MADRID ― The attack by a Western-led alliance on Muammar Gadhafi’s forces in Libya is driven largely by principled motives. Had it turned its back on the Libyan rebels, the West would have betrayed its very identity.
Of course, the same principles are not being applied to save the brutally repressed masses in Yemen or the Shia protesters in Bahrain. It is doubtful whether they will be extended to Saudi Arabia and Syria, let alone to Iran. Nor is it improbable that a protracted war in Libya would end by vindicating the warning of the region’s authoritarian rulers that the Arab Awakening is but a prelude to chaos.
These built-in contradictions are compounded by the domestic conditions in each of the Arab states, as well as by strategic constraints, all of which define the shades of this uneven Arab Spring.
The legitimacy of hereditary monarchies, a principle established by Metternich, the architect of the post-Napoleonic order, eventually prevailed in the 1848 European Spring. So far, the same principle remains in effect throughout the Arab world today. Monarchies ― in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and most of the Gulf dynasties ― still appear to their subjects to be more acceptable than secular autocracies. The vulnerability of the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, which rely on rigged elections and a repressive state apparatus, reflects their lack of any acceptable source of legitimacy.
Of course, the Arab monarchies are not entirely immune to the threat of popular uprisings. But, because their legitimacy stems from a religious or even divine source, rather than on a fiction of democratic support, as was the case of the Arab presidents, their rule is less questionable.
Moreover, unlike the Arab “republics” ― almost all of which arose from “socialist’ revolutions or military takeovers that promised grandeur and social justice, only to end in corrupt, repressive regimes ― the region’s monarchies never promised Utopia. All such promises in history have ended either at the gates of the gulag or, as in Egypt and Tunisia, with the deceived masses’ cathartic overthrow of the rulers. In none of the Arab monarchies have protesters gone after the king’s head; their demand is for limits on absolute power, not an end to the monarchy.
The revolutionary map is also influenced by attitudes toward the West. A sad lesson of the West’s duplicity with regard to democratic reform in the Arab world, which both Syria and Iran have been happy to embrace, is that pro-Western moderate leaders who gave ground to pro-democracy protesters ended up being swept away, while those who brutally crushed their opponents are hanging on. The West, after all, never put irresistible pressure on any Arab regime to undertake reforms, and deserted its autocratic clients in Tunisia and Egypt only when they failed to nip the revolutionary bud. The lesson is that the West will coexist with tyranny, provided that it is swiftly and efficiently repressive.
The United States, in particular, has been far more lenient with regard to the repression of democratic movements in the Gulf than it was in Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya. For, in the Gulf, the issue for the U.S. is not democracy versus autocracy; it is one of an Iran-led Shia axis versus the Sunni pro-Western incumbent regimes.
Given rampant fear of Iranian influence, the movement for democracy in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is bound to be stifled with U.S. connivance. The Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain is aimed at curtailing Iran’s effort to make headway in the region on the waves of Shia unrest.
Indeed, the uprising by Bahrain’s Shia majority has now become a struggle for regional mastery between Iran and the U.S.-backed Sunni monarchies in the Gulf. Even Turkey, an ally of Iran whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sharply criticized the military intervention against Libya ― lashing out at the West for viewing the region as “as a pawn in oil wars for decades” ― called on Iran to restrain its bellicose rhetoric during the Bahrain crisis.
The Saudi monarchy’s immunity from U.S. pressure for democratic reform owes much to fear of the “Shia crescent” looming over the Gulf, with Iran at its center. Indeed, Saudi Arabia views political empowerment of Iraq’s Shia majority as a calamity of historic proportions, a view vindicated by Iraq’s outspoken support of Iranian designs in the Gulf. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki joined the Iranian chorus against “the intervention of Sunni forces in a neighboring state.” He was seconded by the Iraq’s powerful Shia leader, Mukhtada el-Sadr, and by its supreme Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who urged Bahrain to get rid of the “foreign forces.”
It has become fashionable to lay the blame for the vicissitudes of Arab democratization on the West. But historical turning points have never been characterized by easy choices, and human blunders frequently shape outcomes more than human wickedness. In their admirable march to civil liberty, the Arab peoples must face a preliminary test of any democracy, however incipient: assuming responsibility for the consequences of one’s decisions.
By Shlomo Ben Ami
Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, now serves as vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.” ― Ed.