Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?
These uprisings have been brewing in the Arab world for many decades. Almost everyone who carefully observed the region knew that this was going to happen at some point, but nobody knew how or when it would begin. Some narratives attribute the origins to the self-immolation of an underemployed Tunisian fruit seller who was being harassed by the authorities, or the beating death of an ordinary Egyptian in Alexandria at the hands of the police, both of whom became emblems of abuses by autocratic, unaccountable governments and their oppressive internal security forces. Other narratives emphasize social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Honestly, I think the causes for the uprisings are overdetermined and cannot be put down to either specific events or technological developments. For causes that may be analyzable many years from now with hindsight, there was clearly a critical mass that built at the very end of 2010 and has carried through this year with a vengeance.
Of course there are common root causes to most of these revolts: a demand for accountability from leadership; more social and political inclusivity; less corruption and nepotism and arbitrary misadministration by dysfunctional bureaucracies; extreme and growing social and economic inequality; the lack of political freedom; and an overall feeling that the Arab world is stagnating as the rest of the globe marches forward beyond modernity and even postmodernity towards a new and exciting era. I think many Arabs feel they are being left behind, not because they lack the skills or education, but because the governmental, social, and economic systems they lived under prevent them from participating in these global developments. The sense of being treated as a subject rather than a citizen by an unaccountable government, almost always corrupt and very frequently kleptocratic in nature, the lack of any serious space for political and social input through civil society or fundamental democratic processes; and the chronic underemployment of well-educated youth meant that there are a set of grievances that cut right across Arab states that have very different individual characteristics. Of course each society differs in many ways, and there are at least three Gulf states—Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait—that have so much money and such small populations that they are probably immune to major unrest.
What’s most fascinating about the Arab uprisings is that they have not been ideologically Islamist in character, although the Islamists are clearly hoping to benefit from early elections and the opening of political space. It wasn’t religious identity at all that brought millions of Arabs into the streets demanding their rights and the overthrow of long-standing dictators. It was instead qualities that had been considered moribund if not dead in the Arab world by many observers, both Western and Arab: patriotism, national consciousness, and a sense of fellow feeling based on national and ethnic identity. The “Arab Spring” has produced a fascinating resurgence of a kind of Arab nationalism, or at least Arab ethnic consciousness as opposed to Muslim religious identity consciousness, but it’s very different than the Arab nationalism of the past that quixotically sought to unite disparate Arab states. Instead, the Arab movements are inspiring each other, such that in Tunisia Islamic slogans were ejected in favor of patriotic ones, and the Tunisian flag predominated. In Egypt, the same thing happened, with Muslims and Christians, the devout and the skeptical, the upper middle class and the working poor, all uniting as Egyptians, waving Egyptian flags and symbols, but also Tunisian ones. In Libya and Yemen, national flags have been important but Tunisian and Egyptian flags have also been very present. In other words, people are proud to be Arabs again: They are proud of themselves, and they are proud of each other. They’re sick of being subjects to lifelong dictators and their sons, and resentful of monarchies that resist constitutionalism and parliamentary reform.
So clearly there are root causes that are common, and rather vague, often nonideological, goals that are common as well. But of course there are differences too. Because of their sectarian and ethnic heterogeneity, Iraq and Lebanon have their own dynamics and probably won’t be part of this wave of uprisings, even though a very interesting, but somewhat unrelated, movement is beginning in Lebanon. Bahrain has become almost entirely a sectarian conflict, which might have been avoidable, but due to the gross miscalculations of the government and their Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, and their paranoia about Iranian intentions towards the island kingdom (Iran has a full territorial claim on Bahrain that it has never formally renounced), it has already become virtually a proxy conflict between all the Sunni Arabs of the Gulf and the Shiites of the region, unfortunately led by Iran. In both Libya and Yemen, there is the threat of national disintegration and, potentially, failed-state status. So in all cases, there are unique challenges. But, as I say, there are many common grievances and ambitions that Arabs throughout the region clearly share and that are motivating the “Arab Spring.”
Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?
As I say, I think there are only three Arab states that are almost certainly immune to revolutionary uprisings: Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait. All three have small indigenous populations, very large amounts of money to keep people happy, no hesitation in using repression against dissidents (so you’ve got lots and lots of carrots but a few sharp sticks too), and huge numbers of migrant workers from the West, the Arab world, and other developing states who do not have a long-term stake in the future of those societies and are unlikely to risk all for social reform in places they live in only to make money. It’s true that there are Shiite minorities in the UAE and, especially, Kuwait that can prove difficult at times, and are certainly making a fuss about the intervention in Bahrain, but this is almost certainly manageable. Kuwait also has an ongoing problem of undocumented Bedouins who have been protesting for their rights for many decades. But again, this isn’t really part of the generalized Arab uprising and has a fairly easy solution: Normalize their status. Bahrain is a unique case also because it has a strong Shiite majority and an uprising that has become almost entirely sectarian. It’s seen as a flashpoint and redline for the other Sunni-ruled Gulf Cooperation Council members, especially Saudi Arabia, and as a proxy battlefield with Iran.
