The so-called Arab Spring, which has now spanned many seasons since its first tremors in Tunisia, can rightly claim the title of the most transcendental event in modern Arab history. The effect of the wave of uprisings and revolutions on the people of the region has been greater than even the momentous events of the first half of the 20th century: independence from colonial Europe, the establishment of the State of Israel and the rise and fall of pan-Arabism. Yet it is clear from recent events that what we have seen thus far is but the beginning. Though the road to stability will be long and uneven, western nations must be patient and allow Arab nations time to develop and strengthen their new governments and societies after decades of authoritarian control.
Some Western observers panicked after Islamist political parties reaped the first fruits of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt -- despite the fact that they were largely absent from the front lines of the protests that brought down the old guard. Many now predict an extremist tide sweeping the region, reestablishing a caliphate and unleashing a wave of terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood, in their view, is a surrogate of Islamic extremists. The recent violent protests and the deaths of American diplomats in Libya -- attributed to an anti-Islamic YouTube video or to a newly ascendant African al-Qaeda branch -- seem to validate such concerns.
However, instead of being a harbinger for the future, these recent events reveal the complexities of Arab societies; places where fledgling moderate governments are still learning the processes of governing while their domestic opponents jockey for increased influence. By hijacking legitimate sentiments and peaceful protests, Islamic radicals and other fringe elements make themselves seem more representative than they truly are.
Make no mistake, Muslims and Arabs who viewed the video were deeply offended, and rightly so, but those who stormed American embassies and ambushed American diplomats do not represent the majority view of the Arab populaces; poll after poll repudiates political violence. This violence was instead a poorly disguised power grab by extremists looking to strengthen their domestic influence -- not unlike the makers of the video who were equally intent on shocking their way into the headlines.
Part of the reason that Islamists did so well in post-revolution elections is that they represent the clearest and best organized break with the old regimes. The Muslim Brotherhood, now in power in Egypt, was banned and repressed since Nasser was President in the 1950's; Tunisia's Ennahda Party, which was banned under the former regime, was victorious in national elections there. The Salafists who now control many levers of power in Libya were mercilessly hunted down by Muammar Gaddafi.
The Islamist parties, like all ideological organizations, carry within them the seed of internal divisions. This has already manifested itself in splits between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in Egypt; it will certainly create fissures elsewhere. The protesters in Tahrir Square who brought down Mubarak were driven by a lack of economic opportunity, not a hatred for the west. Do we expect them to remain silent when the Islamists fail to deliver? Islamists in power will either temper their agenda to appease the majority of their citizens or they will be removed from power as quickly as these revolutions unfolded.
It will be many years before these new governments are stable and prosperous. The great revolutions of 1848 took many decades to play out before democracy triumphed in modern Europe. Those in power will continually test their limits but will likely find that to stay in power, they must pursue policies that meet the economic aspirations of their peoples and promote relatively moderate social values. Though the road will be long, the Arab people are now in control of their future.