Bloodshed, fragmentation, and repression portend a Middle Eastern future very different from the democratic dreams that many Western observers and some young locals entertained in 2011 and 2012. When the so-called revolutions of the region began to produce instability and violence, some analysts suggested there was no need to worry. What was happening in the Middle East was a process, albeit a painful one, that was common to countries that had undergone transitions to democracy. Yet it turns out that Egypt is not France and even Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s lone “success story”, is not Poland. For various political, structural, and historical reasons, unlike Western Europe of two centuries ago or Eastern Europe of two decades ago, authoritarian instability, not rocky democratic transitions, is the Middle East’s new reality.
The Middle East is not actually different from other regions of the world with the exception of Europe. Most transitions do not succeed. Their failures can radicalize politics and, historically, authoritarianism, not democracy, has been the norm across the world. Yet this kind of macro-level comparison only reveals so much. Beyond establishing that the Middle East is not exceptional, it does not tell observers why democratic change was thwarted and violence both within and in some cases between societies has become so widespread. The failures in Iraq—authored by both Iraqis and Americans—have certainly had an impact on the region. Syria’s conflict is a vortex pulling in fighters, proxies, money, and weapons while spinning out violence within and beyond. The emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in territory taken from the Syrian and Iraqi governments is destabilizing in a different way. Yet Iraq’s wars, Syria’s destruction, and the “success” of the Islamic State do not explain why Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, or even non-Arab Turkey, look the way they do. The failures of democratic development or, in Turkey’s case, democratic continuity or maturation, are just as much a cause of this ghastly moment in the Middle East as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs. What went wrong?
It has become common to refer to events of 2011 as the “revolutions of the Middle East.” Perhaps this is just shorthand for people who do not really know the difference between a state, a regime, a dynasty, and a revolution, but this does not make it any less misleading. Yes, people in a number of Middle Eastern countries rose up and deposed their leaders. New leaders or caretakers emerged, some declaring that they would “protect the revolution” and prepare the society, or the nation, for democracy. Revolutions, when properly defined and understood, are far more complex affairs both in origin and outcome, however. A successful revolution requires an “actual change of state and class structure.” Regimes can change within state structures (as in Tunisia) without constituting a revolution; dynasties can change within regimes, too, (as in Egypt) in ways that fall far short of a revolution.
Moreover, revolutions, which are radicalizing by definition, do not always lead to democracy. Remember that it took the modern archetype—France in 1789—a long, long time to reach a stable democratic outcome, and history provides several prominent examples in which revolutionary upheavals resulted in no democracy at all, but in bloodier and more radical forms of authoritarianism: Russia in 1917, China in 1949, and Iran in 1979, to name but a few. Hard as it may be for the Manichean American mind to imagine that there might be a third or a fourth possible outcome between the status quo ante and democracy, that is exactly the case in the Middle East. It is important to understand this because what the Arab uprisings produced is an important part of today’s Middle Eastern puzzle. In significant ways, they left some countries stuck between an old, discredited political order and a hoped-for yet unattainable democratic political system, with a third force benefitting from the contested political space in between. The failure to sweep away ancien régimes left the forces of progressive political change vulnerable to better-organized and well-financed opponents who do not share their vision anymore than they support the old order. These opponents are mainly Islamists of one kind or another, but the relative positions of the old order, the new democrats and the Islamist forces differs from country to country. To understand this let us look more closely at Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.
Egypt: Longtime Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak may have found himself holed up in a villa under virtual house arrest in Sharm el-Sheikh almost a month after protesters first poured in Tahrir Square, but the political and social order over which he presided and from which they benefited remained intact. In Egypt, there was no purge of the Armed Forces, the General Intelligence Directorate, or the Ministry of Interior. The judiciary was untouchable. And the caretaker governments that administered the country for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed executive authority on February 11, 2011, were made up primarily of people who served Mubarak. It is true that shortly after Mohammed Morsi came to power in mid-2012 he did sack the intelligence chief, Major-General Murad Muwafi, pushed out longtime Minister of Defense Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, and fired other senior commanders, but this amounted to little more than personnel moves that ambitious, lower-ranking officers enabled. The Morsi government never achieved control over the main instruments of state from the armed forces; had it been able it do so, it might have been in a position to make a genuine revolution. But the very same people Morsi promoted brought him down and jailed him eleven months later in large part because the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi was a member, threatened the actual (as opposed to formal constitutional) social and political order upon which the officers and their allies ruled the country.
