After the Euphoria: On the Arab Uprisings

After the Euphoria: On the Arab Uprisings

After the Euphoria: On the Arab Uprisings

What are the new rules of the political game in the Middle East? Nobody knows, but Marc Lynch’s The Arab Uprising is a useful guide.


The peaceful protests that started the Arab uprisings at the end of 2010 have succeeded in overthrowing governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. They have also been suppressed in some countries or escalated into outright warfare in others. In Syria, insurgents and government forces are waging a civil war that has begun to equal, in savagery and hate, the Lebanese civil war of 1975–90 and the Iraqi civil war of 2004–09. This past summer, rebels managed to assassinate senior Syrian security leaders and capture parts of Damascus and Aleppo, yet the regime, far from imploding (as Muammar el-Qaddafi’s did in Libya a year earlier under similar pressure), has recaptured part of what it lost. The ever more violent struggle continues with little sign of a clear winner emerging.

Even where the conflict appears to be over, as in Libya, the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi and the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens shows the fluidity of the political situation, the weakness of the state and the potential for violence. Are we witnessing a reprise of the 1950s and ’60s, when most of the Arab world was convulsed by struggles for power? As Arab states threw off colonial control, there were mass political movements as well as military coups, a combative media as well as attempts to stifle it. The introduction of the cheap transistor radio was as revolutionary as satellite television half a century later. But in the battle between revolution and counterrevolution, it was the latter that generally prevailed. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, military and monarchical dictatorships were triumphing everywhere, crushing their rivals and suppressing all independent centers of power. The idea in the West that ordinary Arabs—often referred to contemptuously by diplomats and journalists as “the Arab street”—were passive in the face of tyranny is wholly misleading. Autocracy was tested by popular protests, sometimes severely, but in the end proved too strong to overcome.

All revolutions pass through phases of exaggerated optimism and pessimism, confrontations between those who claim everything has changed and those who mutter plus ça change. At the heart of the so-called Arab Spring were the popular uprisings against police states that began on December 17, 2010. On that day, in a remote Tunisian town, a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in protest against police corruption and brutality, an act that catalyzed widespread protests and riots throughout the country. In the following months, the Arab world enjoyed a short, euphoric period when expectations of change knew no bounds. Sclerotic but long-established police states from Tunisia to Bahrain to Yemen abruptly crumbled in the face of mass protests. Cynics who had mocked Arab unity as dead and buried were discredited—or should have been—as the new revolutionary mood and practice proved instantly contagious across the Arab world. Anti-government slogans, such as “the people want to overthrow the regime,” first used in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, were being shouted within hours in Shiite villages in Bahrain and hilltop towns in Yemen. As Lenin, no mean judge of revolutionary situations, once said, “The best government has only to be in power long enough for everybody to wish to remove it.” Most Arab governments that faced resistance during the Arab uprisings had been in power for a very long time—Qaddafi from 1969, and the current prime minister of Bahrain, Khalifa bin Sulman al-Khalifa, since 1971—and had been pretty bad from the outset. What was genuinely different in those early months of 2011 was not exactly, as the slogan had it, that “the people have lost their fear,” but rather the people’s realization that the old rotten regimes could be brought crashing down by popular protest.

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The wave of easy victories did not last long. The explosive that touched off the uprisings was a strange compound formed by a range of opponents to the status quo—the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic fundamentalists, trade unionists, students, and middle-class, working-class and secular activists—who did not have much in common other than despising the powers that be. Well-educated middle-class youth—highly adept on the Internet and capable of addressing the foreign media in flawless English—stood beside barely literate people from depressed country towns. Satellite television and social media broke a government’s monopoly over information and communications. Some of these technologies had been around for so long—since the 1990s, in the case of the humble mobile phone—that people did not notice how they had eroded the state’s control. Arrogance as well as stupidity played a role: ruling families—monarchies and nominal republics alike were ruled by dynasties—imagined on the eve of the mass uprisings that they were as secure as they had ever been. The element of sheer surprise was important, as governments discovered that the old instruments of intimidation no longer worked. And when they were used, they often proved counterproductive, as happened in Deraa, Syria, in March 2011, when children writing anti-regime slogans on a wall were arrested and tortured, to the outrage of the local population.

