The Storm Before the Calm

The political turmoil wrought by the Arab Spring is a precursor to positive change in the Middle East

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Sniperphoto Agency / Demotix / Corbis

The crowds in Cairo gather these days not to denounce autocracy but to raid the Israeli embassy or rail against the American University. In Egypt, in Libya and elsewhere, the open political arena is empowering Islamists with thoroughly reactionary views. The mood seems to be shifting everywhere in the region. Turkey is distancing itself from the West. The Palestinians are pursuing a more confrontational policy. Has the Arab Spring turned into a nasty winter?

Actually, no. The democratic movement in the Middle East is a powerful positive force for both its people and the world at large. It is a seismic shift in a region that has stagnated for many decades. It will unsettle old norms and practices and cause political upheaval. The Islamists, being organized, will gain strength in the first phase, but that might spur the moderates to get their act together. In Indonesia, in the first years after Suharto's fall, both chaos and Islam rose. Today, moderation and economic reform are the norm.

Already the Arab Spring has had one positive strategic effect, the weakening of Iran. For a decade, Iran has been making an ambitious bid for regional leadership. On the hard-power front, it has pursued a nuclear program and supported regional rogues like Syria and Hizballah. It has also tried to present itself to the Arab street as a friend and ideological ally. It has routinely set itself apart from the old Arab tyrannies and embraced the great cause of the Arab masses, Palestine.

The rise of a genuine democracy movement in the Arab world has utterly discredited Iran's pose. Tehran no longer looks like a place of inspiration for the Arab masses; instead it resembles the old Arab autocracies. (Ayatullah Ali Khamenei is now one of the longest-serving dictators in the Middle East.) As its ally Syria has been besieged, Iran has become part of the problem, standing in solitary defense of a regime that is systematically butchering its people.

Tehran's other claim to street fame--sticking up for Palestine when Arab leaders like Hosni Mubarak were too "scared" of Washington to do so--has also been undermined, as the new government in Egypt has been willing to more clearly express popular feelings on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

That's likely to continue. During the Arab Spring, American commentators often pointed out that there were few signs or slogans about Palestine on the streets. But people's most pressing concerns were justice and democracy. That didn't mean Arabs didn't care about the Palestinian cause. In fact, polling shows that it is of enormous importance to people across the region. And the more democratic a government is, the more likely it will reflect its people's views.

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