The Middle Eastern Revolution’s Bloody Second Act

“The purity of the revolution is now officially gone,” a high-placed Arab source told me this weekend. We were speaking as the bombs began to drop on Libya, but he was making a wider point about the popular movements that have swept the region as a whole. After the euphoric peak in Cairo one month ago—a moment I witnessed with my own excitement and amazement after years covering the region—the revolutions have become less buoyant and more bloody, less myth and more cold reality.

Violent crackdowns in Syria and Yemen. Sectarian conflict in Bahrain. Political stumbling in Tunisia and Egypt. And now war in Libya.

Fact is, as dramatic as the changes have been, the poetic storyline of youthful, peaceful revolutions bringing down ageing, corrupt dictatorships in an instant was always too simple to be true.

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While the motivations were similar, the nature of each uprising is different from country to country. Egypt and Tunisia were largely spontaneous, driven by decades of frustration with corrupt leadership. Bahrain is increasingly a proxy war between Shiite and Sunni. The democratic credentials of Libya’s opposition range from questionable to nonexistent.

And so you have odd contradictions, such as Iran supporting the protesters in Bahrain but the government in Syria, while the US supports the protesters in Syria, but backs the government in Bahrain.

More worrisomely, we’re now seeing governments in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and, by coming to its neighbor’s aid, Saudi Arabia, heeding the old dictators’ rule of thumb: show weakness and you’re finished (or off to the gallows). Muammar Qaddafi may be the worst offender, but he’s not the only one desperately hanging on to power.

“The danger of Qaddafi staying in power is that it will send a message to other dictators that if you want to stop the revolution: don’t be soft, use maximum brutality and you will stay,” an Iranian dissident, London-based blogger Potkin Azarmehr, told me. He’s frightened that the mullahs in Iran have already been emboldened to crack down on the Iranian opposition even harder.

Even the revolution’s success stories aren’t immune. In Tunisia and Egypt, there are increasing reports of the army resorting to arrest and torture.

Transforming decades-old dictatorships into accountable, elected governments was never going to be quick or easy. Opposition leaders in Egypt who I had seen battered for years still can’t believe what they have already achieved—and achieved very quickly: a deposed Mubarak, constitutional reform, the promise of free elections. In the past, opposition leaders would have considered it a victory not to rot in jail.

Still, in our rush to enjoy the drama on stage, we can’t forget to be very wary of the second act. Tunisia, the first to send its president packing, still has many of the same leaders running the country. Egypt has lost the president but not many of his cronies—and not the army. In Bahrain, many now see the hand of Iran and even possibly Iraqi Shia groups at play. Virtually all the possible scenarios for Libya now are fraught with danger and instability.

Trying to sift through it all is the Obama administration, caught between old alliances and newly empowered opposition movements. Virtually all of the dictators—save Iran and Syria—were our friends, including the now demonized Qaddafi. And most of the opposition movements, even as they crave US support, still doubt American intentions. I was not surprised when youth leaders in Egypt refused to sit down with Hillary Clinton. “The US may have been our friend for weeks,” one told me. “But it was our enemy for years before that.” Now, even as the US leads military action in Libya to protect the opposition there, an old Middle Eastern conspiracy theory is again rearing its head: the war is all about oil.

Where and how Libya ends will not determine what happens from Tunis to Cairo to Manama to Damascus; as we have seen, the players are very different from place to place. However, Libya does put a violent end to the first, euphoric act of the Middle Eastern revolution. Too often, the following acts of this new and unpredictable drama will be tainted with the familiar characteristics of old-fashioned Middle Eastern politics: alliances of convenience, brutal power games, and blood.

Jim Sciutto is a senior foreign correspondent for ABC News. He has covered the Middle East for ten years, with more than 100 assignments from Egypt and Palestine to Iraq and Afghanistan.

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