Arab Upheaval 'An Appetizer For What's To Come'

Syrian  President Bashar al-Assad waves to supporters after making a speech to  Parliament in Damascus on March 30.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad waves to supporters after making a speech to Parliament in Damascus on March 30. SANA/AP hide caption

toggle caption SANA/AP

Many Fridays this year have proved to be decisive for protest movements throughout the Muslim world. The primary day of prayer has turned into an organizing tool, and protesters in Syria are calling for massive turnouts this Friday.

They may be disappointed — or so successful that they prompt Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to announce new concessions, following his lifting of decades-old emergency laws on Tuesday.

Regardless, the protests that have already spread to many Syrian cities and towns over the past month demonstrate one thing: Unrest across the Middle East and North Africa has not yet run its course.

"People's sensibilities have changed and they see these elites can be toppled," says Augustus Richard Norton, an international relations professor at Boston University. "I think the last few months are only an appetizer for what's to come."

Ending The Fear Factor

There may be no regimes at this point that look ready to fall, but the social dynamic that has long been dominant in most Muslim countries — namely, the "fear factor" — has been shattered, suggests Rajan Menon, a political scientist at City College of New York.

A fire has been set that could flare up again at any time. Headlines suggesting the "Arab world has changed forever" may have been premature, Menon says, but it's possible that countries appearing as stable at the moment could suddenly erupt at any time — be it in six months or two years.

It may be purely local events that prompt such protests, but conditions for them will be deeply informed by the changes that have occurred in neighboring societies this year.

Breaking Of The Revolutionary Wave

If there is a revolutionary wave, it has broken differently upon different shores.

How Middle Eastern and North African nations have responded to popular unrest has been, in part, based on economic circumstances, with some oil-rich Gulf states able to dampen dissent through increased salaries and direct cash benefits to citizens.

Responses, too, have differed at times based on the kinds of political systems in these nations. The monarchies have weathered the storm well so far. Nations with functioning democracies, such as Lebanon, Algeria and Iraq, also have been less prone to mass demonstrations, says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

That may be because their systems allow regular outlets for dissent, or it may be due to the fact that their "rough and tumble politics" have already led to a lot of violence, O'Hanlon says. They may be less ready to open the door to upheaval because they already "have enough battle scars through their own experience."

It's the "hijacked or quasi-democracies," he says — the countries that hold elections but have evolved into autocracies — that have proven the most vulnerable. That category includes Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.

But not many others in this region.

"If you think through those categories, I'm not sure how many dominoes there are left to fall," O'Hanlon says. "But, I may have to revise this in two or three months. Are we just getting a temporary breathing spell, or is something more fundamental really afoot?"

"We may not have a regionwide conflagration now, but what has been displayed to the Arab masses, especially in extremely young societies, is that these regimes are not unshakable," Menon says. "Whether these regimes lead to democracy or some sort of improved autocracy or chaos we cannot tell, but the old social compact has been destroyed forever."

Lack Of Recent Movement

Following the rapid removal from office of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt in January and February, no Arab head of state has stepped down. Moammar Gadhafi still controls most of Libya, despite international military support given to the rebellion there.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has appeared in recent weeks the most likely candidate for removal, reiterated Wednesday that he would not leave office until his successor can be chosen through an election, currently scheduled for 2013.

Most other Arab leaders have appeared secure. There has been no serious immediate threat to the rule of any monarchies, save that of Bahrain, where protests have been squelched through military intervention. No other country has a military or security force that appears likely to turn on its top leader, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt.

While the protests that have spread through Syria over the past month may continue to grow in size and scope, they don't look likely to topple Assad any time soon, says University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick.

"The Syrian regime has a lot more repressive resources to use than it has so far," he says.

More Action To Come?

But just because the revolutionary fever seems to have cooled in some places doesn't mean that it's broken.

"There's not going to be a sweep across the region," says Menon, the City College professor. "But Arabs have figured out that these regimes, which they thought were immovable objects, are not that."

Bahraini  protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by police in the village of Sanabis  near Manama during a demonstration on Feb. 14.

Bahraini protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by police in the village of Sanabis near Manama during a demonstration on Feb. 14. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Even countries that haven't seen enormous demonstrations have experienced some important changes, such as Algeria's lifting of its 19-year-old emergency law, says Norton, the Boston University professor, who is also a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

It's certainly not clear what will happen after regimes are threatened or toppled. Even after things shake out over the coming months and years, observers say, democracy may not take any deeper root in the Muslim world than it has now.

But Tunisia and Egypt have provided a model that dissidents in other countries can follow at any time, Menon says. Regimes cannot put a stop to gatherings for prayer, nor can they take away social media and other online organizing tools, unless they want to cut off their countries from the modern economic sphere.

Change will not be easy or without risk. But it now appears possible in a part of the world that has long resisted it.

"Something has changed in a very profound way," Norton says. "This is a historic watershed, there's no doubt about it."



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