A CHATHAM HOUSE BREAKFAST BRIEFING IN MANHATTAN: SOME OBSERVATIONS
"The political upheavals in the Arab world during 2011 have irrevocably transformed the Middle East. Yet, as the year draws to a close and the euphoria subsides, it is clear that comparisons of the ‘Arab spring’ to the end of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 were premature. There has been—and there will be—no serial collapse of authoritarian regimes leading to democratic future. Instead of 'revolution’, the talk now is of ‘uprising’, ‘revolt’ or even simply ‘crisis’. One reason for the disagreement on how to label the events of 2011 is the inclination to think of the ‘Arab world’ as a unified entity. Arab societies and polities do indeed have tight interconnections and share at least some important characteristics. The potent myth of the Arab nation and the common public space pervaded by the idea of ‘Arabism’ has had complex effects since the beginning of the modern state system in the Middle East. It has been cultivated by powerful media, such as the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera. The contagious nature of the uprisings that started in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread to a number of other Arab states, helped by these media (among other factors), is confirmation that the component parts of the ‘Arab world’ are linked by strong internal bonds. Nevertheless, thinking in terms of ‘Arab’ events—or even an Arab event—may also constitute a set of blinkers. First, by compelling us to search for common trends and characteristics, it prevents us from seeing the profoundly different causes, contexts and outcomes of the developments of 2011—from seeing that each uprising was different, focused on domestic, national issues and comprehensible in its own light. Second, it stops us from placing these developments in other, possibly equally relevant, contexts of crisis and contestation. One such context could be the Mediterranean and more widely European—even global—protests which also unfolded in 2011. Another is the Middle Eastern context, which would locate the Arab uprisings alongside the post-2009 Green movement in Iran. Although the Arab framework is important, other perspectives can also yield invaluable insights. A series of interconnected yet diverse events....
The Arab uprisings of 2011 were a series of diverse albeit interconnected events. In Tunisia and Egypt, mass civic insurrections led to the ousting of dictators but only a partial overthrow of authoritarian regimes. In Bahrain, the uprising was severely suppressed. In Libya, the regime was toppled following civil war and outside military intervention. In Syria, the bloody confrontation between the regime and significant parts of society is continuing. In Yemen, crisis is simmering. More violent conflict and even civil war are not off the agenda in any of the latter three cases. Other parts of the Middle East have experienced less turbulence, while in Jordan and Morocco monarchs offered limited reforms to pre-empt a greater political challenge. It is difficult to establish unifying causal factors behind such disparate events. Focusing on the reasons for and the mechanisms of popular mobilization is not enough; the manner of regime response was equally important in explaining outcomes. This response was determined by the relationship in each case between regime and state institutions, including the army and security services, and the ability of the regime to retain the support of significant societal allies....
A major question is whether the uprisings will lead to the democratization of the Arab Middle East and the dislodging of the longstanding authoritarianism which has bedevilled its political life. How far this will happen, if at all, will vary in each case and, although the region overall has been profoundly affected, there will be no wholesale democratization as a result of the uprisings. In some instances, as in Morocco and Jordan, the regimes have introduced reforms to ensure regime survival: plus ça change … In other cases, such as Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, the situation is too fluid, contested and outright violent for future prospects to be properly assessed. In the most hopeful instances, Egypt and above all Tunisia, a degree of democratization and political liberalization will occur. Paradoxically, the lack of profound upheaval bodes well for partial positive political change in these two countries, because the risks of violent backlash will be averted: if a revolution has not occurred, it cannot be betrayed".
Katerina Dalacoura, "The 2011 Uprisings in the Arab Middle East." International Affairs. January 2012, pp. 63,78-79.
