In different ways, both the United States and Iran have engaged in nation-building in Iraq. The United States did so very explicitly, announcing to the world its intention to rebuild post-Saddam Iraq as a democratic country with a US trained professional army. Iran’s approach was low profile and focused not on transforming Iraq into a new country but on building strong relations with important domestic actors. The US failed in Iraq, Iran succeeded in establishing itself as the most influential player. No matter how one judges the outcome, it entails an important lesson for the United States about its approach to nation-building.
The approval of the new, controversial Egyptian constitution does not end the transition process that started with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Rather, it moves the struggle for power between the country’s new Islamist elite and the secularists that have ruled Egypt for decades into a new phase. New parliamentary elections will take place in the next two months. If secular parties obtain creditable results, even short of winning the majority, there is still hope that the transition will eventually lead to a democratic outcome. If secular parties suffer a resounding defeat, as they did in early 2012, the battle will probably move to the streets, with unpredictable results.
The Arab world has been changed irreversibly by the popular uprisings that started in early 2011. The long period of dormancy that enveloped the Arab world has come to an end. The uprisings have been triggered in all countries by similar mixes of economic hardship and lack of civil and political rights. But we should not expect the uprisings to lead to similar changes in all countries. Already, three different patterns are emerging. In Tunisia and Egypt, the presidents have been overthrown by members of their own regime, including the military; they are now trying to limit the extent of change and to transform a potentially revolutionary process into one of reform from the top. In Yemen and Libya, the challenge to the leaders has turned into a challenge to the survival of the state itself: the two countries have no institutions that can persist if the presidents are ousted. In other countries affected by protest, the regimes have been trying to subdue the protest through a mixture of populist concessions, cautious reforms introduced from the top, and the occasional use of force.