The lazy days of August were overshadowed by the latest round of speculation on whether Israel will attack Iran — an ongoing guessing game that has produced ponderous studies on the pros and cons of an attack.
There are good reasons for so much fretting. Israel, after all, may have its planes on the runway, ready to attack Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Israel’s attack may trigger a broader regional conflagration. And this conflagration may cause serious damage to Western interests.
Yet the coming regional war is just as likely to erupt elsewhere and have little or nothing to do with Iran. Its impact on Western interests would be just as profound as the worst-case scenario of an Israeli strike against Iran suggests. This war, unthinkable until January 25, 2011, when Egyptian protesters began to converge on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, is becoming likelier by the day.
Say what you wish of the ousted autocrats of the Middle East — or those, like Bashar al-Assad, who are still clinging on to power — but the pretexts they paraded before their Western interlocutors to justify their iron grip on power were not preposterous. They would always point in the direction of their internal enemies and ask what it would mean for the region if they lost power and be replaced by the only alternative — the Muslim Brotherhood.
The cruelty of these dictatorial regimes was lamentable, but over time we and they had acquiesced in a regional order, which gave us all in the West the false comfort of stability and appeared to suit our vital interests quite well.
By blindly believing that this was the case, Western leaders contributed to what has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Had the West genuinely supported liberal Arab dissidents and pushed authoritarian dynasties in the direction of gradual reforms a decade ago, the current regional picture might not be so bleak.
There was a brief moment when an American president thought he could change all this. George W. Bush, shaken by al-Qaeda’s ferocious assault on America, spoke of the need to change what the scholar Fouad Ajami called the “Arab Predicament” — the terrible choice between the stability of dictators and the anarchy of Islamic radicalism.
President Bush’s recipe of democratisation was met with scorn and derision by the very same Western commentators, civil servants and leaders who, since January 2011, have cheered the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as if it were democracy’s triumph and proof of American perfidy for its erstwhile support of local autocrats.
Sadly, that moment of moral clarity, calling for a third way between anarchy and dictatorship, was both short-lived and ineffectual. Had democrats been propped up ten years ago; had dictators been pushed to implement gradual reforms; had the more liberal forces of Arab societies been allowed to organise themselves politically, the landscape today might look different.
But alternative history is a pointless exercise and, besides, even these attempts may have failed. The Muslim Brotherhood is a genuine force with a compelling ideology that resonates across the region. Islamists might have gained the upper hand no matter what. The Muslim Brothers rule Egypt today and may rule Syria tomorrow. They may make us miss their predecessors in due course. And they may forever disrupt the stability their predecessors guaranteed.
As the Muslim Brotherhood takes control of Egypt and ousts the last remnants of the previous regime, its actions are proving how hollow were Western hopes that the Brothers, after waiting in the wings for 80 years, would somehow obey the rules of democracy and let their historic chance at power slip away in the name of pluralism. And it will not be a matter of replacing one docile dictatorship with another. Their policies will be virulently anti-Western.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Egypt, where the next crisis might begin. Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi has quickly disposed of the last impediments to a full Brotherhood takeover of the country and, thanks to a growing state of lawlessness in Sinai, he is proceeding to dismantle the already moribund Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty by militarising the Sinai peninsula, against the terms of the agreement. The Muslim Brothers never made a mystery of their ideological revulsion for Israel and opposition to a peace treaty with their Zionist bane. Now that they are in power, why should they reverse themselves?
That the Western powers are vastly unprepared is due neither to a shortage of means nor a lack of advance warning. It is rather a failure of imagination and a philosophical predisposition to underestimate or misread the most recent regional developments that have cast the West in the worst possible position imaginable as Israel and Egypt move from allies of convenience to enemies once again.
Idealising protesters while refusing to step in to influence the course of events has not made democracy blossom. Throwing autocratic former friends under the bus has not won the West new friends. And expecting moderation, pragmatism and common sense of elected ideologues merely because of their countries’ economic situation has left the West to gasp for air every time the Islamists have moved in the opposite direction.
An attack on Iran may still be the next war for the region — but other scenarios are no less likely. The West, though, has chosen to be a bystander and a spectator in most instances of the Arab Spring. When its worst consequences submerge the region and hurt Western vital interests, who are we going to blame — except ourselves?