The Arab Revolutions Shouldn’t, Yet Might, Spread

Will the Arab revolutions spread? | Marc Lynch


Most of the regimes seem to retain the foundations of their overt strength. Oil prices are tolerably high, security services loyal, elections thoroughly manipulated, Islamists repressed, international support strong. In short, there are plenty of reasons to see Tunisia as a one-off.

And yet… it doesn’t feel that way. The scenes in Cairo yesterday stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table… and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history.

Tunisia has manifestly inspired people across the region and galvanized their willingness to take risks to push for change, even without any clear leadership from political parties, Islamist movements, or even civil society. The Tunisian example has offered the possibility of success, and models for sustained action by a decentralized network, after a long and dispiriting period of authoritarian retrenchment. Al-Jazeera and the new media have played their role in reshaping political opportunities and narratives, but it is people who have seized those opportunities. And the core weaknesses of these Arab states — fierce but feeble, as Nazih Ayubi might have said — have been exposed. They have massively failed to meet the needs of their people, with awesome problems of unemployment, inflation, youth frustration and inequality combined with the near-complete absence of viable formal political institutions.

The protests have been completely outside of and in opposition to any formal political institutions, and are not channeled through any organized political parties which might push for direct political incorporation. Even if other regimes should fall, it is far too soon therefore to say that they will lead to democracy — in the rest of the region, just as in Tunisia. We should all be thinking carefully, as Steve Heydemann usefully reminds us, about which scenarios might play out and how transitions to democracy might be crafted from this new protest wave.

Two final points. First, we must not allow fears of Islamists to short-circuit support for such transitions. Already, scare-mongering over the potential for Islamist takeovers has become a major, even dominant theme of Western and Arab official discussions of Tunisia — and that, in a country where the primary Islamist party al-Nahda was long ago crushed and its leaders exiled. I’ve long expected that if Egypt got the democratic change which so many in Washington talk about, there would be a rapid and intense backlash as the still powerful Muslim Brotherhood necessarily played a major role and as popular opposition to the Mubarak government’s foreign policy jeopardized American and Israeli interests. I’m hoping to be proven wrong.

Second, I think that the Obama administration has handled the last month surprisingly well. It has been absolutely right to resist trying to claim credit for change in Tunisia or to put a “Made in America” stamp on something which manifestly was not. I suspect that there was more of a role behind the scenes in shaping the Ben Ali endgame than is now known. The State Department and the White House have issued a series of strong statements in support of the Tunisian people, including in last night’s State of the Union, and last night the White House took a very well-crafted position on Egypt: “We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals.”

Obama was right in the past to not give in to the temptation to make empty declarations on Egyptian or Arab democracy which would not be met, thereby proving the U.S. either hypocritical or impotent. And the administration was right to focus, as I’ve long suggested, not on “democracy” but on civil society, economic opportunity, and the “Bill of Rights” freedoms (of speech and of assembly, transparency and accountability). But now conditions have changed, the potential for rapid transformations has appeared, and it’s time for the administration to seize the moment to make a difference. For all the criticism he’s received on democracy promotion, the Obama administration has now already overseen one more peaceful transition away from Arab authoritarian rule than under the entire Bush administration. It’s no longer wishful thinking to suggest that it might not be the only one.


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