Building the New Middle East?

Article excerpt

For many Arabs, the true winter came to an end in 2011. Yet somehow, many pundits and experts have come to argue that some of the setbacks and worrisome or even brutal aspects of the Arab rebellions of the past months amount to the beginning of an "Arab winter". To be sure, there is much cause for concern, and many people have suffered enormously. The element of surprise is gone, allowing autocratic regimes to regroup and dig in violently, most prominently in Syria. In Egypt, the transition continues to be in danger. From Tunis to Cairo, Islamist parties have celebrated electoral victories, worrying many. Meanwhile, the future regional order and balance of power are completely unclear, and the challenges the emerging democracies are facing in building functioning institutions and in delivering on economic and social issues could hardly be any bigger. However, the Arab rebellions remain cause for tremendous hope. Legitimate government is the one true counter against the appeal of extremist ideas, and the people finally play an important role in Arab politics. Whatever ends up happening, it is hard to imagine a worse outcome than the past. As Ali Tarhouni, an important figure of the Libyan transition, put his country's struggles to Foreign Policy: "Will it be a perfect story? No. [But] it will not be the same sad story as before." We have learned a few things about this new story over the past year: The Arab world will be more democratic and more Islamist (which at first might mean illiberal), as well as more volatile, complex and complicated than ever before.

As a result, the uncertainties of how to deal with the new Arab world should not come as a surprise. Among many crucial issues that stand out, three are particularly salient: First, in spite of the various understandable concerns, alarmism in light of the successes of political Islam is premature, as it is much too early to tell how the mainstream of political Islam will evolve once Islamists are governing. Surely we do not want to suggest that voting for Islamists disqualifies Arabs as democrats. …