It’s tempting to compare developments in the Middle East to historical ones. The current geopolitical struggle has been likened to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War when deadly religious and political conflicts raged before the establishment of the modern “Westphalian” nation states. The Syrian Civil War can be compared to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s which was heavily swayed by foreign intervention. Regional tensions are eerily reminiscent of the Cold War’s chilling peace, assured by the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation, especially as Iran develops nuclear arms. Receding American power reminds some of the midcentury decline of the British Empire, the erstwhile “global policeman.”
However, as Mark Twain (apocryphally) said, history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. Many analysts extrapolate the Middle East’s future based on historical parallels. When taken together, however, these disparate rhymes don’t quite make a neat harmony. The cacophony of comparisons reflects the difficulty to grasp and forecast the the Middle East’s future. It reveals social and political shifts unprecedented in the region’s modern history, as strained governments repress a growing desire for more freedoms.
The recent economic recession, coupled with events that the West has a hard time understanding and reacting to, has led to significant indecisiveness and inaction. Western nations don’t quite know what to make of General Abdul Fatah Sisi’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example. His brutal crackdown against the Islamist group has put his role as impartial steward in question. In the case of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons or the support of Syrian rebels against Bashar al-Assad, the West has refused to use force and halfhearted diplomatic efforts have frustrated its allies.
Accordingly, regional powers, in particular Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are taking matters into their own hands.
The Saudis displayed their displeasure with the United States with surprising force by refusing a seat on the United Nations Security Council last month. They have entered the fray in the Syrian Civil War, plotting an independent course in their support of the rebellion. They have also granted a huge sum of money to Egypt’s Sisi, after the United States cut their aid. Iran, meanwhile, backs Assad and seeks to develop a nuclear bomb as a means to defend its own independence of action.
These two countries are doing their best to shape the outcome of what has been dubbed the Arab Spring. That wave of protests, which had different proximate causes and results in every country it affected, had the same underlying pressures: economic difficulties and political exclusion. Rising food and fuel prices, inefficient economies, lack of jobs, a dearth of political freedoms and decades of repression brought about unparalleled frustration which burst onto the scene in early 2011. Only Israel and Turkey had built societies that could adequately handle these issues. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen were rocked by revolutions and proved unable to effectively govern their peoples and manage their economies. Some of these countries, in particular Iraq and perhaps Egypt, are reverting to autocratic tendencies. Although democracy brought great change, it did not fix enough fast enough.
The outcome of these events is hard to forecast precisely because they are so radically different from what has come before in the Middle East. The desire for freedom and progress among Middle Eastern peoples, and its messy struggle against the too familiar autocratic reflex among their rulers, will shape their future. Even in Iran, where sanctions are taking their toll, and in Saudi Arabia, whose king is hard pressed to keep his subjects happy with handouts, governments are finding it difficult to contain the pressures that overwhelmed their neighbors.
Coming full circle, one further historical analogy can cast some light on the outcome of this momentous transitional period.
In 1848, revolutions shook Europe to its core. Similarly to today’s Middle East, the demand for more accountable and participative democracies, along with serious labor disputes, caused explosive public unrest. However, after this “Spring of Nations” — the Arab Spring’s namesake — was quelled, Europe looked rather similar to the way it did before. The social grievances that were aired were nonetheless glaring and Europe would inexorably become more democratic. After catastrophic wars, centuries of autocracy and decades of communism, Europe is now mostly democratic and at peace.
Bearing this in mind, it may be that the economic and social issues brought to light during the Arab Spring won’t be resolved any time soon. Reactionary reflexes and impatience with democracy threaten their future. However, in these revolutionary times, now that the people of the Middle East know the power of their voice, autocrats are unlikely to have the same control they did before. Perhaps this is, like it was in Europe, the beginning of a transition to democracy, one that will be slow and turbulent.
This article was published as the winning entry in an internship competition at Wikistrat, the world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy.