Tunisia, where it all began, recently carried out free elections. But that country — small, ethnically and religiously homogenous, and prosperous — was always a more likely candidate for a successful transition to democracy. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Saudi troops helped orchestrate a crackdown on demonstrators in Bahrain, regime forces gun down protesters in Syria, and Yemen crumbles into civil war, with al-Qaeda running rampant in the countryside. In Libya, we see warlords, Islamists, tribal leaders and would-be democrats vying for power in the post-Gaddafi world. And in Egypt, where the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February gave us the defining images of the Arab Spring, the military is trying to keep its hands on power.
So what went wrong — and what will an Arab Winter mean for the Middle East, the United States and the rest of the world?
The reason the Middle East has long seemed like infertile soil for democracy is not because Arab peoples do not want to vote or otherwise be free — poll after poll confirms the opposite — but rather because entrenched dictators had long imprisoned or killed dissenters, bought off opponents, undermined civil society, and divided or intimidated their people. And when dictators fall, their means of preserving power do not always fall with them.
In Egypt, the military ushered Mubarak out of office, but stayed in as a supposed caretaker and is reluctant to relinquish power. Now the security forces have again shot people in Tahrir Square. In Yemen and Libya, tribes and other power centers often opposed the old order, but they saw one another as rivals, too. Throughout the region, the police and the judiciary are broken after years of dictatorship, but there is nothing to take their place.
Moreover, the demonstrations that led to the ouster of rulers such as Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali hardly offered a clear governing alternative. Although they embodied a genuine outpouring of popular rage, the protests were largely leaderless and loosely organized, often via social media; there was no African National Congress or Corazon Aquino to take the reins. You cannot govern by flash mob.
And the opposition voices that were organized were not necessarily the most democratic. With the Arab Spring, Islamist forces rose to prominence. In Tunisia, a moderate Islamist party won victory in the October elections, gaining 89 of 217 seats in parliament, dwarfing the 29 seats of its nearest — secular — competitor. In Morocco, where the king has opened the political system somewhat, the Islamist party likewise won a plurality of the vote in the November elections.