The United States has been screwing up the Middle East for 60 years. Obama has a brief window to get it right.
Egyptians went to the polls en masse on Nov. 28 and Nov. 29 to vote in the closest thing that any of them has ever seen to real elections. Although the final word is not in — either regarding the results or the integrity of the elections — early reports suggest that the vote was mostly fair and free.
But Egypt is still a long way from stable, functional democracy. As Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon have demonstrated again and again, elections do not equal democracy. Egypt’s Islamists — who appear to have garnered as much as 65 percent of the vote — will dominate the new parliament regardless of the role they play in the new Egyptian government, and we do not yet know whether they will wield that power responsibly. Egypt’s armed forces remain the most powerful force in the country by far, and they have shown a Hamlet-like ambivalence — demonstrating an ardent desire to surrender power to a new civilian government and a similar determination to preserve their own prerogatives from the era of Egyptian autocracy.
The strong showing of Salafi movements, which appear to have captured approximately a quarter of votes, was the surprise of this round of elections. These Sunni extremists are growing in number and, if the system begins to break down, might try to seize control of the government like modern-day Bolsheviks. Some of Egypt’s most popular leaders are dangerous demagogues who could plunge the country into all manner of problems. Democracy is a long road, with many perilous intersections, and Egypt has barely started on its way. What’s more, Egypt will likely require considerable political, military, and even economic support from the United States and the rest of the world if it is to make that critical, dangerous, transition successfully.
What is true for Egypt today is even truer for the wider Middle East. The events that began in Tunisia in December 2010 — and spread to Egypt and then Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, and beyond — shook the political, social, and intellectual foundations of the Middle East. The tremors can still be felt, and no one is quite certain when the aftershocks will end, or when another wave of popular unrest might occur. In some countries, like Egypt and Tunisia, and perhaps Morocco, Libya and Jordan, a move toward real democracy has started. That is difficult enough, but the situation is even more dire in countries such as Syria and Bahrain, where old elites are fighting the popular forces of change with all of their might.
Between these countries lies a dozen other Arab states, where both the unrest and the government responses have been more limited. However, there is no reason to believe that they will remain untouched by the forces of the great Arab Awakening forever, or even for very long. Change is coming to the Middle East, but the ultimate result of that change is impossible to discern.
Unfortunately, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting around to see how things play out and then make sense of what has occurred. Although the shock of the initial events of the Arab Spring has ebbed, many of the miseries that gave rise to it persist and remain compelling motives for many people across the region. For that reason, the storm of unrest that spread from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf may have subsided, at least in some parts of the region, but its story has just begun.