The revolution in Tunisia of recent days has sparked hope among some who believe that the era of the autocratic old guard among Arab rulers is coming to an end, to be replaced by a trend toward democracy.
It’s still far too early to tell how even the immediate chaotic situation in Tunis will be resolved, much less the region, after the fleeing of corrupt dictator Ben Ali. But it is far more likely that old regimes will fade than that human rights and freedoms soon await tens of millions of citizens of Arab states.
In a report in The New York Times on Sunday, “In Peril: The Arab Status Quo,” reporter Anthony Shadid, noting the troubles in Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan and Iraq, wrote that “Arab states look exhausted, ossified and ideologically bankrupt, surviving merely to perpetuate themselves. Never has the divide between ruler and ruled seemed so yawning, and perhaps never has it been so dangerous.”
In Lebanon, the government has collapsed over the expected indictment of Hezbollah officials by a UN tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah, whose pullout of the government brought the coalition down, is fearful of a serious loss of stature and has tried a variety of means to muzzle the report. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah initially blamed the Hariri killing on Israel and now claims that the UN tribunal is under Jerusalem’s thumb. (As if Israel has clout within the world body.)
The immediate concern for Israel is the vacuum created by the instability in Beirut as Hezbollah continues to rearm, with far more missiles and weapons then it had when it launched the 2006 war in the north.
In Egypt, an aging President Hosni Mubarak is facing growing unrest; the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s Day set off protests among Christians. In Sudan, after two civil wars, black Africans in the south are voting for independence from the ruling Arabs in the north.
But the Obama administration, chastened by the lack of interest in democratic outreach efforts in the region attempted by President George W. Bush, is taking a cautious attitude.
Logic would dictate that millions of Arabs, suffering from poverty and severely restricted human rights, would rise up against their rulers, and Washington would be at the ready to encourage greater freedom. But most of the oppressive rulers are allies of the U.S., and they might be replaced by anti-Western militants beholden to Iran.
For now, much of the Arab world festers as the rest of the world watches.