By John Rapley
History's course is a winding one, and rarely does it proceed with the clear narrative arc of a film. Some revolutions triumph. Others are reversed. Some still are reversed for a time, as was France's more than two centuries ago, before it resumes its course. Progress merely means we advance to new states.
The Egyptian revolution, ushered in amid the euphoria of Tahrir Square, appears to have entered an uneasy consolidation phase. After promising not to run for the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood reversed itself, ran a campaign, and took the post. Yet with only half of Egyptians voting, and with an opposition candidate linked to the old regime coming a close second, the incoming president, Mohamed Morsi, came to office with a slender mandate. There was considerable fear that the secularist military would annul the election and seize power.
In the event, it chose not to. Although it dissolved the Parliament, following a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling declaring the assembly illegitimate, it opted to respect the will of the people. A tense stand-off is now emerging in Egypt.
Two poles of power, the Islamists and military, are balancing one another in a stare-down that could, at any moment, head back into the streets. The optimistic scenario would see Egypt's other political parties using the hiatus to organise for the elections that will follow the drafting of a new constitution, thereby producing a legislature more representative of the country. The pessimistic scenario doesn't foresee peace lasting that long.
Next door in Libya, recent elections have yielded a starkly different outcome. On one hand, Islamists, whose relations with the fallen Gaddafi government had been less conflictual than their Egyptian brothers' had been with the Mubarak regime, did poorly in elections. On the other hand, unlike in Egypt, the new government will take over a weakly evolved state.
Egypt has quite a different problem. Its state is highly developed, but now split into factions: those controlled by elements of the old regime, like the military, and those controlled by the Islamists. Libya faces an equally great risk of deterioration. But rather than a secular-Islamist battle with fairly clear lines, the danger in Libya would be of a Syrian-style fragmentation.
Speaking of Syria, the downfall of the friendly Mubarak regime has left the government of Bashar al Assad increasingly isolated. This week, the new Egyptian president met with the Saudi king, and the two appeared to bury their historic differences. United in their opposition to Iran, Syria's key remaining ally, the two men also share an opposition to the Assad government.
As the rebels encroach further into Damascus, the Syrian capital, defections from the government slowly multiply. Under sustained pressure, the Assad government may well collapse in time. But that would not usher in the relatively peaceful transition to Islamist rule that we have seen in Egypt. More likely, the religious minorities that underpin the government will themselves become the rebels, and a prolonged civil war may continue. In the midst of the resultant instability, Syria may become a new playground for al-Qaida, as happened in Iraq for a while.
If Tunisia remains the model of a successful, largely peaceful and moderate revolution, and Syria represents the other extreme of descent into civil war, something of a trend is emerging. With exceptions, like Libya, Islamists have advanced everywhere that revolutions took root. But nowhere, at least so far, has the sort of complete takeover of the organs of government, as followed Iran's 1979 Revolution, taken place. Instead, while North Africa settles into an uneasy consolidation phase, with Islamists ascendant but not hegemonic, the Levant and Gulf regions remain highly unstable and volatile.
Yet, hardly anywhere can one say the dust has settled. The Arab Spring, well into its second year, remains very much a work in progress. In most every country, it could still go either way.
John Rapley is a research associate at the International Growth Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.