Arab Christians in Egypt, Syria and the West Bank may eventually become as embattled as Muslims in the Balkans. Because the Arab-Israeli dispute occurred in our lifetime, we tend to believe that we’ve been living through a period of momentous history. But, in fact, there has been comparatively little political change in the Middle East. Consider Egypt. For more than forty years, it has been a socialist kleptocracy ruled by the same class of Nasserist officers: some more repressive than others, some friendly to Israel, some hostile to it, but all basing their rule on emergency military law, a gargantuan and largely useless bureaucracy and parasitic entrepreneurs who produce substandard goods bought by the state and rarely pay the taxes they should.
Like it or not, the Middle East remains a place of anger for everyone.
On the other hand, there has been great social movement. On the eve of the 1967 war, Egypt had 30 million inhabitants. Now there are more than 60 million. In the 1960s, only 30 percent of all Egyptians lived in cities; now almost 50 percent do. Forty percent of the population is under 15. At some point, sustained demographic pressures may provoke fundamental political change, or breakdown. In Syria the story is much the same. It held its last free elections in 1954, and the country split along sectarian lines. Since then, political development has been arrested by sterile, neo-fascist military rulers. Syria in the mid-1990s is a more tractable and diluted version of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s–a society riven by regionally based ethnic groups but without Tito’s rotten legacy of communism. Syria will not explode as Yugoslavia did, but some sort of upheaval probably lies ahead. The end of hostility with Israel, rather than strengthening the Syrian state, may unleash social and political forces that will, one day, unravel it.
The other countries of the Arab world face, to lesser or greater degrees, these same threats. As Arab populations increase, they become increasingly difficult to control centrally, especially if some of their economies do not keep up. This is especially true in places where the regime is afforded little respect because it is uncivil or because it is dominated by a hostile group. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have experienced great demographic and social changes over the past decades but little or no political evolution. In North Africa, which has among the biggest youth populations and highest rates of urbanization in the world, only Algeria so far has seen significant political evolution, and what a bloody, tumultuous evolution it has been. Iraq and Sudan, whose colonial borders are cruelly averse to ethnic ones, may not be around in ten or fifteen years. Why will Arab populations no longer remain passive in the face of their hapless, vicious governments? After all, for much of history Arabs, as well as Turks and Persians, have been misruled by illegitimate regimes. In 1891 Viscount James Bryce observed that “worse administrations” than those in the Islamic world “can hardly be imagined.” But Bryce also noted that “When in any society opinion becomes self-conscious … that society is already progressing, and soon finds means of organizing resistance and compelling reform.” There is no Islamic society that has not in recent decades become “self-conscious.”
The communications revolution is bringing European soap operas into mud-brick Arab shanties, even as Arab upper classes travel back and forth to the West and communicate on the Internet. All this, coupled with fast-forward urbanization and population growth, means that Arab cultures are dramatically evolving: the Arab middle classes are more Westernized, the Arab poor more restive. Arabs have become aware of how their societies compare to others: this is what is new–and destabilizing–about the region. And as cultures evolve national characteristics change. Anyone who has spent time in the Nile Valley recently knows that the traditional description of Egyptians as the easygoing “Italians of the Arab world” (compared to the “Germanic” Iraqis) is losing currency.
A doubling of the population and the replacement of rural poverty by urban poverty is making Egyptians increasingly hard-edged and short-tempered, particularly in the southern part of the country, where the Islamists are strong. The regime is evolving, too, each year becoming a bit more repressive. Given the scale of Egypt’s social and demographic change, there can be no political stasis. If President Hosni Mubarak is still in power a decade from now, he will preside over either a more democratic, albeit highly chaotic, river valley civilization or a substantially more repressive state apparatus. Given the extent of anti-American sentiment in Egypt today, the U.S. may prefer the latter. A grand, Peres-style peace treaty may lead to more Middle Eastern experiments with democracy.
But, as we should already have learned from the elections in Algeria, this will not necessarily increase stability. Any form of democratization–given the out-of-control demographics of the region, the growing political awareness of partially educated and unsophisticated millions and the preponderance of tired, cynical regimes–will be explosive, in some cases violently so.The coming tumult will not exclude Turkey and Iran, whose own highly dynamic populations are already undergoing immense change. In Turkey, Kurdish renaissance is further propelled by Islamization that, in turn, is tied to internal migration and urbanization, all of which erode the ability of the Ankara government to satisfy the most sophisticated population in the Muslim Near East. Close to Europe, with a middle class created by an organic process of industrialization rather than overnight oil wealth, Turkey has a social and political adhesive that other countries in the region lack. But, though change in Turkey may be more gradual, its direction is clear: greater religious identity (Islamic); greater ethnic and racial identity (Kurdish and Turkic); and lesser loyalty to a state with fixed boundaries. Turkey’s stability has often been taken for granted. It should no longer be.
The political class, as the recent elections show, is deadlocked, with Islamists a growing grass-roots force. Turkey’s cohesion is as dependent on the military as it was a half century ago, when its experiment with democracy first began. But it is Iran, with a population both larger and better educated than Egypt’s, that has the greatest chance to remake the region. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s population has doubled, and population growth has outpaced economic growth by 1.4 percent a year since 1985. In the course of this economic decline, Iran’s revolution has moved from fiery Jacobinism to ossified Bolshevism. The only remaining question is whether this is an early Brezhnev phase or a late Chernenko one.
Iranian newspapers protest government corruption. Mosques are empty and Western culture ubiquitous. Anti-Americanism is dead except inside certain government ministries and religious seminaries or when the regime hires a crowd for a demonstration; and even there one senses that the slogans have long ago lost puissance. A stranger from another era deposited suddenly in Egypt, then in Iran, might think it was the latter, not the former, where the U.S. enjoyed a large diplomatic presence and good relations.Ironically, the Iranian regime’s very internal weakness may postpone its demise. Because Iranians can increasingly say and do what they want, few feel an immediate need to replace the government. But when the counterrevolution does come it could further weaken the Iranian state, leading to upheavals in Iran’s ethnic border areas among Kurds, Azeri Turks and Turkomans. This would dramatically shift the regional power balance just as calcified Arab regimes and their corrupt elites, from Morocco to the Gulf, come under greater popular pressure than ever.