In medieval times, areas known to be dangerous or uncharted were often labeled on maps with the warning: “Beware, here be dragons.” That is surely how mapmakers would be labeling the whole Middle East today.

After the onset of the Arab awakenings, it was reasonable to be, at worst, agnostic and, at best, hopeful about the prospect of these countries making the difficult transition from autocracy to democracy. But recently, looking honestly at the region, one has to conclude that the prospects for stable transitions to democracy anytime soon are dimming. It is too early to give up hope, but it is not too early to start worrying.

Lord knows it is not because of the bravery of the Arab youth, and many ordinary citizens, who set off these awakenings, in search of dignity, justice and freedom. No, it is because the staying power and mendacity of the entrenched old guards and old ideas in these countries is much deeper than most people realize and the frailty or absence of democratic institutions, traditions and examples much greater.

“There is a saying that inside every fat man is a thin man dying to get out,” notes Michael Mandelbaum, the foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We also tend to believe that inside every autocracy is a democracy dying to get out, but that might not be true in the Middle East.”

It was true in Eastern Europe in 1989, added Mandelbaum, but there are two big differences between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Many Eastern European countries had a recent liberal past to fall back on — after the artificially imposed Soviet communism was removed. And Eastern Europe also had a compelling model and magnet for free-market democracy right next door: the European Union. Most of the Arab-Muslim world has neither, so when the iron lid of autocracy comes off they fall back, not on liberalism, but Islamism, sectarianism, tribalism or military rule.

To be sure, we have to remember how long it took America to build its own liberal political order and what freaks that has made us today. Almost four years ago, we elected a black man, whose name was Barack, whose grandfather was a Muslim, to lead us out of our worst economic crisis in a century. We’re now considering replacing him with a Mormon, and it all seems totally normal. But that normality took more than 200 years and a civil war to develop.

The Arabs and Afghans are in their first decade. You see in Syria how quickly the regime turned the democracy push there into a sectarian war. Remember, the opposition in Syria began as a largely peaceful, grass-roots, pan-Syrian movement for democratic change. But it was deliberately met by President Bashar al-Assad with murder and sectarian venom. He wanted to make the conflict about his Alawite minority versus the country’s Sunni Muslim majority as a way of discrediting the opposition and holding his base. Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on February 28, 2012 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on February 29, 2012, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: There Be Dragons).


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