Five years ago, Hosni Mubarak stepped down from his de facto position as Egyptian president for life. At the moment, at least for those fighting to wrest back their vote from one of the Middle East’s most entrenched dictators, it was a fleeting high point in an Arab Spring that has torn apart the Middle East, reshaped the map and the politics of the region and roiled governments oceans away.
Without rehearsing the sad course of events in Egypt, including the failure of secular liberals to capitalize on the popular movement unleashed in Tahrir Square just over half a decade ago, it is nonetheless not too soon to ask whether overthrowing Mubarak (not to speak of Qaddafi, Assad, Saleh et al.) was the best choice, particularly for secular liberals and minorities.
I would argue yes, though the ranks of dictator nostalgics have grown apace as millions have fled their homes, Sunnis have turned on Shi’ites (and vice versa), and hundreds of thousands have died. Why yes? There seem to be so many indications that the region was better off under the tyrants we knew so well. Simply this: Hundreds of millions cannot live under a yoke of oppression without consequence. The world’s great democratic powers cannot be complicit in tyranny without paying a heavy price, morally for sure, but also practically. Whether it is Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany or the many other vile dictatorships that now lie on the ash heap of history, all must eventually fall. And if they must fall, it is inevitable there must be a period of transition. That is where we are today.
Efforts to stuff the genie back in the bottle, whether by the Saudis with their new Mubarak — General Abdel Fattah al Sisi — or John Kerry and his newfound tolerance for Bashar al Assad, will not work. They are only a short expedient to take us back to where we began, with the instability wrought by oppression. Still, those of us in the West and the Middle East who continue to believe in the imperatives of political and economic freedom, against the backdrop of nightmares now playing out across the Arab and Persian world, are engaged in an almost Sisyphean fight. The region’s leaders have successfully framed the future as a binary sort between Islamist terrorists and secular despots. Decades of assaults have decimated the ranks of liberals, and they are no match for the Sisis or the ISISes.
What to do? The prerequisite for success, notwithstanding the parrotlike claims of Barack Obama and team, is to defeat our enemies. That means stepping up the fight dramatically against ISIS and al Qaeda. The second step is to restore the faith the people of the region once had in the fundamental morality of American leadership. That means doubling and tripling down on the humanitarian fight, particularly but not only in Syria, including (yes, I’m saying it again), a no fly zone, safe zones and more.
The long term fight, however, is the one for the sustainable future of the Middle East, the future that does not drag the United States back into periodic wars or invidious partnerships. That requires a vision for what lasts — not simply an American vision, but a shared vision. A vision that recognizes there are only a few real elements to lasting peace and stability: political and economic freedom. The economic piece receives all too little attention and must be addressed. But the political piece too is a must. One will not last without the other.
How do we get there? First, we must want to. Second, we must make choices that put American power on the side of those who share that vision. Third, we must leverage our might to help a transformation take place over decades. It will be slow — the Soviet Union stood for seven decades — and it will be hard. Still, there is no credible case to be made that either religious or secular dictatorship works. The change has begun. How it continues is not simply up to the Arab and Persian worlds. It is also up to us.