Such was the momentum for change early on that it was easy to underestimate the resilience of ruling elites. Facebook and Twitter might be new weapons in the hands of protesters, but they never displaced old-fashioned instruments of repression like torture, detention, disappearances and executions. The inevitability of change was overstated in Tunisia and Egypt because the state security services never exercised their full strength. Both countries had transformed over the years from military dictatorships to police states. The army and segments of the security forces would no longer fight for a small circle of ruling families and their cronies, so long as they could preserve their own privileges and power.

The euphoric days of the Arab uprisings did not last long. Nobody quite dared refer to them as the Arab Revolution because they contained so many contradictory forces, not all of which were bent on radical change. And even if they were, their motives were often perplexing, mixed as they were with regional power plays. For instance, the satellite television network Al Jazeera was the single most important reason the revolts erupted and spread so quickly. But Al Jazeera was established and financed by Qatar, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world and with its own state interests. Consider what happened as early as March 2011, when armed insurrection exploded in Libya and Al Jazeera became the largely uncritical propaganda arm of the Libyan rebels. This approach was in sharp contrast to the network’s coverage of Bahrain, where, on March 15, the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy launched a campaign of savage repression against the country’s Shiite majority, backed by 1,500 Saudi troops who crossed onto the island. Mild reformers and even hospital doctors were tortured with beatings and electric shocks until they confessed to being Iranian agents. The aim was to create an atmosphere of terror that would permanently intimidate the Shiite reformers in Bahrain and their co-religionists across the causeway in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Such bloody and ruthless repression, taking place just to the north of Qatar in the Gulf, was scarcely mentioned by Al Jazeera, though its English-language channel did provide occasional coverage. Threatened regimes were recovering their nerve and working out strategies for counterattack. Peaceful protests in emulation of Tahrir Square were no longer feasible in Libya and Syria, making armed insurrection the only alternative. The United States and other Western governments, after cheering the triumph of democracy in North Africa, were silent when responding to revolutionary change that threatened their allies in the Gulf, or at least so circumspect that it amounted to the same thing.

* * *

What are the new rules of the political game in the Middle East? Nobody knows. Eighteen months after the first revolt in Tunisia, militants in countries like Egypt make gloomy predictions about the triumph of counterrevolution and wonder if their original success was more in the nature of a “soft” military coup, the leaders of which were secretly determined to limit radical change. This seemed to be confirmed in June of this year, when Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, with the help of the country’s supreme court, oversaw the dissolution of the democratically elected parliament and constricted the powers of the presidency before the election. But two months later, the all-powerful Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of SCAF, was abruptly dismissed by the newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, previously a little-known member of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. SCAF had evidently not been as united as its opponents imagined, though perhaps this should have come as no surprise: few revolutions in the past would have succeeded if the state security services had not been divided, neutral or broken by war. Successful revolutionaries tend to understate this, as they do the importance of the support of foreign powers. In America, the revolution needed the backing of a militarily powerful anti-British coalition led by France and backed by most European states. In 1917, the success of the Russian Bolsheviks famously hinged at a crucial moment on Germany enabling Lenin to return home.

Few revolutions are “pure,” and the Arab revolts of 2011 less so than most. There is the undoubted struggle of the people against the dictatorial state, but there is also a continuation of the long cold and hot war waged by the Sunni Arab states allied with the United States (above all, Saudi Arabia) against Iran and its own allies, such as Syria and Hezbollah. This war has been waged since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and is linked to an escalating sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that reached its peak in 2006-07, during the civil war in Iraq, when 3,000 tortured bodies were being picked up every month in and around Baghdad. It is absurd for Washington, Paris and London to pretend that Saudi Arabia and the unreformed autocracies of the Gulf—probably the only absolute monarchies left on the planet—have been motivated over the last year by a strong desire to spread democracy to the people of Libya and Syria.

Other trends are also becoming visible in the new Middle East. Egypt, Syria and Libya are absorbed in battles for power or their aftermath, and so, in one sense, these Arab states have become collectively weaker. Iraq is only slowly recovering from the traumas of the last thirty years. As a result, power within the Arab world has shifted for the moment to Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Sunni monarchies of the Gulf and away from Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and the most heavily populated Arab states.

Enthusiasm for armed intervention increased in Western capitals after NATO’s success in overthrowing Qaddafi in Libya. But the Libyan insurgents were always more feeble than Arab and Western media pretended: without the support of NATO airpower, the lightly armed and largely untrained militiamen would have been swiftly defeated. A year ago, President Obama and other NATO leaders nervously speculated as to whether Syria was going to be another Libya or another Iraq. Their hope for a swift collapse of the regime foundered in February when Russia and China vetoed UN intervention. At the same time, the lessons of the draining and disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are probably still too recent for Washington and its friends to risk a repeat in Syria.

