CAIRO - There is something sadly appropriate about arriving in the Mideast on the weekend when the world is mourning Nelson Mandela.
Mandela was a visionary who managed to reconcile a long-repressed black majority with the white minority that had ruled them. His name became synonymous with forgiveness, in this case of the new black rulers toward fearful whites.
The absence of such visionary leaders is the reason the Arab Spring has turned out so badly. In Egypt, former President Mohammed Morsi won a historic election but was unable to transcend his roots in the secretive Muslim Brotherhood, which terrified more moderate Muslims and Christians. This gave the Egyptian army the opening to remove him.
In Syria, frightened Alawites (a sect of Shiite Muslims) and Christians cling to the dictator Bashar al-Assad because they fear a Sunni Muslim victory will drive them out. No Sunni Mandela exists to calm their fears.
Indeed, there is a dearth of Mideast leaders who can or even want to convince other tribes, sects, and clans that they won't be destroyed if they lose an election, let alone a civil war. So Mideast countries that recently rejoiced in new freedoms have grown weary of democracy and are now pedaling backward toward autocracy - or chaos.
The new Mideast narrative focuses not on democracy but on how to control jihadi groups, including al-Qaeda, that are flourishing in fractured states such as Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Many in the Mideast now claim (as they did before the 2011 revolutions) that most Arab states have only two dismal alternatives to choose from: rule by strongmen or by Islamic extremists.
As I travel to Cairo and then to the Turkish-Syrian border, I will be asking Egyptian and Syrian activists whether there is a way out of this trap.
In Egypt, at least, there is some possibility of returning toward democracy. A new constitution has just been drafted, and new elections will be held in the coming months.
But the Egyptian military is clearly the most powerful actor in the country, and it may wind up controlling the elections through a front candidate or a long-term lock on the Defense Ministry, which is currently headed by the charismatic army commander Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. A repressive law has been passed against demonstrations, no matter who conducts them. Bloggers, satirists, and young female demonstrators are being jailed.
Meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned and its leaders jailed, along with thousands of followers on what often seem to be specious charges. Other Islamist groups remain politically active, but it's unclear whether they can still be integrated into a democratic Egypt. If that isn't possible, some Islamists who opted for the ballot could return to violence.
I will be talking with youth activists, women, former members of Parliament, generals, and Islamists about Egypt's future, and whether it's still possible to design an inclusive system. Since Egypt is a bellwether for the region, what happens there counts.
The Syrian situation cries out even more desperately for a Mandela. Assad deliberately targeted secular and moderate Muslim opposition groups, while allowing radical Islamists to operate freely. He has achieved his goal: The moderates, receiving scant military aid from the West, have been decimated, while jihadis flourish.
The Syrian dictator tells fearful members of his minority Alawite sect that his demise would lead to their extinction. He tells Christians the same. As for Western governments, he says they need him to combat al-Qaeda.
Assad is the anti-Mandela: By cultivating fear and hatred, he has splintered his nation, but he has been able to hold on to power. U.N.-sponsored peace talks on Syria are supposed to be held next month in Geneva, but it's hard to see how they will amount to anything.
Assad's backers, Iran and Russia, show little sign of abandoning their proxy. At best, they may press him to let in more humanitarian aid. President Obama remains uninterested in arming moderate rebels, and it may be too late anyway.
I will be speaking with Syrian civil and military activists on the Turkish border to see whether they believe there is still a chance to hold Syria together. Were there an opposition leader with Mandela's charisma, it might be possible to rally Syrians who want neither a dictator nor al-Qaeda. Sadly, there is none.
Trudy Rubin, who has covered the Middle East for more than 36 years, will be in Egypt and Turkey near the Syrian border this week to report on the turmoil in that region. Read her upcoming columns in The Inquirer and her blog posts at www.inquirer.com/TrudyRubinEndText