The real institutions—the laws, regulations, rules, and decrees—that are the foundations of Egypt’s social and political order can be traced back to the 1950s and the Free Officers’ struggle to consolidate their power after toppling the Egyptian monarchy. Paradoxically, Egypt’s leaders have sought to reinforce the (erroneous) idea that they were building a democracy. Since 1956, all of Egypt’s constitutions have set out an array of freedoms and liberties. Egypt’s 2014 constitution is no different, paying homage to “democracy as a path, a future, and a mode of living.” Yet like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and Mubarak before him, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, and the cabinet of ministers have—absent a parliament—produced laws that restrict the press, curb the right to protest, and stifle the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Sisi has also unveiled a terrorism law that recycles aspects of previous laws, but goes a step further by rendering thought a crime.
Egyptian legislation has often rescinded in practice the personal freedoms and political rights that the constitution protects in theory. Sisi’s new restrictions are merely the latest iterations in this pattern now stretching back some six decades. Complementing these formal institutions, in the sense that they are written down, are uncodified norms rooted in past practices that reflect the way things get done because that is the way things have always been done. The formal and informal rules that shaped people’s expectations and behavior in Egypt have not been broken through four years of political turbulence. The discourse may have changed and for a time people may have been bolder in criticizing the government, but Egypt today looks more like it did before the uprising than what the people who instigated the demonstrations dreamed it would be. It may be Sisi’s Egypt, but it is an innovation of Mubarak’s Egypt, which was built on Sadat’s Egypt, which was in turn an evolution of Nasser’s Egypt.
Rather than revolutions, the end of both Mubarak and Morsi’s reigns were salvage exercises intended to reset what the coalition that took part in and supported the military’s interventions believe to be Egypt’s natural political order. In certain ways, both men were ousted to prevent fundamental alterations to a regime that served the interests of the military, the judiciary, and the intelligence services so well. Had Gamal Mubarak succeeded his father in an informal dynastic mode, it would have broken the informal institutional link between the military and the presidency that has made the armed forces senior command so powerful over time. Morsi broke whatever deal he struck with Sisi in the summer of 2012 and sought to remake Egypt consistent with the Muslim Brotherhood’s moralizing authoritarian worldview, which meant he also had to go. As for the revolutionaries, activists, and others who sang in Midan al-Tahrir for days after two Presidents were toppled in eighteen months; they were dupes.
Tunisia: Former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, may have fled to exile in Jeddah on January 14, 2011, and the constitution of 2014 is certainly a departure from the Ben Ali period. Yet the rapturous reporting on it, which creates the impression that congenial Tunisians came together in the spirit of compromise and consensus to produce “the one Arab Spring success story” is highly misleading. Tunisia’s constitution is the product of a rather nasty political fight—as institution building usually is—that pitted very different visions of Tunisia’s future against one another. The constitution represents a draw that has not carried over into electoral politics. The parliamentary and presidential elections held in late 2014 resulted in a soft restoration of the old order. This should not be terribly surprising given the fact that, as in Egypt, the social order that prevailed under Ben Ali survived his fall. Ben Ali and his extended family controlled a shockingly large part of the economy. They are gone—now living in Jeddah, Paris, and Montreal—but the political class that collaborated with them stayed on. They have continued to benefit from an economy that the former leader rigged in their favor.
