The wave of revolutions that swept Europe and eventually much of the world between the late Eighteenth and mid-Twentieth Centuries reflected the desires of the economically and politically disenfranchised for a measure of power. The current tsunami of unrest that is engulfing much of the Middle East has a far darker side. Yes, poverty and disenfranchisement play a role. But so too do ethnic, tribal and religious rivalries. Europe spent more than a century working through the issues of equity and political participation on the way to the creation of modern social democracy. Unfortunately, as history has shown, creating modern political and economic institutions in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural states is even more difficult. Just ask the people of the former Yugoslavia.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the spark for revolution was largely economic in nature coupled to the presence of an aging autocratic national leadership increasingly bereft of connection to the majority of their people. Yet, even here the specter of societal divisions has raised its ugly head. Attacks by Muslim extremists on Coptic Christians have multiplied. Recent comments by Amr Moussa, the leading candidate to head the new government following free elections, have indicated he is more interested in reviving the tribal conflict between Egypt and Israel than in dealing with the economic problems that beset his country.
Elsewhere in the region, it is ethnic and cultural divisions that have driven the ongoing political upheavals and threaten future stability. In Libya, the source of revolution is tribal in nature. While mouthing the platitudes of Arab socialism, Gaddafi had run his country as a tribal fiefdom, favoring the people of western Libya over those from the eastern half of the country. The current revolt has divided the country in half.
The current conflicts in Syria and Bahrain reflect fundamentally ethno-religious divisions that are proving virtually intractable. The Assad regime that has dominated Syria for more than sixty years is centered on the Alawite sect of Shia Islam. The vast majority of the Syrian population is Sunni. In Bahrain the reverse is true: the Al Khalifa family and a Sunni minority have ruled a country that is two-thirds Shia. Because political liberalization could result in the termination of these minority regimes, the governments of these two countries have responded to calls for reform with repression. Political protests have been met with military force and arbitrary arrests that only harden the divisions. In Bahrain, the government is even seeking to persecute medical personnel who helped injured protestors. The consequences could be enduring conflict and even civil war.
Not all parts of the region are equally afflicted by the diseases of ethnic, tribal and religious division. But those that are could experience a protracted period of political violence. The consequences for U.S. security in the region are likely to be profound.
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