Why the Arabs don’t revolt

Several people have been urging me to do a posting on the Ibishblog on question of why the Arab publics, who live under a collection of despotic regimes, one-party states, failed and semi-failed states, absolute monarchies, military juntas and family/tribal fiefdoms haven’t ever (or at least in living memory) publicly revolted in the same way that so many Iranians have taken to the streets in defense of their rights and for more open, transparent government. Obviously, this is an extremely complex and over-determined question, but I think it might be worth pointing out some of the more obvious factors that have inhibited rebellion of the Iranian variety in the Arab world.

First, it’s worth pointing out that with a couple of exceptions, most notably Lebanon which has a very weird, deeply flawed and sectarian but nonetheless democratic system, people in the Arab world generally know perfectly well that they don’t have any meaningful political or civil rights. Hamid Dabashi has been one of the most forceful commentators in describing, I think perfectly accurately, the uprising in Iran against the ruling elite as being essentially a "civil rights movement." In other words, what has driven Iranians into the streets in defiance of government oppression is a sense that rights that they believed that they had have suddenly and blatantly been taken from them in the most crude and indeed brutal manner. Until the recent election fraud/military coup, or however one wants to characterize the grotesque usurpation from within the system that has taken place within Iran, most Iranians did believe that they possessed a set of limited but reliable civil and political rights within the rubric of the "Islamic Republic." In other words, they believed that they were free to choose in elections between approved candidates willing to operate within the essential framework of the Iranian political system (one commentator aptly describe the range of choices available as analogous to an American conservative gamut running roughly from figures approximating Bob Dole-style moderate conservatism all the way to the David Duke-KKK extreme right).

Following the crude and blatant election fraud, the Iranian public has essentially been told, "April fool, your votes don’t count." Following the crackdown on demonstrations after the first few days of tolerated dissent, they’ve similarly been informed that the right to protest, freely assemble, and express grievances towards their government were also illusory and have been, in effect, canceled. The same applies to other forms of civil rights, such as free speech within certain limits, freedom of conscience and other elements of post-revolution Iran that were supposed to give meaning to the republican part of the "Islamic Republic." Mousavi has said that the present crisis is a test of whether "Islamic republicanism" is actually a possibility, or is an oxymoron. Unsurprisingly, the latter is increasingly proving to be obviously the case, as theocracy and not only democracy, but also pluralism and civil rights, simply do not go together. The situation has been made worse by the fact that the entire fiasco is being driven by an internal takeover within the regime by a military/intelligence clique dependent on, and appointed and led by Ayatollah Khamenei, usurping the authority of a more traditional clerical and revolutionary elite within the Iranian ruling circles. The people in the streets are outraged that their votes don’t count, they’re not allowed to protest, and their supposed right to free speech and assembly have been canceled (if they ever really existed in practice at all). Clerics in Qom and other religious establishment figures are appalled to find that a bureaucratic national security state clique has usurped power entirely and marginalized the old guard of the "Islamic Republic." When people feel that their rights have been suddenly taken away from them, or that a new and unaccountable clique has seized power, outrage is the inevitable response.

None of this applies in the Arab world. The sad fact is that the Arabs know full well that they don’t have meaningful political or civil rights, with a very limited exception of Lebanon (and, in some odd and also very limited ways, in the West Bank and Iraq too, but under conditions of internal strife and occupation). The sad truth is that in almost all cases, Arabs know that their votes don’t count, that they don’t have freedom of speech, assembly or conscience, and that they live under strictly authoritarian or totalitarian systems. In some cases these are enforced with sheer brutality, and in other cases with financial rewards for quiescence as an additional inducement to passivity. In all cases, the sticks are well-known and frequently used, in other cases (mainly the oil-exporting Gulf countries) the carrots are also very enticing. The combination seems to have been extremely effective, at least for now.

A second factor, which may be even more important, are extremely legitimate fears of the consequences of open rebellion in the Arab world. The two likely consequences of such rebellion in many cases, at least in the minds of many people, are even more unpalatable than the dysfunctional and heavy-handed states currently in place. In every Arab country, the principal opposition is the Islamist ultra-right. They have very strong support, but it certainly limited in almost every country to a distinct minority, in few cases exceeding 20-25% of public opinion at most. The rest of society is deeply disturbed at the prospect of theocratic rule by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or analogous organizations. I think there is a very real, and extremely realistic and accurate, sense that replacing existing regimes with Islamist revolutionary governments would be anything but an improvement on the present situation for most people. It could well be argued that the Arab regimes have promoted exactly this situation by systematically cracking down on all liberal and left-of-center opposition groups while allowing religious extremists a degree of political space in which to operate and organize. All of this, of course, was with the enthusiastic support of the West which always preferred, especially during the Cold War, religious conservatives to anything smacking of socialism.

