These domestic forces often deter democracy in subtle ways, but some other reactionary forces are more brazen. In March, Saudi troops drove across the causeway to neighboring Bahrain, backing a brutal crackdown against Shiite protesters. At home and abroad, the Saudis have spent tens of billions to buy off dissent. Riyadh has pushed fellow monarchs in the Arabian Peninsula and in Jordan to stop any revolutionary movements, and the Saudis are offering a haven for dictators down on their luck, such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali.
The Saudi royals not only worry about their own power diminishing, but fear that change elsewhere would be an opening for their arch-rival Iran and for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As Middle East expert Bruce Riedel puts it, the Saudis have proclaimed a 21st-century version of the Soviet-era Brezhnev doctrine: “No revolution will be tolerated in a bordering kingdom.”
A faltering Arab Spring doesn’t mean we will return to a world of dictators and secret police. Not only are Mubarak, Ben Ali and Moammar Gaddafi gone, but so are the cults of personality they nurtured. Bashar al-Assad may cling to power in Syria, but he will be isolated abroad and hollow at home. Even regimes that have experienced limited unrest — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria — are entering a new era.
Where old regimes survive, they will be weak; where new ones come in, they will be weaker, because old institutions can be destroyed more quickly than new ones can be built. Both new and old leaders must play to public opinion, and this may lead to rash, incoherent foreign policies, as politicians make campaign promises that are not in their countries’ interests to fulfill.
Israel, of course, is the easiest card to play. A Pew Research Center poll taken after Mubarak’s fall found that Egyptians favored annulling the 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel by 54 percent to 36 percent, and — no surprise — many mainstream leaders have criticized it. Indeed, Israel can serve as a perfect diversion to struggling governments. In May, as unrest swept across Syria, the regime encouraged Palestinians to march across the Syrian border into the Golan Heights, leading to four deaths when an Israeli border patrol shot Palestinians as they broke through a frontier fence.