This article originally appeared here on the American Interest on Monday, October 26, 2015.
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.
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