The Mirage of the Arab Spring

Deal With the Region You Have, Not the Region You Want

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Out with the old, in with the old: graffiti in Cairo depicting the December 2011 protests, months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

As popular demonstrations swept across the Arab world in 2011, many U.S. policymakers and analysts were hopeful that the movements would usher in a new era for the region. That May, President Barack Obama described the uprisings as "a historic opportunity" for the United States "to pursue the world as it should be." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed these comments, expressing confidence that the transformations would allow Washington to advance "security, stability, peace, and democracy" in the Middle East. Not to be outdone, the Republican Party's 2012 platform trumpeted "the historic nature of the events of the past two years -- the Arab Spring -- that have unleashed democratic movements leading to the overthrow of dictators who have been menaces to global security for decades." Some saw the changes as heralding a long-awaited end to the Middle East's immunity to previous waves of global democratization; others proclaimed that al Qaeda and other radicals had finally lost the war of ideas.

The initial results of the tumult were indeed inspiring. Broad-based uprisings removed Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi from power. Since the toppling of these dictators, all three countries have conducted elections that international observers deemed competitive and fair, and millions of people across the region can now freely express their political opinions.

The prospects for further

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