But other than the three small and hyper-rich Gulf states I mentioned above, I think all Arab countries are potentially liable to see popular unrest and antigovernment demonstrations. Sudan is still shell-shocked from the loss of the South, but it could spread there too. There are signs in Mauritania. It’s already well underway in Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia too is very brittle, with a large and oppressed and disenfranchised Shiite minority in the oil-rich eastern provinces, dormant but potentially resurgent tension between Nejdi and Hijazi identity, large numbers of poor and neglected people in rural provinces, and it’s also very susceptible to negative influences coming from a disintegrating Yemen and sectarian tensions emanating out of Bahrain. In some countries popular monarchs such as the kings of Jordan and Morocco, and some Gulf states as well, might be able to draw a distinction between themselves on the one hand and the governments on the other hand and proceed with reform on that basis.
This is even possible in Syria where Bashar al-Assad has somehow managed to create a very different reputation for himself personally to the deeply unpopular regime that he heads. How long that can be sustained or what he can do with it is very much open to question, and he already missed his first big opportunity in his recent speech in which he did not lift the draconian emergency law (presumably because either the inner circle around him wouldn’t let him do that, or he and all the others fear that it would open the floodgates to a generalized uprising). Syria is especially complicated because it is ruled largely by an Alawite sectarian minority and the potential for bloody vengeance against that community in the case of the fall of the regime is a serious concern. In addition, Syrians have had a very good look at what happened in Iraq (there are huge numbers of Iraqi refugees in Syria at the moment) and would not want to go through a similar period of social disintegration, and the Syrian government has a good deal of experience managing difficult political waters through its hegemonic efforts in Lebanon. So in my view while Syria is certainly vulnerable to the same kind of uprisings we’ve seen elsewhere, and that have begun in that country already, it may well be one of the last dominoes to fall for these reasons, and also because I don’t doubt the willingness of the Syrian army to use massive force at an early stage.
The outcome of all of this is most likely to be shaped by what happens in Egypt, which always has been and remains the bellwether for most of the Arab world. If the Egyptians can succeed in creating an inchoate and fledgling but pluralistic, inclusive democratic system that also protects minority rights, then we probably are seeing the beginnings of an Arab Spring comparable to the democratic transformations in Latin America and Eastern Europe in recent decades.
What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?
I think the United States has to be extremely careful in how it deals with the situation. First of all, it has to seize every opportunity to make it clear to the Arab peoples that we are not the guarantors of an unacceptable status quo—that we are not so addicted to oil supplies, regional stability, our own hegemony, and Israel’s security that we would regard any dramatic or revolutionary change in the Arab world as inherently undesirable. I think the Obama administration finally got it right in Tunisia and Egypt, and although they waited too long to participate in creating a no-fly zone in Libya, that action has helped to communicate the right message to the Arab world. If the United States had acted early, in the immediate aftermath of Col. Qaddafi’s first televised speech after the revolt began, in which he claimed the uprising was a joint Al Qaeda-American plot and threatened to cleanse Libya “house by house” among other bloodcurdling threats, an intervention would have been seen by almost everyone in the Arab world except for the most extreme left-nationalists and radical Islamists as a genuine rescue operation unconnected to self-serving American interests. The fact that we waited several weeks before joining a large coalition probably helped diplomatically in terms of securing Arab League support, a rock-solid UN Security Council resolution, a wide coalition including significant air power from Qatar and the UAE, and other important diplomatic achievements, but I think it also cost a great deal politically and strategically in terms of how this intervention plays out in Libya itself and, even more importantly, is viewed by the majority of Arab public opinion. I think now it looks much more like what it has become, an intervention in a civil war, and it looks much more calculated, self-serving, and reluctant, and hence is much more vulnerable to the specious charge of imperialism and neocolonialism.
I like the way President Obama in his speech on the Libyan intervention framed his criteria (he did not lay out a fatuous “doctrine” as other less sophisticated presidents have tried to do) for international action. He said that when our security is directly threatened, we will act without hesitation, but that even when it is not directly threatened, if there is a convergence between our interests and our values, then we will act. Libya is a perfect case in point, as there was every reason to suspect that as the Qaddafi forces were bearing down on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, a major massacre was a distinct possibility based entirely on his own rhetoric and threats, not to mention his conduct. This is where it becomes a matter of values. But at the same time, the United States, the international community, and the Arab world had to consider the prospect of a decisive victory by a bloodied, enraged, embittered and still oil-rich Qaddafi stalking the region and the world with a new revenge agenda that undoubtedly goes far beyond Libya and probably beyond the Middle East. In other words, from the point of view of our interests, that outcome was unacceptable. Hence there was a perfect confluence between our values and our interests, and Obama was absolutely right to act, although I wish he had done so earlier when it would have had a much more profound political and cultural impact in the Arab world, and also probably enhanced our ability to shape the outcome of what is ultimately going to be decided by Libyans with some external support.
