Western policy experts are largely shocked at the breakdown of Arab dictatorships that only weeks ago seemed unbreakable. Leaders in the United States and Europe are struggling to weigh the pros and cons of sticking with autocrats on the one hand -- a choice which risks stoking anti-Western sentiment -- and engaging revolutionaries on the other, which may further destabilize the Arab region. Whatever decisions Western capitals reach, the bottom line is that not every Arab revolution is the same – nor will one country’s day-after scenario much resemble that of the next.
One thing’s for sure in every Arab country now undergoing a transformation: As the Tunisian and Egyptian models have already begun to show, the absence of an organized democratic alternative to dictatorship is a guarantee of future turmoil. In Egypt, the army that was long the backbone of the regime has offered to safeguard the country’s political transition -- but precisely what is the country transitioning into? A best-case scenario might follow the Turkish model: a democracy in which the army both guarantees the electoral system and imposes some ground rules on foreign policy. But such an outcome is far from certain in a country without an Ataturk-like figure to unite the population.
In Tunisia, the situation is more complex. The army cannot afford to play a Turkey-style role as guarantor of democracy because it is a weaker institution. Prospects for a more rapid, even radical transformation in Tunisia are greater than in Egypt – but that also means a greater risk of an Islamist takeover. Alternatively, ex-stalwarts of the Ben Ali regime may exploit the uncertainty to reconstitute their grip on power.
In Yemen, what may look to outsiders like a democratic revolution is more likely a separatist uprising. Less than two decades ago, Yemen was two states -- a north and a south -- divided along tribal lines. Now the country is united, thanks only to a loose confederation of tribes backing President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Islamist opposition party may build a counter-confederation, and Yemen may once again devolve into civil war. Nor do protests in Bahrain appear to have a distinctly democratic character. On that tiny island, long marred by civil strife, a Shi’a majority is struggling to gain power over the Sunni minority that has dominated it for more than a century. Meanwhile, in Libya, Qaddafi’s use of oil revenues to buy social peace is a system on its last legs – but there are no institutions of civil society, and the army is falling apart.
It’s worth noting that while numerous North African governments collapse, one Arab country has remained remarkably stable: Morocco. There, as in other neighboring states, a youth group on Facebook recently held demonstrations, and tens of thousands of Moroccans turned out, including Islamists. But there was a key difference: Morocco’s king has been pressing for political and socio-economic reform for the past ten years. Fundamental freedoms are now guaranteed. A space exists for open, systemic political opposition. So unlike in Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya, in each of which protesters were killed, Morocco’s demonstrations were entirely peaceful. (The bizarre death of five people in a bank branch appears crime-related, unrelated to any political developments.) Moreover, protesters largely did not call for the fall of the regime nor challenge its fundamental legitimacy. Rather, they demanded more reforms, and faster. The monarchy is in a position to credibly deliver on these worthy demands, which range from public sector transparency and anti-corruption measures to a greater commitment to helping the poor find jobs. And yes, the king appears poised to make profound changes in both political and economic institution. A new social contract is underway -- to be achieved consensually, potentially a historic achievement and a model for the neighborhood.
The Arab world will never be the same -- but a couple of challenges remain for Western policymakers to contemplate, now as before. First, as long as political leaders hoard power and wealth, democratic change is impossible, and instability will rule. Second, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a serious impediment to true conciliation between the Muslim world and the West. Though absent from the headlines in recent weeks, Palestinian grievances are deeply felt by the young people who now hold banners across the Arab region. If the West presses for a two-state solution to the conflict, it will have a shot at winning the hearts and minds of the nascent youth-led regimes.
That won’t be enough, of course. A Marshall Plan-like initiative is needed for the Arab world to help emerging democracies build a viable middle class and sustainable civil society institutions. What happens today is only the beginning of a long process. Though each Arab country’s problems and trajectory is different, the need to understand the differences and build on them constructively remains the same.
Ahmed Charai is chairman of Med Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, and publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L’observateur as well as the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine. He sits on the board of trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Advisory Board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and serves on the board of directors of the Search for Common Ground.