News / Middle East

Arab Spring Challenges Western, Regional Powers

Al Pessin

Middle Eastern countries that had uprisings last year are moving to establish democracy, at varying paces and with varying success.  Meanwhile, major powers in the region and elsewhere are working to cope with the changes.

The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya created considerable euphoria in those countries.  And the changes were welcomed by Western powers, too, even as they raised concerns that the region's new leaders might not be as friendly as the autocrats who were ousted.

Philip Luther is the interim director of Middle Eastern affairs at Amnesty International.

"There is a certain irony there, a certain nervousness from outside about what the new governments might be and who they might be and what political parties they might be formed of," said Luther.

Luther says the West should not get too wrapped up in its concerns about what the new Middle Eastern governments might do on foreign policy and human rights issues, and should judge them on their actions instead.

At the same time, he says regional powers in the Middle East, especially Iran's clerical leaders and the Saudi royal family, have been inconsistent at best in their responses to the uprisings, focusing more on their own interests than universal rights and democracy.

"What is glaring is the inconsistency of those messages and the hypocrisy, in fact, of what lies behind it because at the same time while criticizing what is going on in some parts of the region they are missing out what is happening in others and what is happening on their own doorstep," said Luther.

Meanwhile, western and regional powers are trying to figure out what comes next in the Middle East, and it's a complex picture.

Tunisia seems to be having the smoothest transition.  

In Egypt, protests continue as the military is reluctant to cede power to the newly elected parliament.  

Some of Libya's militias have refused to join the army.

Yemen's protesters reject the internationally-supported transition plan because it includes amnesty for the former president.  

And Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia continue to crack down on protesters and block real reform.

"I think there is an increasing appreciation that this is no short term process," noted Middle East expert Anthony Skinner of the Maplecroft risk assessment firm.  "It is a long, protracted struggle.  And even if there is a slowdown at a certain point in time, it could rear its head at any point in the future.  I think this is understood.  But of course one needs to take into consideration the political calculations of individual powers."

Some experts say those political calculations will likely call for caution, even skepticism, in the short term.  But in the long term, they say,  those same political calculations should require world powers to deal with the Middle East as it is, rather than as it used to be.

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