WASHINGTON -- For observers of the Middle East, both foreigners and Arabs, the winter of 2011 remains the "Arab Spring" that would free everyone and everything, from the fellaheen farming in the Nile Valley to the very waves on the great river. The hopes of that winter-spring were 1776, 1848 and 1945 all wrapped up in one package for the peoples of the region.
But now, two wearying years later, Egypt has seen the failure and imprisonment of its elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, and the resurgence of yet another military government. Libya is ruled by militias bitterly fighting one another. Syria sounds more and more each day like some biblical apocalypse, and even more amazing, Saudi Arabia has been publicly excoriating the United States over its Middle East policy.
All of this strife and struggle was to be different. It was not supposed to end in the usual pattern, which is simply more strife and struggle. This time, the Arab world was growing up; it had enough educated and advanced people to really develop. In this roll of the revolutionary dice, the Arab states were to at least begin to become democracies.
What on earth went wrong?
The answer to that question is that nothing went wrong and nothing went right; things simply went as they will go in the Middle East, and not as wayfarers from other worlds would wish.
"The 'Arab spring' has not become some sudden window to democratic reform," Anthony H. Cordesman, strategist at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, wrote recently.
"It has instead unleashed a broad pattern of regional instability in an area already deeply destabilized by extremism and terrorism, growing religious struggles between Sunni and other sects as well as between Sunni extremists and moderates, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its removal as a military counterbalance to Iran, a growing Iranian set of threats at every level, and massive demographic pressures on weak structures of governance and economic development."
Since the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, and then the militarization of Egypt's governance, followed by the Muslim Brotherhood election two years ago, the talk of "democracy" was always there, drifting along on the airwaves, but in hard reality only in people's dreams.
Democracy met no answering sense of compromise within the political community but only more historic conspiracy; some good men and women in Egypt attempted repeatedly to reform the shabby justice system, but always without result except for "winner takes all." And the outcome was worse this time, because today's Egypt is vastly overpopulated -- 84 million trying to nurture life along that thin layer of arable land along the Nile.
"The day may come," Cordesman continues, "some years in the future where the resulting convulsions ... produce the conditions for effective reform. ... Today, however, upheavals mean political instability and violence, massive new economic problems, power struggles, repression and refugees. The issue is not democracy and the more ideal human rights, it is the most basic set of human rights: security and the ability to lead a safe and secure life."
But Saudi Arabia is not suffering internally. Saudi Arabia is not Egypt, or Syria or Jordan, not Turkey, not even Yemen. Governed by the ultraconservative Wahhabi Muslims, Saudi Arabia is reasonably stable internally, but also insecure in the region.
Since the presidency of FDR, the Saudi kingdom has depended upon the United States both for its oil exports and for security in the region. It also gained security and support from the military dictatorships and monarchies in the region. But when the U.S. began seriously talking "democracy" two years ago, the Saudis began worrying about its position.
Especially troubling was Washington's recent friendliness toward Iran, the Shiite giant whose form of Islam is antithetical to the Saudis'. The result has been a series of serious reassurances on the part of Washington, with Secretary of State John Kerry making what appeared to be an emergency trip to Riyadh early in November to reassure King Abdullah that the U.S. will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon -- no matter what other attempts are made to open up the until-now closed Persian state.
Riyadh not only fears Tehran's power positioning in the Middle East, particularly as a leader of the Shiites in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, but also fears Iran's basic military buildup. Iran is not just reaching out to create its own nuclear weapons; it is building up Revolutionary Guard forces (special forces that came out of the Khomeini revolution in 1979) with every sort of precision-guided missiles and rockets that can threaten the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, the only way in which foreigners can enter the Gulf.
At the same time, the United States is having ongoing problems of its own making in the region, with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. [READ TO GEEGEE]
Yes, you're right; we withdrew from Iraq a year ago -- but the fact is that internal violence in the country by a resurgent al-Qaida is threatening American gains there, and our supposed 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan is more unsure with every passing day.
I'm not certain there is any sensible lesson here except to stay at home unless you feel you're enthusiastically invited somewhere. And don't use the word "democracy" as carelessly as we have been using it.