It’s a somewhat melancholy anniversary this week, being ten years since the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution – a popular movement that raised high hopes, but ended three years later with the establishment of a new military dictatorship.
Gideon Rachman famously observed of the revolutions of 2011, known as the Arab Spring, that “The good news is that this is the Arab 1989. The bad news is that we are the Soviet Union.” Most of the autocracies that the Arab masses tried to overthrow had subsisted for years on western support. The majority of them, like the regime of General el-Sisi in Egypt, still do.
Over the last decade, hopes for democracy in the region have been stifled by a growing polarisation around the conflict between two autocratic alliances. One is led by the fundamentalist absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia and also includes el-Sisi’s Egypt, the slightly less autocratic gulf sheikdoms, the elected far-right government of Israel, the nihilistic terrorists of Da’esh/IS, and one side in the Yemeni civil war.
Opposing them is an even looser grouping consisting of theocratic Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria (but also some of its more moderate opponents), the sheikdom of Qatar, quasi-democratic Islamist movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the other side in the Yemeni civil war, and neighboring big brother authoritarian regimes in Turkey and Russia.
Neither side, of course, is at all monolithic; there are various other cross-currents in the region that complicate the picture. (Turkey and Russia, for example, are on opposite sides in the Caucasus.) But the pattern of interlocking alliances is clear enough to be disturbing, as I explained in a piece back in 2017 originally titled “Sarajevo on the Gulf.”
It should be fairly obvious that fans of democracy have little to hope for from either side. But there’s something particularly intense about the Saudis’ recent authoritarianism – symbolised by the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – that makes it probably the leading force for evil in the region. So it will not surprise the reader that Donald Trump’s administration was noted for its enthusiastic backing of the Saudi side.
With the departure of Trump, however, there are finally some signs of progress. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies announced an end to their trade and diplomatic embargo against Qatar. While the United States claimed credit for the move, it makes more sense to see it as a Saudi backdown in anticipation of having less unconditional support from Joe Biden.
And while it’s still early days, there are already signs on that front. During his Senate confirmation hearings, incoming secretary of state Anthony Blinken promised to end support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which is easily the biggest humanitarian crisis in the region. Biden had supported the intervention when it began under the Obama administration, but Trump (despite his occasional isolationist pose) massively upgraded it.
Biden is also expected to pursue at least a modest rapprochement with Iran, trying to reactivate the 2013 nuclear agreement that Trump had repudiated. The window for opportunity there is small, since Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, leaves office later this year and will probably be replaced by a hardliner. But the likely US negotiator on Iran, Robert Malley, was instrumental in the original agreement and appears to understand the need for peace rather than confrontation.
Malley is a particular hate figure on the right because he has in the past suggested that Israel needs to take some of the blame for the failure of peace talks with the Palestinians. And there’s no doubt that the proponents of the contrary view – that Israel can do no wrong and American policy in the region should revolve around it – will still be well-represented in the new administration. But this time there may also be some balance.