The Arab Spring that shook the Middle East last year is still unfolding amid a host of positive and negative developments, scholars in the Crown Center for Middle East Studies say, and the long-term prospect is better than the outlook for the immediate future.
The Crown Center's annual Middle East update, held in Rapaporte Treasure Hall Thursday, began with a question from Shai Feldman, the Judith and Sidney Swartz director of the center: "Is the Arab Spring over?"
The answer of the four Crown Center scholars on the panel was a resounding "no."
Citing a classic Clint Eastwood movie, Abdel Monem Said Aly, a senior fellow at the center and director of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo, said, "It can be looked at as the good, the bad and the ugly. Transition, by definition, involves nasty things, bumps in the road."
All of the Arab Spring countries have four problems in common – maintaining internal security, reviving and reforming the economy, resolving constitutional crises over individual rights and the role of religion, and deciding what to do with remnants of the old regime, Said Aly said.
The good, the scholars agreed, were moves toward democracy, such as the free and fair elections that have been held in a number of the countries.
Eva Bellin, the Myra and Robert Kraft Professor of Arab Politics, said there is significant reason for optimism, citing the transition to democracy in Tunisia, a country on which she is a specialist.
"It is not yet institutionalized," she said. "Free press, independent judiciary – that is the work of a generation. But it is happening." The situation in Egypt, Libya and Yemen is more complicated, she said, "but what happened in the Arab Spring is that the impossible became possible" as, one after another, longtime dictators were overthrown.
The bad, Said Aly suggested, is observable "when one of the political forces that took part in the revolution tries to take over the revolution."
"There is an attempt by Islamic forces to take over," he said, by taking over and weakening the "deep state," purging the army, the press and putting pressure on the judiciary. "There is an attempt by Islamists to show that they can put the street in motion, that they control the street."
He said al Qaida elements are immigrating from Afghanistan and Iraq to numerous other locations such as the Sinai, Syria and Lebanon and are attempting to create bases in the Gulf states.
Said Aly said that the revolutions gave rise to a culture of violence for violence's sake, and that it "is a situation we should be worried about."
Kanan Makiya, the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, said the spread of extremist Islamist groups "is deep and worrisome" but asked "what are the chances of them actually taking the state in any Arab country?" He suggested the chances of this occurring were slight.
Makiya agreed with his colleagues that "something fundamental has changed. The rules of the game have changed…. The era of military dictatorship that consolidated after World War II is gone."
"If you take the lid off" after decades of dictatorship, "how could you not expect all sorts of ugly forces to rear their ugly heads?" Makiya said. "It is no surprise that they are doing so... But in the long run I think this was an earthquake."
Nader Habibi, the Henry J. Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East, said "you have to look at the Arab Spring as political revolution and after that economic transformation. If the countries achieve some degree of stability, they are going to introduce economic reforms" because of deep discontent at the extent of economic inequality.
He noted that the new governments are not undoing economic reforms that began in the last years of the old regimes.
Said Aly said there is also evidence of continuity in the inner circle of government in Egypt, noting that "the people [President Mohammed] Morsi took with him to China were the stars of the Mubarak regime, with a few changes to include members of the Muslim Brotherhood."
The greatest differences among the scholars were over the proper role for the United States in the complex and rapidly changing region.
Makiya argued the United States should be more interventionist, asking "If you are walking down a street and see a thug abusing a child or raping a woman, do you have an obligation to try to do something?"
Bellin responded that "the first obligation is to do no harm. Intervening militarily will not stop the bloodshed."
Said Aly asserted sharply that US policy toward the Gulf monarchies is in error.
"They [the US] want the kings and princes of the Gulf to be like the king of Belgium. Nobody knows his name," Said Aly said. "We've got to think of the next day."