Arab Spring turns to summer’s bloody turmoil


As the Arab Spring gives way to summer, the afterglow is fading into recognition that a successful, democratic revolution is rarely as quick or easy as it first appearsIn Egypt, the historic center of the Arab world, the impromptu coalition of revolutionaries who toppled Hosni Mubarak has failed to unite behind any leader or platform. That leaves the better-organized Muslim Brotherhood and the military with outsized political influence in upcoming elections — hardly the ideal path to democracy.

Crime is way up, the economy is way down, and long-festering religious hostilities are breaking into the open. Radical Salafi Muslims attacked Coptic Christians as the military stood idle. A gas pipeline to Israel was attacked and never reopened, even after it was repaired. The government, responding to popular opinion, partially opened the long-closed border with Hamas-controlled Gaza, an inauspicious signal for Middle East peace. And officials’ hasty decision to put Mubarak on trial in August, on charges that he conspired to kill protesters in Tahrir Square, threatens to foster retribution instead of reconciliation.

In Tunisia, where the self-immolation of a humiliated fruit vendor set off the uprisings six months ago, the scene is more tranquil. But on Wednesday, elections that will set the stage for writing a new constitution were delayed until October, and as in Egypt, an Islamic party is more powerful than its secular rivals.

Elsewhere in the region, despots — undoubtedly eyeing Mubarak’s fate — cling stubbornly and violently to power.

Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi might control only half his country now, but his ability to survive NATO air attacks is again proving that half-hearted commitment to combat is prone to half-baked results. And in Syria, President Bashar Assad, once thought to be a moderate, is instead proving himself to be a tyrant in the image of his father. He has slaughtered hundreds of protesters, including a 13-year-old boy whose death by extreme torture has become a Tunisia-like rallying point. 

The odds still favor the fall of both men. But how soon that might happen and what will follow are anyone’s guess. In other places —Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and, most troublingly, Iran — democracy will not be arriving any time soon.

None of this means that the region’s new hunger for dignity through democracy is being extinguished. Quite the contrary. Syrian protesters are not backing off, even in the face of tanks; Libyan rebels are hard at war; and Egyptian democrats are trying to piece together a republic. Most encouraging, polls show that the success of peaceful resistance is gradually draining the appeal of terrorism.

But there is an increasing need for a cohesive American policy that can change the U.S. image in the region and draw the American public’s enduring support. Not a one-size-fits-all policy for every country. That would only be a straitjacket. And not a policy that tries to impose democracy by military force. But something more than the necessarily ad hoc approach of the past six months.

Given Americans’ rising desire to turn toward domestic pressures, that must begin by creating a public understanding that the outcome in the Middle East and North Africais a domestic issue.

Successful transition to democracy means a reduced terrorist threat. Stability means a greater chance of secure oil supplies, lower prices at the pump and faster economic growth. Peace between Arabs and Israelis dramatically increases prospects for both. And all this is in line with American democratic and humanitarian values.

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