Yesterday I noted the spread of seemingly unrelated protests
and clashes through a diverse array of Arab states -- Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt. Last night
, protests spread
to Algeria, partly in response to rising prices
on basic food items but more deeply by the same combination of economic desperation, fury over perceived corruption, and a blocked political order. There's some evidence that Algerians have been carefully watching what is happening in Tunisia, on al-Jazeera
and on the internet. Are we seeing the beginnings of the Obama administration equivalent of the 2005 "Arab Spring", when the protests in Beirut captured popular attention and driven in part
by newly powerful satellite television images inspired popular mobilization across the region that some hoped might finally break through the stagnation of Arab autocracy? Will social media play the role of al-Jazeera this time? Will the outcome be any different?
It's already quite clear that Arab regimes will do whatever is necessary this time around to block popular mobilization. Tunisia's repression has been intense, from mass arrests to overwhelming censorship. Algeria's government has already responded with widespread arrests, including (reportedly) the long-time Islamist firebrand Ali Belhadj. Jordan's security forces maintain a heavy hand, even in the southern tribal areas which have long been, according to cliché, the bedrock of the regime. Kuwait and Tunisia have lashed out at al-Jazeera. Across the region, I expect the authoritarian regimes to continue to clamp down hard, try to censor the media, and blame Islamists or Iran or some other convenient boogeyman. Again, I really don't think that the Obama administration's public rhetoric on democracy is really the key variable here --- these regimes will do what they must when they feel threatened, and understand that Obama is no more likely than was Bush to really challenge the fundamentals of their regime survival in the name of democracy.
As I also noted yesterday, the nature of the mobilization feels different this time too. The protests are more violent, there's more of an intense edge to them, there's less focus on formal institutional politics. That's in large part because of the degree of the authoritarian retrenchment across the region, which has largely sucked the meaning out of elections and has battered civil societies and independent political movements. There seem to be fewer organized movements and more wildcat outbursts --- which is just what you'd expect when formal channels have been shut down and hopes of meaningful political participation thwarted. The spread of Salafi Islamist trends and the weakening of the more disciplined and politically focused Muslim Brotherhood organizations in many of the countries contributes to this sense, as does the legacy of the virulent anti-Shi'ism which spread through the region a few years ago and the general fraying of sectarian edges.
I don't expect these protests to bring down any regimes, but really who knows? It's an unpredictable moment. Many of these regimes are led by aging, fading leaders such as Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali who could pass from the scene in a heartbeat -- literally. Nor do I particularly know what to recommend that the Obama administration do. The traditional calls to "promote democracy" are largely irrelevant to this situation, except in the longer-term. What we are now seeing is the fruit of the failure to promote meaningful reform in the past, but that doesn't mean that doing so now would meet the challenge.
If these protests continue to spread, both inside of countries and across to other Arab countries, then we really could talk about this being Obama's "Arab Spring," only with the extra intensity associated with climate change. Arab regimes will do everything they can to prevent that from happening. Most everybody is carefully watching everyone else to see what's going to happen, with news traveling across borders and within countries through an ever-growing role for social media layered on top of (not replacing) satellite television and existing networks. I'm not hugely optimistic that we will see real change, given the power of these authoritarian regimes and their record of resilience. But still... interesting times.
... it remains relevant to point out that the alternative to existing Arab governments is a factor, in Washington's thinking and also in Arab public attitudes.
Lynch can speak to the latter better than I, but I'm pretty sure that in Washington very few people believe the alternative is democracy. Civil war, dissolving states, one man-one vote-one time regimes, Islamist versions of the governments Arab states have now are all seen as more likely. There is no way to know for sure who is right, without Arab governments collapsing or being overthrown, but the historical evidence does seem to support the conventional Washington wisdom.
The oft heard meme that certain elements who cannot tolerate fun or free choice getting voted in may be a bit questionable now.
Consider, now - right now - it is not unthinkable that Persia - who led the ME into fashionable theocratic fundi'ism - may also lead it out.
Preacher Command has mismanaged the economy, violently repressed political activity, alienated kids and women in a nation where nearly 80% are under 35 y.o.
Preachers running the state may not seem the alluring mythical alternative to the wretched reality under which Arab League lives as it did years back.
In Iran, it is the wretched reality under which people live
Marc Lynch is right to distrust whether these protests amount to anything resembling a systematic democratic movement. On present evidence, they don't appear to be that. Protests can be spontaneous expressions of rage, but the presence of spontaneous violence usually means that's all they are. Movements that use civil resistance to dissolve the political power of an authoritarian ruling group are something altogether different, and to be effective, they almost always have to be nonviolent, because violent tactics inhibit broad-based mobilization and will do the opposite from prompting divisions in a decaying ruling group. Globally, in 50 of 67 transitions from authoritarianism to democracy between 1970 and 2005, nonviolent civic force was the pivotal factor.
That these particular protests may not amount to such a movement in Tunisia does not mean that there isn't widespread discontent and a desire for a change of government there or elsewhere in the region. In Egypt, the increased number of reform and pro-democratic NGO's, student groups, a dissident blogosphere, and other indicators of a kind of slow-motion civic resistance are unmistakable, though they may anticipate a transition offering conventional political channels of change once Mubarak passes from the scene.
Movements capable inducing rapid change are not, in fact, unprecedented in the Middle East, as a well-research new book, "Civilian Jihad," documents: http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=384033
Let's not be too optimistic about these but perhaps they will at least serve as a preview of affairs in ten years time or so. Multiple aging leaders, no real chance for change, many young people with higher education but no employment etc.
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