Tuesday, August 16, 2011


"Since late 2010, we have seen three kinds of uprisings in the Arab world. The first are those that merely brushed by the regime. The second are those that created a change in leaders but not in the way the country was run. The third are those that turned into civil wars, such as Libya and Yemen. There is also the interesting case of Bahrain, where the regime was saved by the intervention of Saudi Arabia, but while the rising there conformed to the basic model of the Arab Spring — failed hopes — it lies in a different class, caught between Saudi and Iranian power.

The three examples do not mean that there is not discontent in the Arab world or a desire for change. They do not mean that change will not happen, or that discontent will not assume sufficient force to overthrow regimes. They also do not mean that whatever emerges will be liberal democratic states pleasing to Americans and Europeans.

This becomes the geopolitically significant part of the story. Among Europeans and within the U.S. State Department and the Obama administration is an ideology of human rights — the idea that one of the major commitments of Western countries should be supporting the creation of regimes resembling their own. This assumes all the things that we have discussed: that there is powerful discontent in oppressive states, that the discontent is powerful enough to overthrow regimes, and that what follows would be the sort of regime that the West would be able to work with.

The issue isn’t whether human rights are important but whether supporting unrest in repressive states automatically strengthens human rights. An important example was Iran in 1979, when opposition to the oppression of the shah’s government was perceived as a movement toward liberal democracy. What followed might have been democratic but it was hardly liberal. Indeed, many of the myths of the Arab Spring had their roots both in the 1979 Iranian Revolution and later in Iran’s 2009 Green Movement, when a narrow uprising readily crushed by the regime was widely viewed as massive opposition and widespread support for liberalization.

The world is more complicated and more varied than that. As we saw in the Arab Spring, oppressive regimes are not always faced with massed risings, and unrest does not necessarily mean mass support. Nor are the alternatives necessarily more palatable than what went before or the displeasure of the West nearly as fearsome as Westerners like to think. Libya is a case study on the consequences of starting a war with insufficient force. Syria makes a strong case on the limits of soft power. Egypt and Tunisia represent a textbook lesson on the importance of not deluding yourself.

The pursuit of human rights requires ruthless clarity as to whom you are supporting and what their chances are. It is important to remember that it is not Western supporters of human rights who suffer the consequences of failed risings, civil wars or revolutionary regimes that are committed to causes other than liberal democracy.

The misreading of the situation can also create unnecessary geopolitical problems. The fall of the Egyptian regime, unlikely as it is at this point, would be just as likely to generate an Islamist regime as a liberal democracy. The survival of the Assad regime could lead to more slaughter than we have seen and a much firmer base for Iran. No regimes have fallen since the Arab Spring, but when they do it will be important to remember 1979 and the conviction that nothing could be worse than the shah’s Iran, morally or geopolitically. Neither was quite the case.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people in the Arab world who want liberal democracy. It simply means that they are not powerful enough to topple regimes or maintain control of new regimes even if they did succeed. The Arab Spring is, above all, a primer on wishful thinking in the face of the real world".

George Friedman, "Re-examining the Arab Spring." Stratfor. 15 August 2011, in www.stratfor.com.

"Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya have had their turn; now Syria occupies centre stage. More than 1,000 people have been killed in recent fighting, while hundreds of thousands still risk their lives challenging the regime. Syria's future rests on whether a handful of Alawite generals are prepared to keep killing their fellow citizens to preserve the Assad regime and, more fundamentally, Alawite primacy. The outside world, fearing the alternative and bogged down in Libya, is little more than a bystander. Syria's violence is just one further sign that the promise of the Arab spring has given way to a long, hot summer in which the geopolitics of the Middle East are being reset for the worse. Syria is not unique. Other threatened leaders around the regions have clearly now decided against emulating the former presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, who went gently into the night. Violence, along with the threat of imprisonment and international tribunals, has persuaded them that the future is winner takes all and loser loses all. Not surprisingly, they have chosen to resist.