There was, of course, the chance that in post-Ben Ali Tunisia the forces that coalesced to drive him from power would alter this reality in a new political system, but they came up short politically. Tunisia’s new President, the 88-year old Beji Caid Essebsi, served modern Tunisia’s founder, Habib Bourguiba, as minister of interior, defense, and foreign affairs, and was the President of the Chamber of Deputies in the early Ben Ali period. That did not necessarily make him an ally of Ben Ali, who sought to outmaneuver the “Bourguibists” after he came to power in a place coup in 1987, but this was an incumbent-level political contest, not a struggle over the system. After the elections in late 2014, Essebsi and his party, Nidaa Tounes, sought to form an exceedingly narrow coalition government that intended to keep the Islamist al-Nahda Movement, which held the second largest bloc of seats in the parliament, out of the government. Electoral math made this impossible, resulting in a far broader coalition government in which the two biggest players check each other. This stalemate may prove to be good for Tunisian democracy because it forces parties to work together in ways that reinforce negotiation, compromise, and consensus. Yet this kind of political equilibrium is also vulnerable to disruption from unanticipated events. What the Tunisian case ought to teach Americans—and any other remedial comparative politics student that may happen to be around—is that it is possible to move from a system in which there are sham elections to one in which there are real elections and still not produce anything like a revolution.
The March 2015 terrorist attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis that killed 21 people and the murder of 38 tourists on a beach in Sousse three months later may have constituted that disruption. The resulting anti-terror law, which is almost a hundred pages long and was reportedly debated for a mere three hours, revives many of the same problematic provisions of legislation that existed under Ben Ali, including the death penalty; it also increases the time a suspect can be held without charge from six to fifteen days. The most troublesome part of the legislation is its overly broad definition of what constitutes terrorism. This has often been the way governments in the region have hammered political opponents and justified widespread abuse of human rights as well as the violation of personal and political freedoms that national constitutions guarantee.
This dynamic should be very familiar to Tunisians. After Ben Ali’s 1987 takeover from the ailing, erratic, and autocratic Bourguiba—the first so-called Jasmine Revolution—there was considerable hope that the new leader would break the grip of vested economic interests that had developed around Bourguiba’s state-directed development and allow greater political contestation. This optimism was misplaced, however. Ben Ali, who had been a police general and minister of interior, cracked down on political competitors, specifically al-Nahda, after the 1989 general elections. Although it garnered only about 15 percent of the overall vote, the Islamists did well in districts surrounding the Tunisian capital, far outstripping the totals of all secular parties with the exception of Ben Ali’s party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (the Democratic Constitutional Rally, known by the acronym RCD). Based on the results, al-Nahda’s leadership demanded that the government recognize the group as a political party (its members ran in the elections as independents), which was subsequently denied. In response, al-Nahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, insinuated that the government’s unwillingness to grant his group legal status would not stop its activists and supporters from taking over the political system. Ghannouchi’s challenge provided Ben Ali the opportunity to repress al-Nahda, positioning himself as the guarantor of Tunisia’s secular orientation in the face of “militant Islam.” Tunisia had never been a democracy, but the late-1980s crackdown was the basis for the fearsome police state and kleptocracy that Tunisians rose up against two decades later.
The challenge of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is, of course, far greater than Ghannouchi’s 1989 rhetorical threat, which is why the new anti-terrorism law passed so handily. Al-Nahda’s current deputies supported the law, either confident of the democratic progress that Tunisia has made in the almost five years since Ben Ali’s fall or they were constrained politically to vote for the law, lest they be accused of sympathizing with extremists. It is more likely the latter given who Essebsi is, his worldview, and his party, which represents the social class that benefited most from the old political order. The very fact that the government has resurrected Ben Ali-era laws, decrees, and regulations to meet their current political and security challenges is not surprising. If the more ambiguous aspects of these measures are leveraged to impose Nidaa Tounes’s will on the political arena, the second Jasmine Revolution of 2011 will end up looking similar to the first.