Obviously there are other instances where our values and interests don’t intersect in the same way. Bahrain is a good example, although the violence inflicted there pales in comparison to what Qaddafi was doing in Libya. However, the overthrow of the royal family in Manama is not acceptable to the United States or its GCC allies because the Fifth Fleet is based there and it is therefore a vital military ally, because of its strategic location, and because of Iran’s thinly disguised designs on the island. Therefore, intervention in Bahrain will be left to the GCC based on the treaty obligations that allow for the kind of intervention those countries have already undertaken. If it were simply a matter of values, we would have already been intervening in Côte d’Ivoire and Congo. If it were simply a matter of interests, we would have supported the crackdown in Bahrain and not criticized the GCC intervention. There is a delicate interplay at work here between values and interests, understanding that when American security is directly threatened, all bets are off.
But I think that rather than establishing any kind of fatuous “doctrine,” what Obama has done is lay out a series of criteria that can help guide when intervention is useful and when it isn’t. I’ve been a supporter of the no-fly zone almost from the earliest stage, and I strongly agree with the case he made for that intervention, although he put much more emphasis on the humanitarian aspects (intelligently appealing to people’s consciences and emotions) and less emphasis on a Qaddafi victory as a politically unacceptable outcome. And he did explain the need to get on the right side of history in terms of the aspirations of the “Arab Spring” when we can do so without compromising our core interests, as we could in this case. It’s really impossible to argue, as some on the far left are desperately trying to do, that this is a neocolonial or imperial intervention designed to split Libya into pieces so that it will be easier to control, and seize the oil wealth of that country. This is absurd! The West had no problem dealing with Qaddafi until the uprising began and he was happily selling all his oil at very reasonable prices to the global marketplace. In fact, both the uprising and the no-fly zone intervention, which has prolonged the war by preventing what seemed as if it might have been an imminent and decisive Qaddafi victory, have driven the price of oil up even further, directly harming the U.S. economy and the economies of most of our allies as well. I’m not saying we are acting altruistically. States don’t do that. But I’m saying that the real calculus bears no resemblance to the faux-Marxist, pseudo-materialist gobbledygook you get out of the knee-jerk, tin can “antiwar” left. The professor and blogger Juan Cole has offered one of the most powerful rebuttals to this nonsense and I urge everyone to read his “open letter to the left.”
When it comes to our allies, obviously we need to push for serious reforms that can answer the legitimate grievances of the Arab peoples before chaos ensues in countries in which we have a major stake. And I think if the Egyptian transition proves effective in moving towards real democracy, that will set the stage for the process to spread in a more orderly, serious manner through much of the Arab world, with the exception of the Gulf, Lebanon, and Iraq, which will require their own solutions because they really are very different in many ways. What I’ve been arguing recently is that most Arabs, including most Islamists, have understood that government legitimacy must be based on elections and the consent of the governed through voting. That debate, it seems to me, is resolved in Arab political culture with the exception of a few ruling and royal families and the most extreme Islamists like Al Qaeda who find voting “un-Islamic.” What I think we ought to focus on, as well as urging orderly reforms and transitions based on the principles of accountability, inclusivity, rule of law, and pluralism, is the flipside of democracy: the limitations of government power. To put it in American terms, I think the Arabs get Jefferson: Government legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed. But I think too few Arabs really get Madison: that democracy depends on a healthy balance between the right of the majority to rule within limits set by the inviolable rights of minorities, individual citizens, and women. In other words, one of the great dangers facing the “Arab Spring,” assuming it really does move in the direction of functional parliamentary democracies, is the emergence of tyrannous majorities, whether Islamist or otherwise.
It’s important for the United States to back off and let the Arabs work things out for themselves with as little interference as possible, but at the same time we really should press our allies to begin the reform process in earnest in order to forestall chaos and civil conflict. More broadly, I think government agencies, and even more importantly nongovernmental organizations, especially those that are already engaged in Middle East research and policy work, Arab-American and Muslim organizations, think tanks, and other such bodies should begin to focus very heavily on the other side of the democratic coin: the limitations of government and majority powers. Arabs need a solid dose of Madisonian insights to balance their present infatuation with Jeffersonian ideals if they are to create well-functioning democracies that allow for majority rule, even by popularly, freely, and fairly elected Islamists (assuming they are peaceful, unarmed, and playing within the rules), that do not threaten the rights of individuals, minorities, and women.
This means empowering the moderates in the Arab world who understand this, and helping to create new orders in which the obviously totalitarian impulses of Islamist parties are restrained by constitutions that do not allow them to act on such impulses even if they become serious political players through elections. It means engaging heavily with practitioners on the ground who have been working towards Arab reform before the uprising in Tunisia suddenly erupted. It means spending money to help ensure that this process goes in that direction rather than the three great pitfalls facing the “Arab Spring”: the rise of new military dictatorships, as could happen in Tunisia and Egypt, that are currently undergoing “transitional periods” under military leadership; the emergence of fragmented or failed states as may be developing in Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere; and the potential rise of tyrannous majorities in unrestrained parliamentary democracies which lack sufficient protections for the rights of individuals, minorities, and women. I think this is an area the United States as a society, and not just the government but even more civil society organizations and NGOs, can be of enormous help. And I think we should start working on that right away, as closely as possible with the practitioners on the ground in all of these societies who understand this and are trying to both explain it to the general public and to the elite, and work towards creating systems that reflect these understandings.