Israelis watch ‘Arab Spring,’ with fingers crossed

Since Dec. 18, 2010, when the first rebellion in the Middle East erupted in Tunisia — causing a chain reaction called the Arab Spring — Israelis were following the unfolding events with perplexity. Watching the masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria chanting “The people want to bring down the regime,” many in Israel have been wondering: Is this a step towards the true democratization of the Arab world, or will it only cause chaos, instability, more repression, or the rise of radical Islam?

Looking at this from an Israeli perspective only might sound too narrow, and maybe even condescending, but being the only democracy in the Middle East gives us some vantage point.

On the theoretical level, of course, the Arab Spring is a blessing. For too long the people of the Middle East and North Africa have been suffering under tyrannical regimes. Now, when they have discovered the power of social media, they have probably found a way to break away from their shackles.

If the Arab states become democracies, then maybe the vision of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant will come true, namely, that democracies, which are not warmongers by nature, will live with each other in a “perpetual peace.”

Israelis want nothing more than to be surrounded by democracies. Assuming that good old Kant was right, just think about the potential of this region if instead of investing huge sums of money in weapon systems and wars, all this fortune would be funneled into higher education, healthcare and leisure. And Arabs and Israelis would then go into each other’s territory not on a military raid, but in tourist buses.

The question, again, is whether the Arab Spring is leading the Middle East towards democracy, because pulling down the regime is not enough.

Almost 10 years ago, the United Nations published a survey prepared by distinguished Arab scholars, titled Arab Human Development Report. After specifying some progress, the report, in the words of its authors, “makes it clear how much still needs to be done to provide current and future generations with the political voice, social choices and economic opportunities they need to build a better future for themselves and their families.

“It notes that quantitative improvements in health and education have not yet reached all citizens, and finds that too often expansion of services has not been matched by needed qualitative improvements in their delivery.

“It underlines how far the Arab states still need to go in order to join the global information society and economy as full partners, and to tackle the human and economic scourge of joblessness, which afflicts Arab countries as a group more seriously than any other developing region. And it clearly outlines the challenges for Arab states in terms of strengthening personal freedoms and boosting broad-based citizen participation in political and economic affairs.”

Excuse the long citation, but this is truly the crux of the matter. If the Arab people, who dared pull down their dictatorial regimes, were now to find themselves helpless again, because of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and lack of civic society, would they not become easy prey for radical Islam? For that kind of extremism flourishes precisely on the hotbed of social despair.

So as far as Israel is concerned, this is the paradox: If embryonic democracy emerges, say, in Egypt, and there are totally free elections, it is not unthinkable that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over.

Once in power, overwhelmed by the socioeconomic challenges, these Islamic radicals will have to use an iron fist to stay in power (see Hamas in Gaza). And then, if not before, they will direct the rage of the people against the usual suspect: Israel. At least, with an authoritarian ruler like Mubarak, we knew exactly where we stood.

I’m not sure Immanuel Kant had the Middle East in mind when he wrote his treatise more than two centuries ago. In the meantime, the Arab Spring is now approaching the Arab Fall. Israelis are watching this with caution.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.

After Gadhafi’s fall in Libya, is Syria’s Assad next?

He was the Arab world’s most quixotic leader.

During the Reagan era, he was Public Enemy No. 1 in the United States. Later, after his apparent cooperation in dismantling nonconventional weapons, he became an ally to President George W. Bush’s administration in the war on terror.

He called for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation called Isratine. He traveled overseas with a coterie of fetching female bodyguards. He slept in an elaborate tent.

Now that Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi appears to have been cast into the dustbin of history – he disappeared this week as rebels overtook Tripoli – the question in the Arab world is: Who’s next?

All eyes are on President Bashar Assad of Syria.

Last week, President Obama and a host of European leaders called on the Syrian leader to step down. While Assad marshaled tanks and troops and sent them into the streets to face off against anti-government demonstrators, pushing the death toll well into the thousands, the United States and European Union countries clamped down with new sanctions against Damascus. Even the leaders of Turkey, an ally of Syria, have called on Assad to stop the bloodshed.

But if you’re waiting for the regime in Damascus to disappear, don’t hold your breath. Syria is no Libya, and Assad is no Gadhafi.

What’s more, Israel may not even want such an outcome.

To be sure, anyone who said a year ago that three Arab dictators would be toppled by popular uprisings in the space of nine months would have been called a naïf.

But that doesn’t mean the Arab world is about to birth another fallen dictator.

A few elements make Syria’s case different from the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

For one thing, opposition to Assad has materialized much more slowly, both inside and outside the country. Domestically, anti-government demonstrations have yet to explode into a full-scale armed uprising as they quickly did in Libya and Tunisia. The Assad family long has maintained its iron rule over Syria by stoking the fires of the country’s sectarian divisions, and while Assad might be reviled by some in the country, others—including the Alawite community from which he hails – view him as a patron of sorts.

In Egypt, the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime owed at least as much to the military’s decision to side with the people as it did to the protesters themselves. Indeed, for the time being, the uprising there looks more like a military coup than a democratic revolution. In Syria, however, the military remains fiercely loyal to the regime.

Within the Arab world, opposition to Gadhafi’s assault against his own people came almost immediately, with the Arab League’s endorsement of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over the country. But it took the same body until last week to demand that Assad end his bloody crackdown, months after it began. And even then, the Arab League’s statement fell far short of endorsing military operations, as it did in the case of Libya.

Likewise, it took much longer for Western leaders to call for Assad’s ouster. And unlike with Libya, so far these leaders have given no real consideration to backing up their talk with air strikes.

Why not?

For one thing, it wouldn’t look good for the United States to be involved in four wars in Muslim countries. And unlike with Libya, neither the Syrian opposition nor the Arab League has asked Western powers to intervene.

Perhaps most notably, there is great anxiety in the Middle East and around the world about what a post-Assad Syria might look like.

That’s not to say that either the Americans or Israelis have any affection for Assad, but the instability that doubtless would follow his ouster could prove complicated for a whole host of neighbors.

Israel already is dealing with instability on its borders with Gaza and Egypt, and its frontier with Syria has been at its quietest over the course of nearly four decades – at least, until the protests in Syria began. Change, in Israel’s view, is an unknown and therefore a frightening prospect.

To its west, Syria traditionally has played the role of patron and overlord to Lebanon. Assad’s ouster could strengthen Hezbollah, or even throw Lebanon into complete disarray.

Perhaps most worrisome, a vacuum of power in Syria could be filled by nearby Iran.

For the time being, it seems that so long as the West declines to take up arms, it will be up to the Syrian people to get rid of their leader. Unlike with Egypt, a recipient of U.S. aid and a subject of U.S. influence, Syria long has been a pariah state and has minimal ties with the United States. It cannot be subject to the same kind of moderating pressure that was applied in Egypt.

All this doesn’t mean that Assad will stick around forever. If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected in the Middle East.

But if Assad is to go, it looks like nothing short of a war will convince him.