A year ago, "Arab Spring" might have been taken for a dance move.
Or maybe a new brand of bottled water.
Or some machine part, perhaps the thing that keeps an oil well pumping up and down.
People wouldn't have thought of the phrase as shorthand for the world's next great upheaval, as world-altering as the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. But that's how we must think of it now, say some Omaha-area scholars who study Middle Eastern affairs.
And, they add, we should buckle up for a long, bumpy ride.
A year ago today, the ruler of Tunisia, an Iowa-sized country at the northernmost point of Africa, fled from angry protesters — a breathtaking event in a part of the world accustomed to seeing people's discontent simply squashed.
Their discontent had been roused by a simple, grisly act. A poor fruit seller, pushed to his limit by police harassment and demands for bribes, had fatally set himself afire outside a government office.
Within weeks, the fire of protest his act ignited, fanned by Facebook, Twitter and other social media, had burned on to most countries of the region, scorching across the top of Africa and eastward into the lands that Americans picture as a landscape of oil wells, camels and great religious shrines.
Each day's headlines show no sign the fire is stopping.
The big questions — What will emerge from the ashes? When? Who will get burned in the process? — will vex the peoples of the region and U.S. consumers and policy-makers for years to come, said the Omaha scholars, all university professors with expertise in the region and world affairs.
"It's a transformation that has been a long, long time in coming," said Thomas Gouttierre, dean of international studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Yet as overdue as it is, the change is one for which residents of the region are unprepared, he said.
Most countries there lack what political scientists call civil society — the web of voluntary associations that Americans are so familiar with, from social clubs to church councils to unions and Neighborhood Watch groups. Political theorists see these as the glue of a democracy, or of some system at least more responsive to people's yearnings than a police state is, Gouttierre said.
Another troubling lack is "a divided elite," said Terry Clark, who directs graduate students in international relations at Creighton University.
A society with multiple elites, balancing one another and offering rival visions for the future, might sound too much like the hyperpartisan wrangling American voters complain about nowadays. But it's a precondition for democracy, Clark said, because a single elite just dictates.
In Egypt, for instance, the military has long been that single elite, said John Calvert, a Creighton historian who specializes in the modern Middle East.
But now the Egyptian brass must contend with Islamist groups — the main winners of just-completed parliamentary elections — and liberal secularists who championed the throngs in the streets over the past year. It's a struggle for which no rules have been written — literally. Calvert said a new constitution is the top item on Egypt's to-do list.
Such unpredictability is the bane of peace, the three professors said.
Lacking predictability about how government and life are supposed to work, the poor and overwhelmingly young populations of the region are at risk of sliding into civil war or blundering into war with neighboring countries — not a good thing at a crossroads of the globe that's brimming with oil and arms, including nuclear weapons.
So in the turmoil ahead, what should the United States do?
College professors aren't in the habit of giving policy advice, but they will if pressed:
» Don't freak out over Islamists, suggested Calvert, a specialist in the history of that movement.
Granted, Americans are still raw over the Islamic extremists who attacked the United States on 9/11 and who confront U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But that doesn't mean all Muslims who desire a society reflecting their religion are hostile or oppose democracy, Calvert said.
In Egypt, the most influential Arab country, with twice the population of any other, "the Islamists are rational political actors. They are pragmatists" who have rejected al-Qaida's violent ideology as a recipe for disaster, he said. "They want to get it right and prove Islam is compatible with democracy."
» America is no longer in the driver's seat of the Arab world, Calvert said. The popular uprisings show that these peoples, for better or worse, are determined to captain their own fate.
"We have to sort of roll with this," he said.
The Mideast was admittedly simpler during the Cold War, when Washington could just give money to support a ruler able to keep a lid on his country, Calvert said. But that doesn't mean Americans should be terrified of the messy processes unfolding there — no messier, by the way, than America's own trek to modern democracy, he said. "Americans should be rooting for Arabs."
» Make use of military-to-military contacts, said Clark.
In countries such as Egypt, a crucial question is what role the army — accustomed to ruling — will accept now. Many of its officers studied in the U.S. and know their counterparts in the U.S. military. What the Egyptians should be hearing from the Americans, Clark said, are messages like: Please work this out peacefully. What advice can we give you? What do you need?
» Rebuild U.S. capacity to gather human intelligence — the kind of information you can't get from satellite imagery or reading websites, said Clark, a former military intelligence worker.
That ability has withered, he said, mainly because past crackdowns against abuses in the intelligence community have frightened agents away from person-to-person spycraft. He said such work could help answer important questions like: Is the Egyptian military splitting? What's its morale like? What do junior officers think of the generals, and vice versa?
» Help knit Arab countries more closely into the world economy, said Gouttierre.
Think, for example, of Libya's oil industry or Egypt's tourism, both damaged by months of bloodshed, both capable of providing revenue and strong reasons to keep the peace, he said.
"Arab Spring" — a phrase taken from the Prague Spring, the short-lived 1968 uprising by Czechs — might be poorly chosen words. Some people, especially in the Middle East, insist "revolution" better expresses the region's sharp break with the past. And they note the Prague Spring lasted only eight months before Soviet tanks crushed it.
There are analysts who look back over the past year, at all the blood spilled and the murky aftermath, and suggest the season "has turned into Arab Winter" — cold and cloudy, said Calvert.
"But as a historian, I know these things take time. . I'm optimistic in the long term. But the key words are long term. Stability is years away, years away."
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