Popular Revolt in the Arab World

27 January 2011


Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Cairo on Friday, in the midst of more planned protests against the government.

Tunisia’s authoritarian government of several decades duration has fallen to a popular uprising. This was not a perfectly bloodless revolution, but bloodshed was definitely kept to a minimum, largely because security forces took the side of protesters. Tunisia was a surprise to many, because it was “stable.” But stability is often deceptive. The Soviet Union seemed stable until it collapsed ignominiously. Now other “stable” regimes throughout North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula are worried.

There are protests of significant size now in Egypt and Yemen. Egypt is of particular interest because of its status as the intellectual center of the Arab world. Al-Azhar University is one of the oldest universities in the world, and it possesses great prestige in the Islamic world. Egypt is also of particular interest because it has long been a US client state — prior to the Iraq war, the second largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel — so that the US has turned a blind eye to the oppressive, authoritarian regime in Cairo so long as it has Egypt’s cooperation in other areas. In other words, Egypt has been the beneficiary of US largess, but not of US democratization initiatives.

At this point, no one knows what will happen in Egypt, Yemen, or more broadly in the region. The Egyptian government has formally “banned” further protests, but protests do not respond to formal action. They respond to force, and it is to be expected that the retrograde Cairo regime will employ all the levers under its command to attempt to suppress this dissent. The US remains hamstrung by its own policies and history, unable to make even a gesture toward constructive engagement in ongoing events. In other words, the US is hopelessly and helplessly sidelined in this story. In an interesting development, Mohamed ElBaradei has returned to Cairo, thus lending moral and intellectual heft to the protests. Watch for statements from Egyptian security services. If they switch sides, the jig is up for Mubarak. If not, Mubarak can wait out the protests and survive.

If what happened in Tunisia resonates elsewhere in the region, and if popular protests in the Arab world bring down any more governments, after the initial turmoil other governments will be installed in power. There is already a reaction in Tunisia to the interim government, which is seen as altogether too close to the government brought down by the uprising. This is significant. If the peoples in the region insist upon a government with a popular mandate, policies throughout the region will have to change. It won’t be the same-old-same-old any more.

If popular governments appear in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, or elsewhere, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the US diplomatic establishment. Career diplomats will act like it is the end of the world. And this will not merely be because the people they used to deal with are out, and others are in. There will be substantive changes in policy, and because the US has dealt itself out of effective engagement in the region, there will be little that even the most prestigious US diplomats can do to influence matters. We may see organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt come into positions of political power, and there will be nothing the US can do to stop it, or even to influence it. Such are the wages of misguided intervention, and the support of governments without a popular mandate.

New revelations from Wikileaks have recently shown us that the Fatah Palestinian leadership was even more corrupt and compromised that previously believed: it seems that they cooperated with Israel in the targeted assassination of Hamas leaders. Who are Hamas? Hamas won free and fair elections to represent the Palestinian people, but the Western powers in their myopic wisdom did everything in their power to prevent Hamas from taking office and functioning as a government. Why is this significant in this context? Because other “stable” governments in the region have about as much political capital as Fatah, whereas their persecuted opposition movements have the political capital and popular mandate of Hamas.

As I wrote above, Western diplomats will act and speak as though the world is ending when truly popular governments eventually come to the region, whether it is next week, next year, or next century. No one should take this apocalyptic rhetoric seriously, because nothing of meaning or significance will happen in the region until the governments have some popular legitimacy. That means that Islamists will run many of the these countries, like it or not. Islamist governments will not cooperate with the US in regard to its stance on Israel. They may well seek nuclear weapons to counter Israeli nuclear weapons. Again, people will act like this is the end of the world, but it will in fact be the beginning of a world. Peace through Mutually Assured Destruction may well issue in a Détente in North Africa and West Asia, just as certainly as it did between the US and the USSR (and, for that matter, in South Asia as well).

One of the wisest comments I have found that addresses this concern is the very last paragraph of William Langewiesche’s book, The Atomic Bazaar:

“…no amount of maneuvering will keep determined nations from developing nuclear arsenals… Now and then a country may be persuaded to abandon its nuclear program, but in the long run, globally, such programs will proceed. [This] becomes an argument not for standing down from the diplomacy of nuclear nonproliferation, but for finding the courage in parallel to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them.”

This is what it will come to in the long run, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Even if we can predict what will happen in the long run, we cannot predict exactly what will happen over the next few days and weeks.

Because of the inability of the US popular press to see beyond the agenda of the US government, it is fascinating to see the way that the story is being covered, but also a little frightening. While many in the press are mentioning the role that threatened governments have in fighting “terror” in the region, no one seems to have caught on to the fact that the countries we are now talking about — Egypt and Yemen — are places that have been generating Islamic militants ready to fight and die for their cause. These places are supposed to be hotbeds of Islamic radicalism. Why are they also hotbeds of popular protest against undemocratic regimes?

Both militancy and popular democracy protests (they are protests for democracy, although they are not being called this in the press) stem from the same source: unenfranchised people, marginalized and made powerless by the governments that claim to represent their interests. These militants and these protesters are both the products of deeply retrograde political societies in which all legitimate forms of political engagement have been cut off. Fathers install their sons in power, and meek legislatures rubber-stamp the dictates of unelected autocrats. If this region of the world had real political participation, social mobility, and genuine options for young people to make something of their lives, there would be far fewer militants and far fewer protesters. Terrorism and popular revolt are the direct result of frustrated ambition.

When this frustration eventually boils over, either in spectacular acts of terrorism or in popular protest, it is a sign that something is very wrong in these societies, and something fundamental must change. The militancy and the protests will emerge cyclically until something does change. Whether that change means the installation of a government with popular sanction, or something more sinister like the Taliban remains to be seen. However, we can confidently made the generalization that the more outside powers intervene in order to prevent the people from participating in their own government, the more likely we are to see a violent and sinister outcome.

The West would be much better off to facilitate the rise of peaceful Islamists in the region, and to allow popular governments to take power now, the sooner the better. Failure to do so will mean more bloodshed and more bitterness at a later time. Unfortunately, this failure seems to already be in the cards. Without a visionary leader coming forward that can accept relatively peaceful regime change where it is perhaps most needed in the world today, the result is likely to be less than optimal. For an example of what might be repeated, consider the example if the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

. . . . .


. . . . .

2 Responses to “Popular Revolt in the Arab World”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sarah Shaw Tatoun, Ashwin Parameswaran. Ashwin Parameswaran said: Th resilience-stability tradeoff in political regimes http://bit.ly/gDffXY […]

  2. […] This is from the International Monetary Funds Survey Magazine, straight from the hourse’s mouth (as we say in the United States). Thursday Tunisia's authoritarian government of several decades duration has fallen to a popular uprising. This was not a perfectly bloodless revolution, but bloodshed was definitely kept to a minimum, largely because security forces took the side of protest … Read More […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: