The Reckoning

Arab Spring, One Year On: Winners and Losers (Part II)

images of five dictators with Qaddafy crossed off

One down, four to go. Or more?

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

We pick up the list at the third category: Too Close to Call. But first, a review of Part I:

Outright Winners: Tunisia

Winners with Caveats: Turkey, NATO, Democracy, Monarchy, Qatar, France.

So, if you like, start with Part I. Otherwise, here’s the rest of my list. 


Egypt: The jury has been out in Cairo ever since the trial of Hosni Mubarak and his sons ended last summer. While I remain on the optimistic side – I see the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to eschew alliance with the radical Islamists who took nearly a quarter of the parliamentary vote as a genuine, rather than tactical decision – the remnants of Mubarak’s regime could still muck it up. The military, very much Mubarak’s old guard, has dragged its feet on the transfer of power to those who made the revolution and now appears to be singling out “troublemakers” for beatings and worse. The strategy pursued by the generals, from my vantage point, appears to concentrate less on Tahrir Square than the economy. The great under-reported story of post-revolutionary Egypt is the near collapse of what was once a relatively well run economy. If you think Spain is “too-big-to-fail,” watch out when food riots start in Egypt. The U.S. has done nothing with its remaining leverage to address this, concentrating again on lofty statements about transferring power. Yes, yes, that’s great. But, together with the IMF and other donors (including, one hopes, the fickle Saudis), there should be enough leverage to get the generals to stop doling out patronage money and start privatizing the military-industrial headlock on the economy. This, I think, poses a greater danger than an Islamic militant takeover.

Libya: Who’s running the country, and on whose behalf? Until those questions are answered, the otherwise excellent story of Qaddafi’s overthrow can’t have a happy ending. This was, after all, not Tunisia or even Egypt – both relatively peaceful. Libya was a near civil war, and its factions (as often happens) were allies of convenience. The West has been right to stay out of the horse trading post NATO-operation, but should do what it can at the margins to encourage an inclusive government is formed in Tripoli that, eventually, lessens the city-state rivalries that grew during the liberation struggle. The good news: oil is flowing, the “lot” of the people should improve, discouraging another round of violence. Fingers crossed.

The Arab League: Not since its decision to send the combined armies of its member states to attack Israel in 1948 has the Arab League done anything as momentous as its call for armed intervention to protect Libyan civilians this year. As a one off, that might have been notable – Qaddafi, after all, was always the smelliest skunk at the skunk’s picnic that was the Arab League. But by following up with a suspension of the bloodthirsty Syrians later in the year, the Arab League raised itself above its disappointing history of hot air and lock step dogma into a body capable of influencing events in the region. Not quite a winner yet, but if there were an award for transforming a previously moribund international institution, the Arab League would win it going way in 2011.

Britain: London’s reputation for duplicity is second to none in the Middle East. The Iraq war, co-sponsored by Tony Blair, only deepened the historical mistrust. But Britain’s frontline role in Libya, along with the backbone it showed by slapping new sanctions on Iran, raised its reputation a bit. The road back to favor for the power that gave birth to the Arab-Israeli conflict is a long one, but every journey begins with a single step.

Iraq: Iran’s loss is Iraq’s gain. Yes, I know, everyone says the real winner of the Iraq war was Iran, and there’s something to that. With U.S. troops gone, Iraq could quickly descend back into a Sunni-Shiite civil war, something Iran would love to see.

But Iran has lost its mojo in the region, and Iraq is unlikely to want to join it in diplomatic and financial isolation. Iraq’s oil sector potentially could rival the Saudis and it is structured in a very un-Iranian way (providing more flexibility for foreign investment, for instance, and important financial incentives for modernization). Unless Prime Minister Maliki is quite nuts – and the evidence on this goes both ways, I must admit – he will focus on rebuilding Iraq’s only important industry after decades of neglect, keeping the US as an under-the-table ally and playing footsie, but not ball, with Iran. I’d say 50-50 for a good outcome here.


The United States: President Obama performed a deft pirouette as the Arab Spring began, pledging in his 2011 State of the Union address that America’s support was “with the people” of Tunisia – even before Tunisia’s regime fell. That was prescient and risky. The dance was a bit rougher in Egypt, but still passable. Once Bahrain exploded, however, American “interests” took precedence and the cards had to be placed on the table. The old rule of the region prevailed: countries able to influence global oil prices (Saudi, the UAE) are giving a pass to crack down on dissent while others with lesser influence (Syria, Libya, Yemen) get the cold shoulder or worse. The US continues to argue that it objected to the Saudi-led invasion that crushed Bahrain’s protest movement, but the Arab world sees a double standard.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has continued to fail in its most important Middle Eastern role – getting Israel to face up to the new realities of the region. Israel should be hearing a consistent refrain: Settle with the Palestinians now, while you still have the upper hand. The iron may not ever be this hot. Instead, U.S. peace policy in the region is a shrug and a lot of excuses why it can’t be done right now (with a whispered kicker, “it’s an election year, after all!”)

But for the collapsing influence of America’s twin nemeses, Iran and al-Qaida, this would be disastrous for America. Still, it’s dangerous and more than a bit ironic. Just as the Arab world begins to embrace the concept most representative of U.S. society – democracy – the U.S. appears to have lost both its appetite and its ability to shape a regional agenda. Eventually, someone will exploit that. Let’s hope its Turkey.

Russia: Russia entered 2011 with two close friends in the Middle East: Libya and Syria. It abstained during the U.N.’s consideration of intervention in Libya. Russia won’t make that mistake in Syria. But as in Libya, Russia’s loss there would be humanity’s gain. If Syria goes, I don’t see an entry point for Russian influence in the region other than Iran – and the costs of cozying up to Tehran at this point could be too high even for the Kremlin.

Germany: Disgraced itself over Libya, frankly. German’s role in Iran nuclear talks have been productive, if secondary, and it remains a paper tiger, burdened still by history and, in spite of a decision to sell Leopard II tanks to the Saudis, not much of a power in the region. Hopes that its powerful economy could underpin a “soft power” diplomatic influence have come to just about nothing, and when real action is necessary, German is a deer in the headlights (see: Eurozone Crisis, Chapters 1-284).

China: Dreams of displacing U.S. power in the region dance in the head of a nation painfully dependent on Persian Gulf oil. In many ways, a Sino-Saudi alliance makes a lot more sense that a U.S.-Saudi one. But China’s own thin skin when it comes to democracy protests showed through this year – the bloom is off the orchid. So paranoid was the Communist Party in Beijing that China banned the sale of jasmine in market places. You can’t make this stuff up. As for the Mideast, China’s role will be to bolster repressive regimes with trade and hope to build a firewall around those opening to the world.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council: The GCC-approved intervention in Bahrain last spring gave a whole new meaning to the word “cooperation.” Cooperate, or we’ll invade! Perhaps Bahrain’s leaders did invite the Saudi tanks to cross the causeway, we’ll never really know. But the decision undermined any pretense of reform in most of the GCC states, with Qatar perhaps the one exception (see above). Saudi has embraced a policy of no change – indeed, it reacted to the Arab Spring by creating a new club of monarchies and funding a rash of “research” that proves kings make better rulers. This is, in the 21st century, whistling in the graveyard. Saudi influence is diminishing (as is that of the GCC, based on oil and natural gas finds in the western hemisphere). It’s malign influence on Islam, where Saudi and Gulf money seeds and fuels the spread of the most radical interpretations, will continue for some time. But the time when the US had to tolerate this is coming to an end, and rising powers like China and India will take an even harsher view of that activity.

Israel: Denial is a river between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Nuf said - though this is a topic I plan to expand on early in the New Year (since I’ promised no more “gloom” in 2011).

