Going strong for more than a year now, the changes wrought by the Arab Spring on the Middle East and beyond continue to reshape the region’s geopolitical landscape in wholly unpredictable ways. Just over a year ago, nobody could have predicted that three Arab autocrats would be ousted and several more would be fighting for their very survival. The fact that one of these deposed dictators, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, had honoured the Arab world’s first peace treaty with Israel – a treaty that led in large part to the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat – should worry supporters of peace everywhere, especially Israel. Amidst all the chaos and commotion, however, the doubtful hypothesis that the processes unleashed by the Arab Spring are somehow inherently bad for Israel has become widely and uncritically accepted as common wisdom. Even the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu revealed the Jewish state’s own misgivings about the Arab Spring’s sweeping revolutions, claiming that the Arab world was “moving not forward, but backward,” and labelling them “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic” in nature. No doubt the risks and costs associated with these revolutions are real, but so are the opportunities and benefits for many of the actors involved, even for Israel.
Let’s begin with the fact that authoritarian regimes are fundamentally unsustainable political entities, no matter how benign their leader or how beneficial their existence may seem. From this perspective, even the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was built on a proverbial hill of sand that was bound to be washed away by a tide not unlike the wave of popular unrest that unseated President Mubarak. To be clear, the peace remains in place today, but the fear is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will seek to abrogate it after emerging victorious in recent parliamentary elections and consolidating their domestic foothold on power. This is unlikely to happen for many reasons that would harm both the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s own national interests, but even if it did, there is no reason to think that a country roiled by revolutionary turmoil and on the verge of bankruptcy, rife with corruption and riddled with inefficiency, struggling to transition from military stewardship to civilian rule and struggling to feed, house, educate, and employ tens of millions of people would suddenly decide that its highest priority was to wage a losing war with Israel and squander the international goodwill it has rightfully earned so far. Therefore, there need be no contradiction between Egyptian prosperity, Israeli security and international peace.
Although many of these autocratic regimes are supported by the West thanks to their contributions to political stability, economic security and foreign policy cooperation, they remain illegitimate because they can only ensure their own survival through violence and would likely lose any free and fair elections held today. Most Middle Eastern non-democracies are entrenched regimes with decades of experience in repressing their populations and scapegoating Israel for their problems. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf kingdoms reportedly spent a whopping $150 billion in 2011 on pampering their citizens and avoiding any protests, and many of their foreign policies are in lock-step with Western security and energy interests. Realistically, who believes wholeheartedly that these countries can stifle domestic dissent and abuse human rights forever just because today’s models of industrial economic growth depend on abundant reserves of oil and gas? Even the oil-poor monarchies of Jordan and Morocco have managed to escape the fate that befell their fellow authoritarian leaders, but both have successfully leveraged patronage networks to enhance their own legitimacy and cleverly crafted political reforms without relinquishing power completely to dampen the demands of protestors. It is useful to note that the quasi-democracies in Lebanon and Iraq have been spared the tumultuous upheavals of the Arab Spring, largely because the citizens of these countries can voice their concerns through semi-representative political channels non-existent in other Arab states. The arc of history is bending clearly in the direction of democratization, and any overthrow of an authoritarian or dictatorial leader is a step in the right direction.
The obvious question to ask at this point is what happens if whatever comes after the dictator is worse than what came before? Is an Islamic theocracy not worse than a secular autocracy? This question not only misinterprets the primary causes of the Arab uprisings but also mischaracterizes its final trajectory. Thirty years ago it was possible for a group of religious hardliners to hijack a revolution and marginalize any opposition, like the clerical establishment did in Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Today this is not only extremely unlikely to happen, but even if it did, the same revolutionary forces of popular discontent that swept the old guard out of power would swiftly do the same to this new group. What about Islamist political parties that gain support by winning elections, like the AK Party in Turkey, the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Morocco? Do they not pose some threat to the fabric of any future democratic society? Firstly, they were elected by the people, and if they fail to live up to their campaign promises, they can be voted out of office just like anywhere else. Secondly, religion-based parties have existed in the West for centuries and democracy has survived. Thirdly, as long as the basic institutions of democratic participation and representation are respected, Islamist parties should be welcomed as positive influences in a country’s path to democratization. After all, do religious-affiliated political parties not exist in Israel?
Now let’s assume that democracy is the inevitable end-result of these revolutionary changes. This is admittedly an idealistic assumption, but one that gains credibility at a time when the protestor is dubbed Time’s Person of the Year, when social media and mobile platforms empower citizens at the expense of their governments and when the mass media then broadcasts their messages to the rest of the world in real time. Besides for being the most legitimate form of government devised until today, democracy is good as a means and as an end. Of course it benefits Israel when neighbouring regimes can resolve their internal problems without oppressing their people or spiraling into civil war, but it also means that Israel and its neighbours would be able to resolve their own bilateral problems peacefully. The infamous democratic peace thesis suggests that democracies do not go to war with one another, meaning that Arab-Israeli differences could be addressed through conciliation instead of confrontation. Furthermore, as the oldest and most successful democracy in the region, Israel is well placed to guide these democratizing post-revolutionary states in their quests for legitimacy among their own peoples, which could in turn pave the path for recognition, negotiation and peace between Arabs and Israelis.
As these Arab populations look inward and seek to rebuild their own fractured political systems so that they better represent domestic constituencies, the educated leaders of these countries would be foolish to ignore a regional powerhouse’s proven track record as a Middle Eastern democracy. Israel has in the past 60+ years managed to integrate a multiethnic and multidenominational population – with a large minority group, no less – into a vibrant democratic framework. With civilian control of the government, partisan political pluralism, robust media competition, independence of the judiciary, and guaranteed freedoms for all of its citizens, Israeli democracy can even benefit the Arab street – if they realize it.