There is a division between the Arab countries in Africa, where uprisings and mass protests have taken place, and those in Asia. In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt—countries that are religiously more homogeneous and not split between Shiite and Sunni—there is a better chance of creating states than further east. Ruling elites in Bahrain and Syria have more opportunity to play the sectarian card. The three North African states are also less affected by the decades-old confrontation between the United States, Israel and the Arab Sunni states on one side, and Iran and its allies on the other. As state power retreats in Syria, long-suppressed conflicts and differences become significant. For instance, a little-noticed development over the summer has been the greater assertiveness of Kurdish nationalism, with Syria’s 2.5 million Kurds establishing their own enclave once the Syrian Army withdrew in July. Turkey, which failed to compromise with its own Kurds while they were isolated internationally, now faces a revival of the Kurdish insurgency that will drain its strength and limit its ambitions to be a regional power.

* * *

A change in the way people exchange information is rightly seen as crucial to undermining the political status quo in the Arab world. When 20,000 people in the city of Hama were killed by the Syrian regime in 1982, there were no publicly available pictures of the bodies. Thirty years later, digital images of shootings, killings and bombings are available on YouTube and international television within hours of their occurrence. But, paradoxically, the deluge of raw information (and misinformation) has not enhanced foreign media coverage of the Arab uprisings, which is often partial, superficial and open to manipulation. The very complexity of events overwhelms journalists, while the legacy of secrecy and authoritarianism has long impeded serious academic study. Even the most abstruse information could be banned if it showed the regime in a negative light. In Libya and Syria, it was difficult to get information about the degree to which crony capitalism by the ruling family and its hangers-on contributed to the impoverishment of the rest of the country. In Egypt under Mubarak, one professor even found that his academic study of the impact of blindness caused by bilharzia on Egyptian farmers could not be published because he had failed to stress sufficiently the heroic efforts of the regime to combat the illness.

Decades of censorship have led to a paucity of good books on the countries where the uprisings have taken place, and Western journalists and academics pontificating on the Arab Spring often know little about them. It is this shortage of well-informed writing based on a grasp of the recent history of the Arab world that gives such great value to The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East, by Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy. Published earlier this year, The Arab Uprising is much the best book on the origins and course of the protests and uprisings up to the end of 2011. It is a measure of Lynch’s perception and knowledge that nothing important has happened in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia since he finished his book that could show his judgment of developments in these countries to be at fault. He gives a balanced account of the influence of satellite television and the Internet, but does not trumpet them as transformers of the political landscape. He disposes of the lazy idea that the Arab world was politically passive before 2011 or that its autocrats did not face resistance. Often he is writing about history that is ignored rather than unknown. He covers lucidly the successive waves of protest over the last forty or more years and how they were crushed by ever more authoritarian regimes. He sees the central importance of the United States withdrawing its support for dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, to the amazement and rage of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. Lynch believes, correctly, that “Obama’s signal that he would not fight for Mubarak played a functionally similar role to Gorbachev’s refusal to intervene to save Erich Honecker’s regime in East Germany.”

Lynch has a cautious sense of the permanence of present changes and the possibility that they might be reversed. US policy toward the Arab uprisings varied according to its sense of strategic advantage. Mubarak might be dumped, but Obama stuck by the equally malodorous al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain because the island is the base for the US Fifth Fleet in the Gulf and Bahrain is a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt had long ago concluded that they must maintain good relations with the United States if they didn’t want to end up isolated and demonized like Hamas in Gaza, the first government in recent history in the Arab world to win a democratic election before the Arab uprisings. The effect of changes on the regional balance of power is still unclear. Lynch writes that “the Egyptian-Saudi-American alliance, quietly linked to Israel…has dominated Arab politics for decades.” Is this dominance now ending, or will it be reinforced?

One of the reasons the history of protest against Arab rulers is understated in Western commentary is that much of the popular outrage was directed against the collaboration—open and covert—by those rulers with the United States, Israel and their allies. Lynch rightly stresses the significance of these upsurges of popular protest: against the first Gulf War in 1990-91; in favor of the Palestinian intifadas in 1987 and 2000; and against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, and the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2008. As they occurred, these expressions of mass discontent were discounted by Arab rulers and their allies as nothing but demonstrations of the impotence of ordinary Arabs. Lynch thinks otherwise: “The decade of the 2000s was, in effect, one long wave of intense popular mobilization spanning the entire region,” he writes.