Libya: Libya may have come closest to a successful revolution, but what was left behind after Muammar Qaddafi was pushed from power and killed is just as salient for the country’s future trajectory as it is for other places around the region. While Tunisians and Egyptians who sought to live in more open, democratic, and just societies have had to confront the institutional and social legacies of the old order, Libyans face an entirely different problem. Qaddafi’s “Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya” conveyed the idea of direct democracy in which decisions both large and small trickled up to those who would execute the will of the people. After Qaddafi fell in October 2011, at least some observers hoped that Libya may have had an advantage—relative especially to Egypt—in a transition to democracy. The supposed benefit in Qaddafi’s radical approach to governance for Libya’s new leaders was not that Libyans had become well-practiced in the consensual decision-making and compromise that was allegedly intrinsic to the Jamahiriyya—this was all nonsense—but rather that the country was left with few formal political institutions to speak of. It is easier to pour novelty into a vacuum than into a deep-state political machine.
This was an interesting idea that made intuitive sense, and the elections for the General National Congress in July 2012, in which a non-Islamist, moderate coalition earned a plurality in the new body, seemed to many a harbinger of Libya’s democratic potential. Yet Libya’s blank slate created its own set of unique problems that made it extraordinarily difficult to build a functioning political system of any kind, much less a democratic one. A range of informal linkages and associations based on deeply engrained affinities defined by tribe, region, and city filled the void, contributing to the country’s fragmentation and violence.
Intertwined with the idea that the uprisings were not revolutions, new leaders in the Middle East have not built political systems through which people can hold officials accountable. They have not written electoral laws that provide a level-playing field for established politicians and the newly mobilized. They have not drafted laws that make personal and political rights sacrosanct. Rather, in the face of internal challenges, new leaders have used force and coercion—the tried and true tactics of authoritarians—to bring their societies to heel. This is likely a function in part of worldview. Neither of Egypt’s post-Mubarak leaders, nor those vying for power in Libya, nor Tunisia’s Essebsi, come from traditions that value democratic ideals. Yet as much as worldview matters, the institutions that shape people’s behavior and expectations in a society matter even more in the political trajectory of states.
In the contested aftermath of the uprisings in the Arab world or the political challenge that was the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, leaders there also discovered or resurrected institutions that helped them resolve their internal political problems. Indeed, Turkey is particularly instructive in this regard. Although it did not experience an uprising like those in the Arab world, the political unrest that began in May 2013—which has never actually ended—revealed that, like Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, and others in the Arab world, manyTurks also wanted an end to arbitrary government, police brutality, corruption, and crony capitalism within what everyone acknowledged already was a reasonably mature electoral democracy.
The Turkish protests never reached the scale of the Egyptian uprising, but they nevertheless rattled the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In response, the Turkish leadership leveraged existing institutions or crafted new ones to meet the challenge the protests represented. Demonstration organizers were subsequently arrested on terrorism charges, social media came under new restrictions, and nongovernmental organizations identified as sympathetic to the protests confronted a zealous enforcement of regulations that governed their operations and financing. By late 2013 and early 2014, with a number of government ministers, AKP-affiliated businessmen, and even members of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s family implicated in a corruption scandal, the Prime Minister and fellow party leaders politicized the investigation, undermined the constitutional prerogatives of the police and prosecutors, and ensured that their core constituency would never accept the outcome of the inquiry by blaming it on foreign elements jealous of Turkey’s success. In his effort to reestablish political control, Erdogan went beyond manipulating institutions or discovering new ones to meet his specific needs. Instead he and the AKP disregarded existing rules, regulations, and laws.
The reason why these expedient responses to political challenges will have a profound impact on countries of the Middle East well into the future has to do with the very nature of institutions. Because they reflect the interests of those in power, institutions tend to be “sticky.” When they change—absent a genuine revolution—they do so based on a state’s prevailing laws, decrees, rules, and regulations. That is to say, when institutions change, the existing institutional setting shapes the direction and quality of this evolution. This transformation most often has less to do with the needs of society, more to do with the needs of an elite seeking to guarantee the benefits they have come to enjoy as a result of their advantageous political position. The rigged nature of these systems tends to produce a range of socioeconomic and political pathologies—large gaps between wealthy and poor, rule by law as oppose to rule of law, little social mobility, massive security sectors, subsidies, and extremist ideologies—which can radicalize societies, producing violence and instability that in turn justify the authoritarianism of regimes.
