Great points you got there, Brad. Yeah, the concept of "next few months," can be pretty dicey. Before you hit me further with that "few months" pillow, however, I need to stress that, unfortunately, I will have to keep saying "next few months," since we are now at the key moments or "decision points."
(I think Friedman's biggest mistake is the fact that he was not very specific in his prediction (the next six months X will happen, but then if that happens, then Y follows.) So there's no qualifier, no in-depth analysis about what was going on. He just said "next few months will determine whether this will be successful." No analysis, no reasoning. I am not going to say that I don't like Friedman. I think the problem is that he was doing interviews where he could not elaborate much. Though, to be honest, I think his books really are travelogues, such as Rick Steves' or Elliott's. Still, considering the simple fact that he sold gazillion copies of his books and I am still unable to get any publisher interested in my dissertation, I really should not say much.)
Now in in my defense, I noted that whether Iran would end up to be as a "big winner" would be decided in the next few months, because whatever happens depends on what the political actors in the Middle East will do in the near future. Should, say, the Egyptian political class (including the military) be unable to draft a reasonable compromise, or should the they try to pull something stupid, (e.g. by stressing religious credentials as a justification for them to gain power, or trying to steamroll the opposition and thus creating a bunch of really angry people), then, yes, the Iranians will make a huge gain. If they see a crack, Tehran will throw in lots of cash and other types of support to see if anyone is biting.
I still owe you an analysis comparing Indonesia Reformation and Egyptian Revolution in 1998, so let me just take some bits and pieces of what I have written there and put it here, because I really think that it is relevant to our conversation now, especially when you are talking about the major hurdles in the next few months.
First, I think both Egypt and Indonesia have more things in common than the fact that both countries had dictators overthrown via a popular revolt. What people found in the remnants of the both dictatorships is a really sad fact that there was simply no structure left, no real state bureaucracy. What happens is that dictators hate structure, they despise how the state apparatus controls them, limiting their options. So what do they do? They corrupt it by putting their cronies on top.
Same thing with the law enforcement and justice system. Both systems exist to make sure that everyone knows that there are standards, that there is equality before law and everyone will be treated justly. So a dictator who knows what s/he is doing will first dismantle the police force and the court system. In Indonesia, Sukarno destroyed the Court System in late 1950s after the collapse of the Constitutional Democracy. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez just packed the entire court system. Even in the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt was aware of this and that's why he was trying to pack the court with New Dealers. I am not saying that he was a dictator, mind you. Still, he was totally aware that to increase his freedom of action, he needed to tinker with the Supreme Court.
That is what Mubarak, Suharto, and their predecessors did in their reigns. They corrupted entire state apparatus from the top to bottom, ensuring that they became the pillar of the state. And when they leave or are forced from office, the entire state system crumbles. True, that there are still bureaucrats, policemen, army, etc. But in the absence of effective rules and institutions, nothing controls them, nothing is the final arbiter. Everything is in flux.
The Middle East is interesting, because the collapse of the state also means the collapse of the political Islam, since the dictators had been trying to absorb political Islam, making it subservient so as to legitimize their rules - and in the fringe cases they couldn't absorb it, they just cracked down on them, because they knew that the majority of population were not identifying themselves with radical political Islam. Thus, you can see that successful revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and soon enough, Libya, really have a really minimal flavor of Islam in their demonstrations. Even in Egypt, they tried to stress the fact that the Copts were part of the entire mass movements.
Back to the Indonesia case, after the collapse of Suharto's rule, PDI-P, the main opposition party, got a huge gain in polls, from less than 5% during Suharto's era to around 35% of the vote. In the meantime, the former ruling party, Golkar, saw its number plummet, from 80% to around 20%. The PDI-P, unfortunately, became cocky, and refused to compromise, stressing that they won the election fair and square so they had to govern. What happened was that everyone else, including the Islamists, ganged up with the formerly ruling party, and beat the PDI-P during the parliamentary session. Megawati, the leader of the PDI-P, only got the ceremonial position of the vice president. The other positions were divided between other parties.
The President, Gus Dur, was famous for three things: he was a reformist who truly wanted to fix all problems facing Indonesia, he was erratic, and yet, at the same time, decisive. So, using his presidency, he pushed many reforms, including the sacking of then-powerful General Wiranto
What followed was much unrest, as many discontented elites decided to sow unrest. Some of causes were independent of Gus Dur. For instance, some local politicians who had to face free and clean elections for the first time in their political career decided that they needed to stress their religious credentials by engaging in religious hate-mongering. Others however, were direct, most notably in the unwillingness on the part of both army and police to quell the disturbances, allowing them to explode into full-blown ethno-religious riots.
Gus Dur was impeached about one year after his rise to power. Megawati rose to power and, having learned the lessons of Gus Dur, decided to move very slowly, which resulted in the stagnation of the reform movement. In fact, the vestiges of the old regimes still exist. Suharto himself was not brought to trial - ever, until he died peacefully few years ago, and surprisingly, he was mourned by entire country, who craved for the stability, economic progress, and leadership that he brought.
Still, does that mean the reformation in Indonesia is doomed? No, it is still moving, slowly, but still going forward. What has been unleashed is the idea that the government is not invincible, that people can actually criticize the governments, and the elites and the government are mortal, can do wrong. There are criticisms on how the government works almost every day. Such criticisms were not tolerated. But today, however, it is business as usual. People now take their freedom for granted and I think it is a very healthy development.
That is why I keep saying lets see what happens in the next few months. We are still unclear on what step the Egyptian elites, including the reformers, will take. We are still not sure, too, whether the Ikhwanul Moslem will truly transform themselves to a "secular" democratic party, or whether they will strive to make Egypt into an Islamic state.
I think the best role that the United States can do at this point is quietly, behind the scenes, pressure the military leaders to honor their promise to reform and start telling the truth that transition to democracy is always an ugly process. As John Mueller noted in his excellent, but never really discussed book, democracy has a huge image problem, in the sense that everyone thinks democracy is the best thing ever invented. Unfortunately, democracy is not a true solution, it is a process and it does not guarantee that everyone will be happy and prosperous after taking this path. Should people have an inflated sense of optimism once a state becomes democratic, they will be mightily disappointed. That is what happened in Russia, and now Putin is seen as the solution. The United States should also quietly train people on how democracy works, how to fix the flawed law enforcement system, and how to strengthen the courts system. Basically, the United States need to help strengthen the structure and capacity of these new states. I think that is the way to go.
Okay, I will throw some questions back at you: What will be the future of the peace process in the Middle East? Will there be a rapprochement between the newly democratized Arab states and Israel? And will these inter-state relations say anything meaningful about the so-called "Democratic Peace?" What can Israel do to make things better? And who is next? Yemen? Jordan? Saudi Arabia?