A year into the Arab uprisings, it’s far too early to come to any definitive conclusions about where the upheavals will lead. But it is helpful to try to keep terms and categories straight in order to follow what has happened and what may happen into the future.
Some commentators are trying to characterize in broad-brushstrokes what is taking place in Arab political culture. Some are identifying the main feature as a liberationist imperative that has gripped the Arab political imagination. Others warn that popular uprisings without clear aims will inevitably lead to the “victory” of Islamists. Others say we have entered into a period of protracted chaos that will be characterized by increasing violence and conflict within states and regionally.
All these views are premature. Elements of each and of all can be found in the events of the past year. But, a clear, overriding narrative that sums up the essence of what is taking place in the Arab world is beyond anyone’s reach.
The convulsions are so multifaceted, with so many variables and so much that remains to be determined, that we must content ourselves simply with accepting that we are witnessing historic and transformative events. However, there have also been definite dynamics characterizing the uprisings in various countries. So we can be precise about what exactly has and has not been taking place.
I was on a television panel last week with the insightful Egyptian commentator Mamoun Fandy, for a year-end round up of the uprisings. Fandy observed that “there has not been one Egyptian revolution, there have been two.” I pointed out that there had been no revolutions at all in Egypt. What took place with the fall of President Hosni Mubarak was regime decapitation, not regime change. Faced with growing popular pressure, the military and other parts of the power structure removed the president and certain other key high-level figures in order to preserve as much of their power as possible.
Egypt is now the scene of a contest for power within and between previously existing institutions – principally the military and the only political party that is truly effective, the Muslim Brotherhood. This hardly qualifies as a “revolution.”
The Tunisian case is somewhat different. There, analogous regime decapitation did not lead to military rule; it led to what we could call a “pacted transition” to an emergent constitutional system, one that has been brokered but not dominated by the military.
So far, the only Arab country to have seen a real “revolution” is Libya, the product of a fully-fledged civil war and limited external military intervention. But the new order in Libya lacks institutions and is dominated by rival armed militias and a growing rivalry between the east and west of the country that has yet to be resolved.
In Syria, popular protests have not turned into a revolution yet, but armed resistance to the regime is growing, in spite of the misgivings of much of the political opposition. Syria seems well into an insurgency phase, and may be headed toward outright civil war. However, that will require the defection of mechanized units of the army or heavy weapons being provided to rebels from the outside.
In Yemen, popular protests have also not turned into a revolution. Rather, they have been more or less hijacked by various members of the political elite in a complex power struggle that is slowly dragging the country into ever-greater levels of disintegration.
In Bahrain, popular protests not only did not lead to a revolution, protestors probably did not seek a revolution (at least at first). The uprising thus far appears to have been contained by the royal family and its Gulf allies. However, the status quo is unsustainable and the potential for a campaign of urban terrorism by opposition or Shia extremists remains potentially a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Algerian government appears particularly concerned about the potential for an uprising. Morocco and Jordan have relatively popular monarchs, and some Gulf states are protected by wealth. But even if uprisings were to spread to these countries, it is impossible to predict what form they would take. Meanwhile, Iraq and Lebanon are heavily driven by sectarian forces and are especially sensitive to regional developments.
The best anyone can really do – apart from describing in immediate terms what has been happening in specific Arab states and in the broader region – is not to try to characterize the Arab uprisings in sweeping terms. It is preferable to use precise terms rather than resort to frequently emotional rhetoric about “revolutions.”