Yet what was left after the uprisings and how elites (or competing groups of elites) have sought to leverage this detritus only tells part of the story of the region. Flowing directly from the rigged natures of the Tunisian or Egyptian political systems or the distinct lack of order in Libyan politics, another potent catalyst for instability, uncertainty, and violence has emerged: identity.
Who Are We?
When protesters descended upon the now-famous squares of the Arab world in late 2010 and 2011, one could not help but share in the exhilaration of the people in the region who were finally refusing to give in to pervasive fear that their leaders had cultivated over many decades. This was certainly novel, but in many ways they were seeking the answers to questions people in the region have been asking since the 19th century when Islamic reformers, nationalists, and liberals began grappling with the problem of European political and cultural imperialism: Who are we? What kind of governments do we want? What is the proper relationship between religion and society? What is our place in the global political order?
By the mid-20th century, Britain and France had left or were driven out of the region and new elites like Nasser in Egypt, Houari Boumediene in Algeria, Tunisia’s Bourguiba, and later others such as Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein in Syria and Iraq respectively, rose to lead the modernization and institutionalization of their respective countries. Under their leadership questions about nationalism, identity, and citizenship were seemingly resolved through the experience of the anti-colonial struggle and a semblance of secular-tinted progress. The sentiments of the age were captured in the Algerian revolutionary triplet, “Algeria is my country, Islam is my religion, and Arabic is my language”, which was a muscular and defiant statement of who Algerians were after 130 years of French colonialism. Yet a similar phrase could have been coined in nearly any of the countries of the Middle East.
The Arab leaders who came to power after the first wave of decolonization eventually became a conservative old guard who replaced revolutionary ardor with tired platitudes. Few in the Middle East today remember the triumphs of this bygone era—independence, nationalizations, and reforms that briefly produced educational opportunities and social mobility. In a region where the median age is well below thirty in all but two countries, the vast majority of Arabs have instead experienced failing social contracts, police brutality, and official indifference. Nevertheless, Arab elites continued to define national identities through a mixture of old school anti-colonialism, economic nationalism, and historical mythologies sprinkled with paeans to the importance of Islam as a civilization as much or more than as a religion. During the Cold War, some Arab countries leaned either a little or a lot toward the Soviet Union—Egypt before 1972, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, South Yemen for a time—which burnished their progressive pretensions without actually making their societies progressive; others, including all the monarchies, leaned toward Western countries, including the United States. After the Cold War ended, even leaders who still held themselves out as nationalists par excellence applied neoliberal economic reforms hatched at the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), survived in part on assistance from the West, purchased copious amounts of weapons from those same countries, and consorted with American and European elites at places like Davos. This was a world that did not make sense to Middle Easterners.
When Arabs chased Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh from power and threatened the Assads in Syria, they gave themselves an opportunity to redefine who they are. Yet they have failed, at least thus far, to do so. To varying degrees, both Essebsi and Sisi have offered narrow visions of what it means to be Tunisian or Egyptian, leaving no space for al-Nahda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and what they represent in their respective narratives. On a visit to the United States last spring, Essebsi declared that he was hopeful about his country’s political future because al-Nahda was becoming “Tunisiafied”, as if the group and its supporters had come from somewhere else and that their values were not a genuine manifestation of Tunisian society. Suddenly, in Egypt today, to support the Muslim Brotherhood is to not be authentically Egyptian, denying the central place the Brothers have played in forging Egypt’s national identity in the 20th century. To deny that the Islamist worldview has a place, albeit not an exclusive one, in the identity of these countries is ahistoric, polarizing, and likely destabilizing.
