"The decades-long political winter in the Arab world seemed to be thawing early this year as mass protests toppled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. It appeared as though one rotten Arab dictatorship after another might fall during the so-called Arab Spring. Analogies were quickly conjured to 1989, when another frozen political space, Eastern Europe, saw one dictatorship after another collapse. A similar wave of democratic transitions in the Arab world was finally possible to imagine, particularly given the extent to which previous transformations had been regional in scope: Portugal, Spain, and Greece all democratized in the mid-1970s; much of Latin America did shortly thereafter; Korea and Taiwan quickly followed the Philippines’ political opening in 1986; and then a wave of change in sub-Saharan Africa began in 1990. All of those were part of the transformative “third wave” of global democratization. In March, many scholars and activists reasonably imagined that a “fourth wave” had begun.
Two months later, however, a late spring freeze has seemingly hit some areas of the region. And it could be a protracted one. Certainly, each previous regional wave of democratic change had to contend with authoritarian hard-liners, opposition divisions, and divergent national trends. But most of the Arab political openings are closing faster and more harshly than happened in other regions -- save for the former Soviet Union, where most new democratic regimes quickly drifted back toward autocracy.
If Tunisia still provides grounds for cautious optimism, the Egyptian situation is already deeply worrying. Its senior officer corps, which currently controls the government, does not want to facilitate a genuine democratic transition. It will try to prevent it by generating conditions on the ground that discredit democracy and make Egyptians (and U.S. policymakers) beg for a strong hand again. The ruling officers have turned a blind eye to mounting religious and sectarian strife (and an alarming explosion in crime). The military has spent enormous effort arresting thousands of peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square and trying them in military tribunals over the last two months. (In April, one such detainee, a blogger named Maikel Nabil, was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the military establishment.”) Yet it claims that it cannot rein in rising insecurity. Many Egyptians see this as part of the military’s grand design to undermine democracy before it takes hold.
The parliamentary elections slated for September are unlikely to help: New political forces have no chance of being able to build competitive party and campaign structures in time. The Muslim Brotherhood, which initially said it would only contest a third of the parliamentary seats, has now announced its intention to contest half of all seats, forming a new political party (Freedom and Justice) for the purpose. If the electoral system retains its highly majoritarian nature, it might well win a thumping majority of the seats it contests (perhaps 40 percent in all), with most of the rest going to local power brokers and former stalwarts of the Mubarak-era ruling party, the National Democratic Party.
Elsewhere in the region, Bahrain’s minority Sunni monarchy opted to crush peaceful protests and arrest and torture many of those with whom it might have negotiated some future power-sharing deal. With active Iranian support and a bizarre degree of American and Israeli acceptance, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a slow-motion massacre that could go on for weeks or even months. In Yemen, the government is paralyzed, food prices are rising, and the country is drifting. Having seen the fate of Mubarak, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is playing for time, but his legitimacy is irretrievably drained, and he lacks the ability to mobilize repressive force on the scale of Assad’s."