A year and a half into the emergence of a new Middle East in the context of the Arab uprisings, it behooves commentators who have been tracking these events to step back and assess our own evaluations. There’s no point in dwelling on what we think we’ve gotten right. What’s more important is where we can see we have gone wrong, and why. Taking note of these missteps provides valuable lessons for reading ongoing events with greater accuracy.
I’m going to look at several of my own most notable mistakes or rushes to judgment over the past 18 months, and what can be learned from them.
The most obvious of these is the most recent: like most other observers, I was surprised by the first-round results of the Egyptian presidential elections. Towards the end of 2011, I became convinced that former Arab League chief Amr Moussa would be very difficult to beat because of his name recognition, status as a professional politician in a field of relative amateurs, and what I thought would be his ability to garner support from a wide range of constituencies.
Boy was I wrong. I could see it coming with the rise of the “liberal Islamist” Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, who seemed to be emerging as the most appealing individual politician in Egypt. Almost every commentator I know of thought that at least one of these two, Moussa or Aboul Fotouh, would make it into the second round.
That Egyptian voters would turn away from all candidates touting their individual personal appeal to the establishment representatives of the former regime and the Muslim Brotherhood was, I think, a surprise. That the Brotherhood was able to organize strong support for its candidate was no surprise. But that all charismatic individual candidates would be swept aside by uncharismatic institutional ones is something almost everyone misread.
Opinion polls and conventional wisdom proved completely useless in anticipating where Egyptian voters would fall. The situation is far more stark and polarized than most people, myself included, had imagined. Indeed, it is so desperate that a presidential win in the second round by former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, based on a longing for order and fear of Islamists, is by no means implausible.
Another of my errors was to dismiss the unrest in Bahrain in its early stages as a “sideshow.” I quickly reversed my misjudgment, but I was wrong because I had identified the uprising in Bahrain as essentially the continuation of a long-standing domestic conflict between the Sunni monarchy and the Shia-led opposition that had previously erupted in the 1950s and the 1990s. On this basis, I thought it would not be of great importance to the broader Arab world.
What I failed to initially recognize was the centrality that regional sectarianism was beginning to play in the context of the uprisings. Even though there’s no evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the mainstream Bahraini opposition, Gulf Arab states and much of the rest of the Sunni Arab world saw the conflict as an extension of the broader rivalry with Iran. Far from being a sideshow, therefore, it was cast as a crucial battleground in the larger regional sectarian confrontation. It was also a red line for the Gulf monarchies that revolutions, if they must happen, must be restricted to republics only.
Throughout 2011, I traced the rise of sectarianism as the primary regional fault line. Even though I frequently noted that it was fluid, the almost total dominance of regional sectarianism was briefer than I had imagined. I should have anticipated that the situation in Iraq would prevent the Arab world from dividing along strictly sectarian lines, for that would virtually cede Baghdad to Tehran’s influence.
In 2012 both Baghdad and the Arab states made significant moves toward reintegrating Iraq into the Arab fold. They recognized that even a Shia-led Iraq was an essential component of a stable Arab world. Crucially, the Iraqi government made it clear that, whatever the fate of the regime in Syria, Baghdad would not serve as a new Damascus, a foothold for Iran in the Arab world.
As a consequence, there has been a significant step back from the stark regional sectarianism that developed through 2011. While this was predictable, it developed more quickly than I had anticipated.
Such missteps suggest the following lessons. Resist trying to impose any grand narratives. Take every apparently emerging pattern as contingent and unstable. Be prepared for Arab states and publics alike to pleasantly surprise or disappoint without warning. Avoid predictions whenever possible. And acknowledge that we frequently don’t really “know” what we think we “know,” for political realities are always at least a dozen steps ahead of every analyst.