Of course, identity has long been a hotly contested issue in the Middle East; it has been central to the Arab and Turkish political dramas for as long as these countries have existed. In the uncertain environment that emerged after some Arab leaders were deposed and others put in jeopardy, the question of identity took on a new urgency, however. Without a deeply held and widely believed sense of what it means to be from someplace, ideological rivalry, ethnic tension, sectarian differences, violence, and authoritarianism fill the void with often devastating results. For the Middle East this not only means a setback for democracy, but also the deaths of many thousands. It is from this disorienting environment that the Islamic State, with its grotesque beheadings, enslavement of women, massacres of Christian sects, and other outrages, has come to the fore.
Although its constituent parts existed for at least a decade before the Arab uprisings, the Islamic State is a representation of the Arab and Muslim worlds in the failed aftermath of the Middle East’s version of people power. That is to say that, while the nihilism of ISIS captures the attention of the West, its grand religious and political project offers Middle Easterners (as well as Central Asians, Europeans, and some North Americans) a sense of citizenship and authenticity. The group has been so “successful” where it has failed before precisely because of the present moment of capacious failure—of Arab nationalism, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of Islamism, and of the social media-cohorts’ push for democracy—when many Arabs and Muslims are engaged in an existential struggle to define their societies and their individual place in them.
Turkey always seems like an outlier, reinforcing for some the erroneous assumption that there is something about the Arab world that renders it susceptible to misrule and political calamity, but the Turks are the exception that proves the rule about identity. Conventional accounts of Turkish politics since the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power often use “Islamist” and “Islamism” to describe the party, but these terms have become one-dimensional and suggest parallels to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood without capturing the true nature of Turkey’s ruling party. The AKP’s Muslim-ness is less targeted and more diffuse than Islamism, and while it certainly belongs within a broad classification of Islamist groups in the Muslim world, its underlying philosophical concerns and agenda are quite different from those organizations.
This difference is a function of the Turkish experience in which Muslim-ness involves a style of politics and a social setting in which piety flows through society. Limits on alcohol consumption or women donning the hijab reflect this religious sensibility, but Muslim-ness is broader. Toward this end, Erdogan and the AKP have made exploration and expression of one’s Muslim identity not only safe and acceptable, but also valorized. Erdogan himself personifies the new Turkish man whose singular quality is being both proudly pious and Turkish. And the new Turkish woman, best represented by the wares of upscale fashion houses like Zühre or its down-market cousin, Armine, is quiet, confident, gorgeous, and covered. What is striking about these developments is how unremarkable they are in a political setting where not long ago, the hijab and public expressions of religiosity were indicators of reactionary backwardness.
For all of the AKP’s success, however, this Turkish Muslim-ness is hotly contested. The roughly half of the Turkish population that has never voted for the AKP rejects its worldview and deeply resents Erdogan’s effort to establish the hegemony of Muslim-ness through the manipulation or disregard of Turkey’s political and social institutions. This helps explain why a modest protest over a small park in central Istanbul quickly became large demonstrations among those who believed their own sense of Turkishness was being marginalized. Turkey has been unstable ever since.
The struggle over identity is visceral, which tends to radicalize Middle East political arenas further and thus makes it more difficult to reconcile competing visions for the future. For example, it has become relatively easier to crush the Muslim Brotherhood as Egypt’s elites have reinforced the notion that the group is somehow alien to Egyptian values, culture, and history. Egyptians and others in the region thus tend to define these conflicts in existential terms or as a fight for the hearts and souls of their country. Identity may be an issue with a long history of use and abuse by elites in the region seeking political advantage, but it has come to the fore in the post-uprising era in novel ways that have contributed to the destabilization of the region with devastating consequences.
