By Anne Barnard
The scenes of chaos came in swift succession over the past week.
In Egypt, angry crowds overran police stations and killed officers. In northern Syria, more than 90 bodies were pulled from a river, many bound and shot. Israeli warplanes struck Syria on Wednesday after Israeli officials expressed concern that Syrian weapons would fall into the hands of militants — an attack that fuelled fears of escalating regional conflict.
Two years after largely peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt toppled dictators, unleashing hope and instability across the Arab world, the transformation of the region’s long-calcified political systems has taken a violent turn in many quarters, raising unsettling questions: Was this post-revolutionary tumult inevitable, a product of missteps by local leaders and foreign powers, or perhaps a bit of both?
With Syria mired in a bloody civil war and Arab newspapers debating whether Egypt’s new government will disintegrate or be taken over by the military, the most important players — ordinary citizens trying to seize a long-denied say in their destinies — are uncertain how long they will live in a state of upheaval, and what their lives will be like when things finally settle down.
“The revolution is like a baby,” Rami, a Syrian activist, said in an interview on Sunday in a Beirut cafe. “You can’t say if this baby is going to be a doctor or a lawyer, smart or dumb. Even if this baby throws his mother’s purse, I can’t complain — he’s a baby.”
Rami, who asked that his last name not be used for safety reasons, said he expected the revolution to include wrong turns.
“In revolution we destroy, we build,” he said. “Sometimes we get a distorted shape which will automatically be torn down.”
In Tunisia and Egypt, citizens deposed presidents largely by flooding the streets, but in Syria, at least 60,000 people have died in a violent struggle that has deepened sectarian animosities and has yet to topple the government. In Egypt, hopes for power sharing have been dashed as President Mohamed Morsi rammed through a new constitution and did not overhaul the security services. The country appears trapped in a spiral of street protests, random violence, economic stagnation and political paralysis.
But Middle East analysts and scholars of revolutions say that it would be naïve to expect smooth transitions in countries where political debate was repressed for decades, and that political change will be slow, messy and often violent.
At the same time, the analysts say, it is impossible to draw broad conclusions about the Arab uprisings, which are still young and are taking place in very different countries — Libya, with six million people and vast oil reserves, Egypt with more than 80 million people and few natural resources. In each, the incentives of local players and foreign meddlers vary widely.
“We have leapt to the conclusion that all the transitions should be smooth,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That’s pretty ahistoric.”
The American Revolution eventually produced a stable system, but the Constitution did not take effect until 13 years after the Declaration of Independence, and the effects of upheavals like the Whiskey Rebellion and repressive measures like the Alien and Sedition Acts played out into the 19th century.
Whether a transition is going well is “often impossible to judge at the time,” Mr. Alterman added. “The Arab world’s transitions are a process that will take at least a decade to unfold.”
The countries in transition have few political institutions, after decades of repression. Political debates that usually unfold over decades are being compressed into lightning transitions.
“You’re moving from one-man or one-military rule to the masses,” said Joyce Karam, the Washington bureau chief of the newspaper Al Hayat, a pan-Arab publication based in London.
With few parties or charismatic leaders to shape people’s broad aspirations for a better life into a political strategy, Arab societies in transition are vulnerable to the resurgence of entrenched interests, and to outside manipulation. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, for instance, fear that smooth transitions could embolden their people to rise up. Their public and private support for various competing rebel factions may also prolong instability, Mr. Alterman said.
The Arab uprisings have been interconnected, as movements inspire and instruct one another, and have reawakened a sense of regional identity and common purpose for a generation too young to remember the heyday of Arab nationalism.
But activists tend to see events in their own countries as sui generis, driven by the mix of domestic politics and foreign interests affecting their country rather than a uniform regional narrative — and to reject suggestions that the Arab uprisings as a whole are a threat, or a failure.
“It’s tough to generalise,” Ms. Karam said, contending that although they all have their problems, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and in some ways even Yemen, where the state structure, unstable as it was, remained intact after the president stepped down, offer “less chaotic models than Syria.”
The Western powers that initially welcomed democracy movements increasingly appear more concerned with containing instability than with promoting democracy, Ms. Karam said.
The United States and its allies continue to hesitate over arming Syrian rebels for fear of empowering extremists among them, while France bombarded Mali last month, targeting militants linked to Al Qaeda, and the United States signalled its willingness to help. France, like the United States, has refused to intervene directly in Syria. That Western powers were quicker to intervene in Mali than against Mr. Assad, who has used ballistic missiles against his own people, particularly angers Syrians, who have begged in vain for the kind of assistance that helped rebels prevail in Libya.
“It reinforces the image that Washington and the West are not interested in democracy and human rights in the region, that they won’t intervene unless there is Al Qaeda or oil,” Ms. Karam said.
Turmoil, failure and unintended outcomes are hardly unique to Arab revolutions.
Iran’s overthrow of the shah in 1979 began as a people’s revolution, but impotent new leaders lost a power struggle with the theocratic founders of the Islamic republic. Many revolts in the 1960s across the developing world replaced colonial tyranny with local tyranny.
The collapse of the Soviet Union is perhaps the best recent parallel, as a stagnant order gave way to a multitude of new systems.
For the people caught in the middle, the fear is undeniable. In Egypt, no one seems able to control the streets, and for the first time, guns are appearing in the hands of protesters. Syrian refugees pouring into Lebanon say that regardless of the war’s outcome, they will have to rebuild their lives from scratch.
But one, Abu Shadi, said there was no going back.
“If Assad falls, we will suffer for a couple of years,” he said, “but things will improve. But if he stays, we suffer forever.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.