Seven years ago, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in defense of his dignity, unknowingly triggering an avalanche of public demonstrations across the Middle East. People in the region wanted what was denied to them for almost a century — a fair order, better lives and a little breathing space.
Seven years down the road, what the people got in return is upgraded despotism and chaos.
Cab gossip is not an entirely infallible guide to world affairs. But a few weeks ago in Istanbul, a chatty driver said, “They say there will be a war. That’s what everyone who gets in the cab is talking about.”
The speculation about a “regional war” is becoming widespread, and to a large extent, that has to do with the death of an idea. Call it progress or democracy, but people in the region have no more reason to believe in a linear progression of history — that in time, all nations will become freer, more prosperous and more democratic. Any notion that Turks, Arabs or Persians could live under free regimes is long dead — both on the streets of Cairo and in the international community.
Seven years after the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Middle East has nothing to look forward to. Democratic demands in countries such as Bahrain, Turkey and Egypt have long been squashed by the regimes. Economic reform has descended into corruption. Liberalism is lifeless; secularism has no backers; Baathism, Arab nationalism and, some argue, Islamism have long since failed. Ideologies are gone – but so is hope for change.
Even countries that once had a fair chance of establishing a democratic order, such as Turkey, are backsliding. With the partial exception of Tunisia, there is a stoic acceptance of what the late Fouad Ajami called the region’s exceptionalism — the idea that the global spread of democracy and prosperity has bypassed the Middle East for several generations. Freedom will likely bypass this generation, too.
Of course, this sense of hopelessness does not directly lead to war. But it does mean there is a lot less to lose — and that populist despots could use nationalist fervor to make up for their lack of legitimacy.
“I really don’t know what will happen,” I told the cab driver in Istanbul. Could the Saudi crown prince’s internal crackdown be a precursor to a war against Iran? Is Israel gearing up for another showdown with Hezbollah? Will Baghdad continue to battle Iraqi Kurds — or will Turkey’s internal Kurdish war spill over into Syria?
Or can all of the above happen simultaneously, after a small trigger like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, bringing the Middle East into a Hobbesian trap unseen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire?
The Middle East wasn’t always so heartbreaking. Back in 2011, when the world collectively believed — for about 10 minutes — that the region was on the verge of a democratic revolution, I was at the Munich Security Conference listening to Hillary Clinton. The then-secretary of state delivered a passionate plea for the region’s leaders to reform: “In the Middle East, we have not yet seen security and democratic development converge,” she said. “… For decades … governments have not pursued the kind of political and economic reforms that would make them more democratic, responsible and accountable. … The status quo is simply not sustainable. So for all our friends, for all the friends in the region including governments and people, the challenge is to help our partners take systematic steps to usher in a better future where people’s voices are heard, their rights respected and their aspirations met. This is not simply a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity.”
But somewhere along the line, after a successful counterrevolution in Egypt, the mess in Libya and Iraq, and the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the Arab Spring has become a joke. A quiet Western consensus has emerged that it is futile to push for democratization in the Middle East. No Western leader would deliver the type of message that Clinton did in 2011, including Clinton herself. Despots are firmly entrenched and are more than willing to enter transactional deals with the West. Western leaders no longer have the motivation or faith to encourage democracy.
When it comes to the Middle East these days, the buzzword in the international community is “stabilization,” as opposed to “transition.” No one is betting on democracy any more.
But has the equation that Clinton set out back in 2011, that dictatorships are inherently unstable, changed? Not really. Monarchies or repressive regimes are ultimately bound to produce instability. The gap between the people and the governments is still wide. Region’s despots are still not providing good governance. Societies are still deeply divided and unequal.
Worse, the Middle East is now without a safety net. The notion of armed conflict is not new in the region, but this new round of tensions is taking place against a backdrop of an increasingly fraying liberal world order — with little self-confidence about its ability to transform the world. A self-absorbed and cacophonous United States no longer see a role for itself in providing regional stability or lifting the Arabs on the bottom ranks of the U.N. human development index. Russia is in the Middle East only to prop up the Syrian regime and its own sense of national pride. Turkey is too vulnerable domestically to fulfill its promise to be a regional “model,” and Iran is essentially just interested in expanding the power of its sectarian policies.
No good can come out of this mix.
So back to the idea of war. Unfortunately, the conditions are all there. Borders may well change, countries could become ungovernable, and non-state actors could undermine the power of central authority in places such as Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. Sectarian wars could well rummage through the region for the next decade with the world watching the destruction of some of the world’s oldest human habitats.
When the idea of democracy is dead, what is there for anyone to lose?