An unhappy Eid

For most Muslims, today marks the begining of Eid al Fitr, the feast thats end the month of Ramadan. It won’t be an Eid Mubarak (Blessed Eid) for lots of people: there is war in Syria, Iraq, Gaza/Israel, Sudan and Libya, renewed repression in Egypt and Iran, instability in Yemen. The hopes of the Arab spring have turned to fear and even loathing, not only between Muslims and non-Muslims but also among  Shia, Sunni and sometimes Sufi. Extremism is thriving. Moderate reform is holding its own only in Tunisia, Morocco and maybe Jordan. Absolutism still rules most of the Gulf.

The issues are not primarily religious. They are political. Power, not theology, is at stake. As Greg Gause puts it, the weakening of Arab states has created a vacuum that Saudi Arabia and Iran are trying to fill, each seeking advantage in their own regional rivalry. He sees it as a cold war, but it is clearly one in which violence by surrogates plays an important role, even if Riyadh and Tehran never come directly to blows. And it is complicated by the Sunni world’s own divisions, with Turkey and Qatar supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia opposing it.

The consequences for Arab civilians are dramatic. Well over 100,000 are now dead in Syria, half the population is displaced, uncounted more are dead in Iraq and millions more displaced. Egypt has largely reversed the liberation of its aborted 2011 revolution but still faces more violence than before it. Libya has been unable to tame or dissolve its militias, which are endangering its population and blocking its transition. While the total numbers killed in the Gaza war are far smaller than in Syria or Iraq, the percentage of civilians among the victims–and the broader impact on the civilian population–is causing anti-Israel revulsion worldwide.

Greg wants the United States to favor order over chaos. The trouble is it is hard to know which policies will do what. Will support for Iraq Prime Minister Maliki block the Islamic State, or will it incentivize extremist recruitment and make matters worse, perhaps even causing partition? The military government in Egypt, with which Greg thinks we should continue to engage, is arguably creating more problems with extremists in Sinai and the western desert than it is solving with its arbitrary and draconian crackdown against liberals as well as Islamists. The Obama administration is inclined to support America’s traditional allies in the Gulf, as Greg suggest, but what is it to do when Qatar and Turkey are at swordpoints with Saudi Arabia ?

Many Arab states as currently constituted lack what every state needs in order to govern: legitimacy. The grand failure of the Arab spring is a failure to discover new sources of legitimacy after decades of dictators wielding military power. The “people” have proven insufficient. Liberal democracy is, ideologically and organizationally, too weak. Political Islam is still a contender, especially in Syria, Iraq and Libya, but if it succeeds it will likely be in one of its more extreme forms. In Gaza, where Hamas has governed for seven years, political Islam was quite literally bankrupt even before the war. Their monarchies’ ability to maintain order as neighbors descend into chaos is helping to sustain order in Jordan and Morocco. Oil wealth and tribal loyalties are propping up monarchies in the Gulf, but the demography there (youth bulge and unemployment) poses serious threats.

The likelihood is that we are in for more instability, not less. Iran and Saudi Arabia show no sign of willingness to end their competition. They will continue to seek competitive advantage, undermining states they see as loyal to their opponent and jumping in wherever they can to fill the vacuums that are likely to be created. Any American commitment to order will be a minor factor. This will not, I’m afraid, be the last unhappy Eid.


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