Syria: Bashar al-Assad will be gone by 2013 – there, you can hold me to that. The speculation keeping the world from pushing more aggressively for this is a fear that Syria’s long-repressed Sunnis will turn on Assad’s Alawite clan (and the Syrian Christian sects and Kurds allied with them). Unfortunately, the way to avoid such a bloodbath is not to “win” against the majority who want Assad out; it is for Assad’s own Baathist Party to engineer an ouster led by a patriotic faction within the Syrian military, restoring some credibility to what is now a group of butchers. Then,  create a government of non-political experts, invite opposition groups to participate and schedule elections. And if you don’t think all that is likely, you see clearly why I have Syria listed as a “loser” in all this. Unfortunately, I see civil bloodshed persisting before and after Assad’s ouster. Therefore, the sooner he goes, the sooner the violence burns itself out, the better.

Military Regimes: Here’s a quiz: Which of the military regimes in the Arab world has managed to survive the past year relatively unscathed? Here’s a hint: The capital is Algiers. Anyone who views Algeria’s government system as a model to emulate hasn’t been to Algeria. Following one of the worst civil wars of the 20th century during the 1990s, Algeria continues to be ruled by a Mubarak-esque state of emergency regime. Its economy grows at a pace that does not keep up with population growth, and in spite of vast oil reserves, its people remain miserably poor and subject to human rights abuses. Great system.

The others fared worse: Egypt’s military famously helped topple Mubarak but has failed to manage the aftermath; Libya’s has been swept away; Yemen’s military regime has fallen into chaos, and Syria’s is on the brink of civil war. Even in Turkey, the military has been on the defensive.


Iran: Did you notice how, at various points during the Arab Spring, Iran released a statement intended to approvingly note that one of its enemies – Mubarak, the Saudis, the Jordanians – were facing domestic discontent? And then, as soon as it became apparent in each case what the discontent was about, Iran shut the fuck up. Allah be praised! If there is any major state-level loser in the events of the past year, it is Iran. Working away at their nuclear dreams, increasingly isolated as a result on international markets and diplomatic forums, they now have been displaced as the favorites of the average person in the Arab world by the Turks – a NATO nation – and have watched as secular revolutions topple dictatorships and (so far) elect parliaments pledged to tolerance.

Of course, nuclear armed losers are no laughing matter – even the late lil’ Kim had to be taken seriously. But the emergence of nonviolence as a credible movement in the region, the revitalization of the Arab League, and most of all, the injection of public opinion as a factor in the future of the region, all argue against new theocracies modeled on the Iranian one. Iran’s one great lever at this point is its ability to threaten instability through its proxies (Hezbollah, al Sadr in Iraq) or it’s yet to be completed nuclear capability. My guess is none of the three will turn out to be the trump cards some believe they are.

Moreover, Iran’s own Green Revolution was the real precursor to the Arab Spring. Green things don’t generally die – they just hibernate, sprouting a new in another season.

Al-Qaida: It goes beyond OBL’s death – though as a coup d’gras, rarely has the term been more apt. Instead, in spite of two decades of plotting, murdering and bloviating via smuggled videos about how Muslims would rise to demand the restoration of the Caliphate, Muslims instead rose to demand – jobs, an end to corruption, and the right to vote in free elections. God is Great, after all.

The Palestinians: Beyond the above points on al-Qaida, the effects of the Arab Spring on the Palestinians has been interesting to watch. Mubarak, for all his faults, took the lead in trying to mediate between the feuding Hamas and Fatah factions. With him gone, ironically, a rapprochement appears to be developing out of necessity. That’s a key step forward. And yet….

It can’t have gone unnoticed that their half century of violent struggle has accomplished only a stillborn state (and a simmering civil war), while the Tunisians, employing the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., toppled a dictatorship in less than a month. Expecting the Israelis to take the initiative on a settlement – even when it is absolutely in their interests – is a forlorn hope. Israeli politics is profoundly broken. But could Israel really stand up to a concerted nonviolent movement by Palestinians? My bet is no. But such a movement has failed to materialize.

Who knows, maybe next year in Jerusalem?

Follow me on Twitter and preorder my book, “The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power,” coming in April from Palgrave Macm.