Foreign Policy: We Can't Doubt Change In The Arab World

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Egyptian demonstrators hold their national flag during demonstration in Cairo, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Many say that the protests in Tunisia sparked the uprisings in other Muslim countries such as Egypt. i i

Egyptian demonstrators hold their national flag during demonstration in Cairo, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Many say that the protests in Tunisia sparked the uprisings in other Muslim countries such as Egypt. Mohammed Abed /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mohammed Abed /AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian demonstrators hold their national flag during demonstration in Cairo, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Many say that the protests in Tunisia sparked the uprisings in other Muslim countries such as Egypt.

Egyptian demonstrators hold their national flag during demonstration in Cairo, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Many say that the protests in Tunisia sparked the uprisings in other Muslim countries such as Egypt.

Mohammed Abed /AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies.

The end of the Tunisian story hasn't yet been written. We don't yet know whether the so-called Jasmine Revolution will produce fundamental change or a return to a cosmetically-modified status quo ante, democracy or a newly configured authoritarianism. But most of the policy community has long since moved on to ask whether the Tunisian protests will spread to other Arab countries — Egypt, of course, but also Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and almost every place else. Most experts on each individual country can offer powerful, well-reasoned explanations as to why their country won't be next. I'm skeptical too.

But I found it unsatisfying to settle for such skepticism as I watched the massive demonstrations unfold in Egypt on my Twitter feed while moderating a panel discussion on Tunisia yesterday (I plead guilty). As I've been arguing for the last month, something does seem to be happening at a regional level, exposing the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarianism and empowering young populations who suddenly believe that change is possible. There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn't ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn't ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow.

The arguments for skepticism are strong ones. Without belaboring the obvious, every Arab country is different. Each has a distinct political history and culture, a distinct political economy, a distinct demographic profile and urban geography. Many compelling articles have now shown precisely why Tunisia was different — its robust middle class, its highly educated population, its relatively small size, its ties to Europe through labor migration and remittances, its vulnerability to the global financial crisis, its particularly censored media, its relatively small and under-nurtured military, its relative insignificance to U.S. strategic interests. But those aren't the only reasons to doubt that the Tunisian model can spread.

Another argument for skepticism is authoritarian learning. Simply put, most Arab regimes are quick studies when it comes to their own survival, and quickly adapt when challenged. Unlike tightly controlled Tunisia, states such as Egypt and Jordan have been grappling with protests movements for going on a decade now and have an all-too-rich experience with how to repress, divide, and defeat the new protest movements. Yesterday's massive demonstrations in Cairo may have shocked everyone — outsiders, Egypt's government, even the protestors — but in a country which has been rocked by pro-Palestine and anti-Iraq war protests, the Kefaya movement, the April 6 movement, the judges and lawyers protests, and massive labor unrest, the difference is in scale, not type. The same is true across many of the Arab countries which have struggled with restive societies over the last decade.

Dictators learn from each other, not just from the past. The Arab Summit last week displayed this very clearly. Every Arab leader is on red alert at the moment, determined not to repeat Ben Ali's mistakes. They are frantically offering concessions on economic issues, reversing price rises and increasing subsidies. And of course they are ramping up the repressive apparatus, on the streets and online, to try to stop any snowballs from rolling before they get too big. The lesson most seem to have learned is not "be more democratic," it is "be tougher." No Arab leader seems likely to be taken by surprise, or to disregard the early signs of trouble. The success of Egypt's protestors yesterday doesn't mean that they won't be violently crushed today.

And then, of course, there's the international context. Where Tunisia may be relatively insignificant to the great international strategic issues in the region — Israel, Iran, Iraq, oil — other potential dominoes have a greater claim on the support of the world's Realists. These authoritarian regimes are the foundation of the America-led regional order. For all the U.S. talk about democracy promotion, the goal has always been to strengthen and legitimize these allies — to prevent, not to nurture, the kind of popular mobilization exploding today. It's not the least bit surprising that the Washington Post, which has obsessively focused on democracy in Egypt, today finds itself deeply worried by instability there and the strength of Islamists.

Finally, 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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