Q. Sometimes I go to a cocktail party and some wise guy starts talking about the Arab Spring and I get confused. Can you help me?
A. Yes, with very little information you can hold your own in five-minute conversations. You simply have to know about Sunnis and Shiites and Islamic fundamentalists and secularists – people who want to keep religion out of government.
Q. Great. Can we start with Egypt? That’s where it all began, correct?
A. No. It started when a fruit-and-vegetable vendor set himself on fire in Tunisia. He died in January 2011 and that set everything in motion. This is a good fact for party chatter.
Q. Well, what about Egypt?
A. It’s a mess. You may recall seeing all those happy young people in Cairo on CNN. They had iPhones and were tweeting about democracy.
Things have quickly gone south. Remember the words “Muslim Brotherhood.” This is a massive and powerful Islamic organization that is taking control of Egypt. They have allied themselves with the Salafists. These guys are like radical Christian fundamentalists who believe that God created the world 6,000 years ago and installed the fossils to confuse us.
In a few years, Egypt will look a lot like Iran – unless there’s a military coup.
Q. What about Libya? Those people must be thrilled to have gotten rid of Muammar Qaddafi.
A. Libya is a mess. With Qaddafi gone, it has devolved into a stretch of desert with competing tribes. There’s no functioning government. Tribal militias are acting as the police and you can imagine how sensitive they are about civil and human rights.
There are at least three groups talking about carving their own nations out of what was once Libya. Rival fighters are killing each other.
In short, it appears the NATO has cleared the way for Libya to become another Islamic fundamentalist state in the region, possibly one plagued by years of civil war.
Q. OK. Certainly Yemen is better off now that its dictator is gone.
A. Yemen is mess. It’s running out of water and oil. It has 24 million people and 75 million guns. Most of the male population starts chewing the stimulant plant called qat at 2 p.m. each day.
Yemen is like Afghanistan circa 2000. It can’t be governed. It’s a petri dish for Al Qaeda militants. For the rest of our lives, the CIA will be patrolling the Yemeni skies with its drones looking for militants who are planning to take down passenger jets over the USA.
Q. Will there be a happy ending in Syria?
A. No. Either Bashar Al Assad will slaughter enough rebels to remain in power or he will fall and Sunni fundamentalists will take over and slaughter all the Shiites and Christians who have prospered during his regime.
Q. What is this Sunni-Shiite thing all about?
A. Back in the 7th century Muslims split into these two sects. They started killing each other in 656 AD and they’re still at it today. For cocktail party purposes, you need to know these breakdowns:
Shiites – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon.
Sunnis – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt.
I hope this helps if anyone says “Arab Spring” at a party.
A former managing editor of The Palm Beach Post, Tom O'Hara is a senior editor with The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi and a Middle East columnist for Florida Voices.
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