The often-ferocious effort that leaders of the region have had to exert in an effort to maintain political control reveals a gap between the locus of political authority and competing ideational notions over what Middle Eastern societies should look like. This, of course, raises the question of the viability of the state in the region. It is certainly true that the Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, and Libyan states have become increasingly irrelevant—or not relevant at all in the latter two cases—over the past four years, but even with the conflict and contestation over identity in the region, it is premature to declare the death of the Middle Eastern state. Analysts may be guilty of overstating it, but both borders and a sense of nationalism within the system remain salient. It is important to remember that the conflict in Syria was originally over who got to rule the country and how. The same can be said for Iraq, though Kurds and at least some Anbaris have long resisted central control from Baghdad. In the countries that have not erupted in violence, the durability of the state remains an empirical question. Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for example, do not seem to be plagued with the kinds of underlying problems related to identity as other places in the region, but in the event of a crisis, the pathologies present in states that are quite clearly failing may arise.
American Perceptions and Choices
It seems that the present instability and resurgent authoritarianism will be a feature of the Middle East for some time. It is almost certain that in the coming American election season the Middle East will not be addressed in a serious manner. Instead, Americans will hear platitudes about “protecting the homeland” and “American leadership” and a re-litigation of the Iraq War. This is unfortunate because now is a propitious moment to debate the difference between President Barack Obama’s retrenchment and other, more directly involved approaches to the complex and multilayered problems buffeting the region.
Disentangling the United States from the Middle East was a policy that was borne of regional developments since 2011, but also a principle on which the President ran for office and to which he has generally remained faithful. It was based on the belief that after two inconclusive wars that were a drain on national resources, the American people had little interest in staying in (or returning to) the region in force. It was also the result of a judgment that in the increasingly chaotic aftermath of the Arab uprisings, the fragmentation of Iraq, and the deliberalization of Turkey, the United States cannot shape politics in countries where people believe they are engaged in existential struggles.
These were not conclusions based on faulty assumptions. In Egypt, for example, freezing military aid in 2013 following Morsi’s overthrow and the resulting campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood made the country neither more democratic nor less unstable. Demands that Iraqi leaders rule inclusively ran counter to every incentive and constraint of politics in Baghdad. There was always the possibility than an early intervention in Syria would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, though it also could have made matters worse. No one will ever know, but the facts remain that Americans had little desire to get in the middle of what had been an uprising that morphed into a civil war and in turn became a struggle among a dizzying array of extremists groups, the Assad regime, Assad’s opponents, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia.
As the death toll has piled up and Tehran has scored a number of tactical and strategic victories, America’s allies in the region and Obama’s opponents at home have been withering in their criticism. The White House’s “lack of leadership” is widely thought to have contributed to the maelstrom engulfing Syria, Iraq, the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, and Libya. There is some logic to this. American caution encouraged regional powers to take matters into their own hands, which only seemed to intensify the conflicts underway. It was nevertheless difficult to determine what the Administration’s critics meant by “leadership” other than bringing down the Assad regime, unequivocally supporting Sisi, and confronting Iran rather than negotiating with it.
The region has proven to be so unstable, however, that the White House has changed direction, if it has not exactly changed course. With $2.5 trillion in sunken costs, a tenacious threat from the Islamic State, and the prospect that the country will break up, Iraq has returned to the top of the American foreign and security policy agenda. Washington has resumed security assistance to Cairo and, despite a fair amount of ill will on both sides, the United States and Egypt are set to rebuild frayed ties. It has also become increasingly clear that the Obama Administration was moving toward some kind of change in its hands-off approach to Syria, angling for some kind of negotiate settlement in the wake of the July 14 Iran deal. But now that reversal itself seems to have been reversed, as Russian initiatives have, for the time being at least, made a political settlement less rather than more likely.
Whoever becomes the next American President will likely continue to act upon the Obama Administration’s conviction that the United States has been “overinvested” in the Middle East. Yet “leadership” is no panacea. The Middle East looks the way it does today because of outcomes the people who live there have produced. The Middle East has always been hard for outsiders to manage short of suffocating force; it is now harder. The revolutions that were not to be, a cadre of leaders intent on leveraging the institutions of the state for their own interests, and a prevailing sense of failure and disorientation, have fueled unprecedented instability and violence. Policymakers should get used to it, because it will be the story of the Middle East for at least a generation to come.