The "Arab Spring": Democratic Promise or Threat?

By Rozenman, Eric | Midstream, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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The "Arab Spring": Democratic Promise or Threat?

Rozenman, Eric, Midstream

Arab mass protests for "democracy" have ousted Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, imperiled Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh and Libya's Muammar Ghadafi, and roiled other autocrats and tyrants from Algeria through Jordan and Syria to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. These upheavals may remake Arab countries like the 1989 collapse of the Soviet empire remade Eastern Europe. But whether or not the "Arab awakening" brings democracy, theocracy, or renewed military rule, it has upended Israel's already-dangerous neighborhood in ways that may leave it more threatening. One conspicuous example: Gone is last year's comforting notion that a tacit united front of Israel and Arab states including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates not only opposed but stood ready somehow to act against Iran's nuclear weapons program.


For 32 years, Israel's peace with Egypt, cold and stunted as it was, meant that a pan-Arab conventional war, including the biggest Arab country, was virtually unthinkable. The Israeli democracy and Egypt's autocracy cooperated, more or less, on military and counter-terrorism matters--regardless of Egyptian public opinion. The United States counted both countries as allies (though the value each provided varied widely) and supplied both with billions of dollars in military assistance. Israel gained greatly by being able to turn its security focus from its southwestern border.

Now assume that what were termed, often simplistically, democracy movements eventually lead to representative governments in a few or more than a few Arab countries, Egypt in particular. Popular regimes may prove less tolerant of a Jewish state in their midst than the Washington-dependent dictatorships they displaced and American-leaning autocracies they left compromised but still in power. All the anti-regime upheavals were driven by local conditions--corruption, repression by narrow ruling elites, economic stagnation or growth that failed to create enough jobs to satisfy a demographic bulge of better-educated youth, and digital social networking that allowed protesters to outflank police state controls. Israel and the Palestinian Arabs ranked low if at all among causes of unrest. Nevertheless, as demonstrations wore on, signs and slogans associating unpopular rulers with the United States and Israel appeared. And when CBS News reporter Lara Logan was sexually assaulted in Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the mob shouted (erroneously but instructively) "Jew! Jew!"

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism have been among the few durable bonds within and between Arab nations. Ironically, the more representative Arab governments become, and the more the United States encourages or, at a minimum, does not obstruct their rough progress from one-man, one-party rule, the more--at least in a short run lasting some years--popular anti-Jewish, anti-Israel passions may be tolerated as genuine and therefore legitimate.

It's Turkey, non-Arab but Islamic and a key Middle East player, which may provide a useful guide as to what comes next. Virtually unresisted by the United States or other NATO (North American Treaty Organization) allies, Turkey's "mildly" Islamist Justice and Welfare Party has been overseeing a relatively low-profile but incessant unraveling of its secular democracy. Democratically elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2007, headed by Israel-baiting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it has jailed on dubious charges senior officers in the military, the ultimate guarantors of Kemal Mustapha Atamrk's post-Ottoman forced secularization. Erdogan's government also has persecuted opposition journalists and packed the courts with sympathetic judges. Quietly but determinedly, the ruling party in Ankara has reversed the Middle East's most important non-Jewish secular democracy in favor of what might be termed, with inherent contradiction, Islamist democracy.

The Turkish government tacitly supported last spring's Gaza flotilla, an international anti-Israel propaganda stunt led by the Hamas-linked Turkish charity called IHH.

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The "Arab Spring": Democratic Promise or Threat?


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