Foreign Policy Blogs

Middle East Series

Middle East Series

I just returned from a fourteen-day tour of the Middle East. As dictators falter and topple left and right, this is certainly an exciting time to be in the region. “The new Middle East,” you might call it. Simmering resentment, propelled by youth movements, disappointment in the status quo, and a sense of serious social injustice, ignited protests from Libya to Yemen. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia is gone. His friends in government also resigned. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt soon followed. Muammar Gaddafi might soon be next. Waiting in line are President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain. Instability might even spread to Saudi Arabia.

In addition to being an exciting time for the Middle East, it is also an uncertain period. No one knows what might happen in Libya, or if a new Egyptian government will actually solve Egypt’s economic problems, or if Tunisia’s government will stabilize, or which dictator might be next.

Despite the uncertainty however, this is also a period of promise. The voices of the people have overpowered those of dictators, security forces, and thugs. Nonviolence and moderation, not terrorism or extremism, have driven the protestors on the streets. Islam has been a constant presence, but there were no suicide bombers and barely a peep out of Al Qaeda. So far.

The Tunisia turmoil came out of nowhere, and those paying attention were shocked when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Soon after, the world was riveted to Al Jazeera’s live coverage from Cairo, and millions of people cheered with the ecstatic and persistent protestors in Tahrir Square when President Mubarak finally resigned. Now we are following a civil war in Libya, where a stubborn Gaddafi family backed up by mercenaries and thugs refuses to take the hint and give in. And we are still watching as protests in Oman, Bahrain, and Yemen gather momentum. There is no end in sight.

Many have called it the “Arab Spring,” and the world has smiled and congratulated Egyptians, Tunisians, and others as they win a difficult fight for social and political freedoms against overbearing tyranny. But many have also cautioned, saying tougher tests lie ahead. As one intelligent commentator put it, “We must all remember that public anger does not automatically create solutions to serious cultural and economic problems, and the chaos and upheaval that inevitably attend even benign and popular revolutions may have severe economic repercussions.”

Nevertheless, it has been an exhilarating ride, and I was lucky to have my first taste of the greater Middle East during this time of turmoil and change. I did not visit Cairo, or Benghazi, or anywhere else where protesters were on the streets. Nevertheless, the view from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey was different from the view from New York. What will follow in the next few days is a series of posts on my experiences and reflections; a little history; a few predictions; some irony, confusion, and disappointment; but above all, excitement for the future of the Middle East.