As momentum shifts back and forth between the democracy protesters and the traditional dictators, instability and confrontation are rising throughout the Arab world.
The momentum of the Arab Revolt of 2011, which strongly favored the democracy advocates by the beginning of March, had shifted dramatically thereafter. Gaddafi came roaring back against his opponents, Riyadh saw the merits of adopting Israel’s policy of force against adversaries, and both the Bahraini and Yemeni regimes proved the protesters’ point: they are vicious regimes that deserve to be overthrown.
But Saleh, lacking Saudi tanks, seems to have overplayed his hand, and regime officials fled his terrorist regime over the weekend while tribal leaders called for his resignation. Despite the comfortable arrangements between Gaddafi and various Western states in recent years, he too overplayed his hand and seems to be learning a lesson as I write. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime made exactly the same obvious error that all the rest of the Arab dictators have been making by reacting harshly to pinprick expressions of dissent and thus blowing them out of proportion, in this case arresting children! The stupidity of politicians knows no bounds. Algeria’s Bouteflika continues to demonstrate his sincerity by repressing demonstrations even as he claims the state of emergency that justified their banning has been lifted. A wave of demonstrations has also hit Morocco, albeit so far without regime violence, and the series of Lebanese protests against “sectarianism” (in the country where it is the constitutional basis of government, has occurred. Suddenly, it is the counter-revolution whose momentum seems to be slowing. Bahrainis have been locked down, for the moment, but otherwise, Turkey is now about the only calm place in the whole region.
Riyadh’s life-or-death challenge to Mideast liberty has complicated and destabilized the modernization process. Various actors are having trouble following a logical course, violence is increasing, and multiple cleavages are making it hard to tell adversaries from friends. All this raises some questions global decision-makers need to consider carefully:
1. Will Riyadh send an army (again) to keep Yemen’s vicious dictator Saleh in power?
2. Will that enable al Qua’ida to re-emerge on the Arabian peninsula in response to popular frustration?
3. How likely is a Saudi-Egyptian proxy war in Yemen for regional influence?
4. As Arab dictators reject compromise with their own people, will Iran’s influence rise, and, if so, how will Tehran use its new power?
5. Or will the Arab democracy movement attain sufficient progress to make Iran less relevant to Arab politcs?
6. When and how will right-wing Israelis make their move to exploit Arab civil war?
7. Will Riyadh’s intervention reignite the sectarian conflict seen in Iraq after the U.S. invasion?
8. How will Islamic activists maneuver between traditional dictators and secular modernizers?
9. Will those opposed to Arab political modernization and democratization be able to exploit the Iranian bogeyman to reestablish control?