Obviously, it is socially more difficult to interfere with organizations that hide behind religious structures in order to operate, but it’s also politically useful for governments to have unreasonable and extremist opponents who will fail to appeal to a majority of sensible people. The details vary from country to country, but in almost every case the center and the left has been persecuted, marginalized and crushed (or discredited by being co-opted by the regimes), while the religious right has been allowed a certain degree of space to operate within mosques and Islamic institutions, and for certain complex historical reasons has risen in every single Arab country to constitute the main, and in many cases the only, properly organized opposition. I think a very large number of Arabs prefer to continue to deal with the devil they know to be highly problematic in their own governments, as opposed to a devil they know to be even worse in the Islamist opposition groups. It is almost certain that, given the paucity of centrist and leftist organizations that are organized and effective, any public uprising that effectively destabilized existing governments would open the door almost inevitably to the rise of extreme Islamist parties to power. The Iranian case may have emboldened Arab Islamists, but it has certainly spooked the general Arab public in the same way.

The other alternative, obviously, is open-ended civil conflict and failed-state status. Lebanon and Iraq are already at the very least semi-failed states. Somalia is absolutely a failed state. It isn’t very difficult to imagine that widespread civil unrest, if it didn’t result quickly in the seizure of power by Islamist extremists which would be more oppressive, brutal and obscurantist than existing governments, would give way to open-ended chaos and failed-state status. These alternatives certainly explain the otherwise confounding ability of the Ba’athist regime in Syria to continue to survive in spite of all of its myriad failings, inadequacies and unacceptability. Assad survives in an authoritarian, unpopular and sectarian minority-dominated Alawite regime because the two alternatives are deemed by most Syrians and regional actors as absolutely unacceptable: Muslim Brotherhood takeover or Iraq-style chaos. Indeed, not only does this prevent (along with shameless repression by the regime itself) the Syrian public from taking to the streets as the Iranians have done, but also prompted Syria’s main regional rivals and opponents — Saudi Arabia and Israel — to intervene with the Bush administration to argue strongly against a campaign of regime change during the era of neoconservative intoxication in Washington between 2002-2004.

The Arab center and left finds itself in the unpalatable position of having to choose between working within the systems that provide an unacceptably limited space for civil society and political pluralism versus adopting positions and strategies that would, under the present circumstances, only serve to usher in a period of either theocratic dictatorship or generalized chaos. Some, especially on the far left, seem to have convinced themselves that the best way to move towards the center and the left in the Arab world is to charge headlong towards the extreme right. This seems absolutely irrational, and the prospects of progressive change under Islamist rule strike me very strongly as much more implausible than gradual reform within the admittedly unacceptable existing political structures in most Arab states. You could call it a Hobson’s choice, or a devil’s bargain, or anything you like, but in the real political world one must seriously consider the practical consequences of the real choices that have to be made. Obviously what is required is for the Arab center and left to work diligently, patiently and boldly to create more space for political pluralism and civil society within existing structures and to use whatever limited reforms are currently underway or being contemplated, and always push for ever greater reforms, and to rebuild a progressive Arab political narrative and agenda that can serve as an alternative to both abusive authoritarian regimes and the obviously far worse option of theocratic dictatorship.

At some point, the dam will burst and there will be significant, perhaps even radical change in the Arab Middle East. If the Arab regimes do not begin to seriously move to create more space for civil society, political pluralism and the ability of the center and the left to begin to rebuild their organizations, narratives and agendas, then the flood will be an Islamist one. This is in the interests neither of the present governments nor of the general publics of the Arab world, and must be avoided at all costs. Both the regimes and the center and left opposition groups must also, in order to avoid such a catastrophe, move beyond the monomaniacal obsession with the conflict with Israel, and begin to pay serious attention to domestic social, economic and political development in the Arab world. This doesn’t mean abandoning the cause of Palestine, by any means. It means augmenting concern and support for the Palestinians with a healthy understanding that the Arab world has a panoply problems with which it must deal, and that governments must not hide behind the conflict to resist reform, while the center and the left must not give way to abandoning its broader social, political and economic agenda in order to simply support anything and everything (at present, usually Islamist) that presents itself as the vanguard of "the resistance." The day may come, and soon, when the Arab public demands and achieves major change in their societies, and even revolt against their governments, but it must never be the case that the Arabs are, so to speak, "revolting."