Meanwhile, the most organised groups in Arab societies tend to be the army and other security organs on one hand and Islamist entities on the other. Secular liberal groups (if they exist) tend to be weak and divided, and unlikely to prevail in any political competition in the near term. Facebook and Twitter matter but not enough. Looked at more broadly, the stalling of the Arab spring has both revealed and widened the breach between the US and Saudi Arabia. Saudi leaders were alienated by what they saw as the US abandoning the regime in Egypt after three decades of close cooperation. The Americans, for their part, were unhappy with the Saudi decision to intervene militarily in Bahrain. But such independent, uncoordinated policies are now likely to become more frequent, especially if international efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program come up short....Take all this together, and you see a series of developments that are beginning to produce a region that is less tolerant, less prosperous, and less stable that what existed. To be sure, the authoritarian old guard that still dominates much of the Middle East could yet be forced or eased out and replaced with something relatively democratic and open. Unfortunately, the odds now seem against this happening".

Richard Hass, "The Arab Spring Has Given Way to a Long Hot Summer." Council on Foreign Relations. 6 July 2011, in www.cfr.org.

Although the American intelligence forecasting outfit (widely quoted in such venues as the Financial Times, the New York Times and even the New York Review of Books), has to my mind a quite uneven track record (does anyone now remember Mr. Friedman's early 1990's book on the 'Coming war with Japan'?, or his predictions about the easy outcome of the Iraq War?), but regardless of this fact, Mr. Friedman's opus is well worth looking at in depth, as unlike some of his past writings, in the case of the Arab Spring, his views are not merely a reflection of his clients in the American Defence and Intelligence establishment. As a quite similar analysis by the ultra-establishment, ex-State Department Policy Planning Staff chief and NSC Near Eastern head, Richard Hass seems to indicate, a pessimistic prognosis of the ongoing upheavals in the Near & Middle East, this calendar anno domini 2011, is not merely a case of undue pessimism. Au fond of course, both gentleman are partially correct in some of their surmises, that there are few reasons to be optimistic as to the future course (or should one say 'courses') that the various Arab countries may take. Simply put, on most measurable levels almost all of the Arab countries in the Near & Middle East, lack the requisite developmental indices that have in the past indicated a smooth transition to democratic rule. Such indices include: urbanization, secularization, literacy rates, poverty rates, median per capita income, et cetera. As well as the all-important cultural variable (id est, 'democracy' is not ingrained in the Arab cultural psyche, as it is in say the European cultural nerve or even the Philippine or Indian cultural nerve). With all that being said, per se, there is no Weberian 'iron law' of modernization which dictates that all or even most of the Arab countries of the region should necessarily remain un-democratic and or ruled by authoritarian, Islamist governments. The examples of Indonesia and even semi-democratic & pluralist Malaysia (both Muslim majority countries) offering pro contra examples.

With the above being understood, what can we say concretely at this time? I would say that we have three different types of 'situations' in which we can group Arab countries: i) countries where the existing regimes are fully in the saddle and are not facing any serious threats of overthrow: the Gulf States (including Bahrain), Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq; ii) countries where the regimes have indeed been overthrown and where there is some alleged transition to democratic rule, albeit unfinished at this time: Egypt and Tunisia; iii) countries where the existing regimes are facing serious uprising and or where there is an ongoing civil war: Libya, Yemen, Syria. And therefore the route to stable democratic rule appears to be far, far away. The key to the current and future situation in the area is of course those countries in 'ii' and 'iii'. Since if neither column of countries is able to succeed in seriously embarking on democratic rule or the semblance of the same, one can hardly expect that to be the case for those countries in the first column. Especially, since what is currently the most important Arab country in the region Saudi Arabia), is also the country which is the most steadfast in opposition to any democratization trend in the region. Riyadh's recent attacks on the regime in Damascus being almost entirely opportunistic (id est, attacking an ally of Shiite Persia) than for purposes of assisting pro-democratic forces in that country. In short, if neither Egypt in particular or Tunisia is able by the end of the current calendar anno domini, to make serious progress in embarking on the road to democratic, pluralistic rule, and if the existing regimes & or civil upheavals in Yemen, Syria or Libya not replaced with a democratizing scenario, then one can reasonably expect that like Europe circa 1852, a return of the ancien regime throughout the entire region. Perhaps as early as this time next year. Except that as Richard Hass correctly notes, such a return to the status quo ante, will be an extremely brittle and unstable state of affairs. With in most cases of soupcon of Islamist incense to cover-up the paucity of legitimacy of these regimes. More akin to say Tsarist Russia between 1905 and 1917 than anything else.


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