The upheaval was fueled by new media and communications technologies, by popular rage at trends in regional and international policy, and by the receding institutional competence of authoritarian regimes. Terrorism and the “global war on terror,” Israel’s wars with the Palestinians and America’s wars with Iraq, rampaging sectarianism and massive refugee flows, and the increasingly open consolidation of a tacit alliance between Israel and most Arab regimes against Iran profoundly shaped the decade. At times it seemed as if the Arab regimes were systematically and contemptuously taking positions at odds with the preferences of their own people. The surprise is not that popular upheavals ensued, but that they took so long to erupt.

Also valuable is Lynch’s balanced view of the impact of the new media and digital communications on the uprisings. The emergence of Al Jazeera was a crucial event, transforming and empowering Arab public opinion. It gave ordinary Arabs a voice and shaped what that voice was saying. It not only publicized the uprisings but also linked them compellingly in the minds of its viewers. Lynch writes: “Al-Jazeera, satellite television, Facebook and Twitter bound together these national struggles into a single coherent narrative of an Arab Intifada.” For a time, Al Jazeera could even make or break an uprising, until its near silence over Bahrain and its focus on Libya and Syria began to enrage many viewers, who condemned this partiality as a betrayal. Lynch is evenhanded and well informed when analyzing the rise and semi-fall of Al Jazeera as a power broker in the new Middle East.

He is equally insightful about the uses of (and misperceptions about) the Internet. At one level, the Internet simply outflanked the long-standing monopoly control by Middle Eastern governments over the means of communication. Authoritarian regimes were very slow to grasp how their creation of a vacuum of information on topics of absorbing interest to their own people had left them vulnerable to opponents’ propaganda. They sounded befuddled and at a loss when even their own supporters switched to hostile television channels and YouTube to learn what was happening during the protests. (In their defense, American spokesmen in Baghdad in 2003–04 likewise took refuge in hysterical denunciations of Al Jazeera when it exposed the falsity of their rosy picture of post-Saddam Iraq.)

* * *

Interestingly, Lynch points out that the uprising in Syria was slow to get going and was ultimately ignited by the government overreacting to a much manipulated and exaggerated picture of events on the ground, produced by activists and publicized by Al Jazeera and foreign television channels. For a long while, not much was happening on the ground in Syria aside from actions by a small number of militants. Revolutions often occur when authoritarian regimes respond to limited protests with extreme and collective punishments, thus provoking a real rebellion. Had Bashar al-Assad kept his nerve and introduced significant reforms, he would have stood a better chance of retaining power. By excluding foreign journalists from the country, his regime made sure that the foreign media would depend on exiled Syrians and their YouTube pictures for footage. Lynch is one of the few commentators to have perceived this: “An energetic media campaign organized outside Syria pushed a narrative of protest and challenge largely divorced from realities on the ground, raising uncomfortable questions that have never been fully engaged about the line between information and activism.”

Has the revolutionary wave known as the Arab Spring ended? Some of its essential ingredients are not what they were: Al Jazeera has been partly discredited, and regimes are no longer likely either to be caught by surprise by street protests or to risk underestimating their potential. The role of satellite stations has also been a central feature in the uprisings so far, and this might change in the future. Suppose, as is quite likely, that there is a third Palestinian intifada or a renewed uprising by the Turkish Kurds: will CNN and the BBC be as willing as they were in Syria and Libya to run YouTube clips of Israeli or Turkish government misdeeds? It seems unlikely.

Crucial also to the success of a few uprisings was the decision of the United States and its allies to withdraw support from old friends, as in Tunisia and Egypt. Washington wanted to bet on winners, but US alliances with mildly Islamic governments in Cairo and Ankara—both of which are sympathetic to the Palestinians and against a war with Iran—have begun to change the political balance in the Middle East. Could other governments so far unaffected by protests be overthrown or shaken by popular upheavals in the near future? The Arab governments that survived 2011 in one piece will be wary in the future of the revolutionary potential of even the smallest protest. But they will also have lost one great barrier to revolutionary change: the conviction on all sides that, however rotten and corrupt, Arab rulers are proof against a successful uprising by their own people. 

In the October 15 issue, Jonathan Steele presented “A Way Out of Syria’s Catastrophe.

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