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The clash within

The Arab world is entering a long period of intra-state and intra-regional instability

Written by New York Times |
April 12, 2013 2:24:08 am

The Arab world is entering a long period of intra-state and intra-regional instability
Thomas L. Friedman

I guess it’s official now: The term “Arab Spring” has to be retired. There is nothing spring-like going on. And so the strategist Anthony Cordesman is probably right when he argues: It’s best we now speak of the “Arab Decade” or the “Arab Quarter Century” — a long period of intra-state and intra-regional instability,in which a struggle for both the future of Islam and the future of the individual Arab nations blend together into a “clash within a civilisation.” The ending: TBD.

When the Arab Spring first emerged,the easy analogy was the fall of the Berlin Wall. It appears that the right analogy is a different central European event — the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century — an awful of mix of religious and political conflict,which eventually produced a new state order.

Some will say: “I told you so. You never should have hoped for this Arab Spring.” Nonsense. The corrupt autocracies that gave us the previous 50 years of “stability” were just slow-motion disasters. Read the UN’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report about what deficits of freedom,women’s empowerment and knowledge did to Arab peoples over the last 50 years. Egypt,Tunisia,Libya,Yemen and Syria are not falling apart today because their leaders were toppled. Their leaders were toppled because for too many years,they failed too many of their people.

Also,“we” did not unleash the Arab Spring,and “we” could not have stopped it. These uprisings began with fearless,authentic quests for dignity by Arab youths,seeking the tools and freedom to realise their full potential. But no sooner did they blow the lids off their societies,seeking governments grounded in real citizenship,than they found themselves competing with other aspirations set loose — aspirations to be more Islamist,more sectarian or to restore the status quo ante.

Still,two things surprise me. The first is how incompetent the Muslim Brotherhood has been. In Egypt,the Brotherhood has presided over an economic death spiral and a judiciary caught up in idiocies. Every time the Brotherhood had a choice of acting in an inclusive way or seizing more power,it seized more power,depriving it now of the broad base needed to make necessary but painful economic reforms.

The second surprise? How weak the democratic opposition has been. The tragedy of the Arab centre-left is a complicated story,notes Marc Lynch,a Middle East expert at George Washington University. Many of the more secular,more pro-Western Egyptian political elites who could lead new centre-left parties,he said,had been “co-opted by the old regime” for its own semi-official parties and therefore “were widely discredited in the eyes of the public.” That left youngsters who had never organised a party,or a grab bag of expatriates,former regime officials,Nasserites and liberal Islamists,whose only shared idea was that the old regime must go.

The old sources of stability that held this region together are gone. No iron-fisted outside powers want to occupy these countries anymore,because all you win today is a bill. No iron-fisted dictators can control these countries anymore,because their people have lost their fear. The first elected governments — led by the Muslim Brotherhood — have the wrong ideas. More Islam is not the answer. More of the Arab Human Development Report is the answer. But the democratic opposition youths don’t yet have leaders to galvanise their people around that vision.

Given all this,America’s least bad option is to use its economic clout to insist on democratic constitutional rules,regular elections and political openness,and to do all it can to encourage moderate opposition leaders to run for office. That is the only way these societies can give birth to their only hope: a new generation of decent leaders who can ensure that this “Arab Quarter Century” ends better than it began.

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