia. Toward the end of the Cold War, there were signs that the regional status quo was being challenged. The 1979 revolution in Iran eliminated a key pro-American client while the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement negotiated that year marked the beginning of the end of Soviet influence. At the same time, Lebanon's Shi'ites, Iraq's Kurds, and the Palestinians were beginning to assert themselves.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was on its way to becoming the undisputed hegemonic power in the Middle East: containing the power of Iran and Iraq; promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; and protecting Israel and the pro-American Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. …