To-day, the Royal Institute for International Affairs which is headquartered in London, had a breakfast briefing for some of its members who reside in either New York or Washington, DC. The topic discussed was: 'the Political Outlook for the Middle East Region'. Among those attending the event were Jane Kinninmont, a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Programme, as well as such local luminaries as Byron Wien, Vice-Chairman of the Blackstone Group, among others. The sense of the meeting was as follows: on the whole the so-called 'Arab Spring', qua event, was seen to be by no means similar to the events of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed there was a definite air of, if not pessimism then at the very least, a lack of concrete optimism about the ongoing situation in the region. With perhaps the only definite air of optimism that I was able to gather in the discussions, was the idea (to my mind somewhat questionable) that Turkey under the AK government could indeed prove a plausible model for new Islamist governments in the region. Among other comments and observations was that per se, 'tribalism' in the region, while at times not an unimportant variable in political calculations, were not indeed makeweights in the overall political context.
Concerning the Islamist governments and or parties in such places as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (as well as elsewhere), the sense was that au fond these parties were not in reality hostile to capitalism and the market. And that while such parties, movements and or governments did need from time to time to respond to popular pressure, per se that was more a case of day-to-day political dynamics rather than anything ideological in nature. This observation while true to a degree, seems to me to under-estimate the fact that in much of the region, the neo-liberal policies of the ancien regime in Egypt, Tunisia, and (in the future perhaps) Syria as well as elsewhere seem to be almost completely discredited in terms of popular legitimacy. Indeed, one of the precursors of the crisis that was and is the so-called Arab Spring, is the fact that the rigors of neo-liberal economics depleted the legitimacy of the pre-existing political orders. With this being the case, to my mind the crucial fact then becomes not so much the abstract thinking of this or that Islamist regime in say Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, but what to what if any extent these regimes can resurrect some type of neo-liberal policy framework, when the political support for the same has been almost completely eaten away. The best parallels being the rather lonely and isolated position of the Kadet party in the aftermath of the February Revolution. At the commencement of that horrid event, a majority of parties in the State Duma were upholders of Capitalism and private property. As events and public opinion marched way beyond that position, so eventually did the political supports for such policies and of course soon enough there came to power a group who promised to put an end to
Other observations were made that with the crisis in Syria, the Hamas regime in Gaza, was now most anxious indeed to cast aside its former patron in Damascus and was now in the process of moving their regional headquarters to the Kingdom of Jordan. The quid pro quo for such a move being that Hamas become in essence a normal, purely political movement. Eschewing violence almost completely. Similarly affected by the crisis in Syria was Russia. As per some observations, the diplomatic position of Russia in the Near and Middle East, outside of Syria proper had reached catastrophic lows due to Moskva's policy on Syria. With Russia's relations with the Gulf Monarchies in particular being quite horrid. Another victim of the crisis, in a similarly self-inflicted fashion, is the USA. The sense of the meeting was the under the current American administration, at least as it relates to the Near and Middle East, the key words were 'withdrawal' and 'decline'. And while in pure military power, the Americans are more powerful to-day then they were at almost anytime during the Cold War (1945-1989) in the region, the apparent inability of the American Administration to pressure the Netanyahu Cabinet into making concessions on the Palestinian issue, has feed into a spectre, real or imagined that Washington's policies can be ignored with impunity. Id est., the self-same spectre of decline in impotence. And unfortunately, perceptions in diplomacy are sometimes as important as diplomatic realities. Something that the current American Administration seems to be almost completely oblivious of. With that being said the meeting to a close as does this post.
1. For a good analysis as to the way that the neo-liberal policies in the years prior to 2011 had eaten away the political supports of the ancien regime Arab governments in say Egypt, Tunisia and Syria see: Dalacoura, op. cit., pp. 66-74 and passim; Raymond Hinnerbusch, "Syria: from 'authoritarian upgrading' to revolution?"
International Affairs. January 2012, pp. 98-113, and passim. For the Russian case, see: Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution. (1990), pp. 300-436, & Virgil Medlin & Steven Parsons Edited, V.D. Nabokov and the Russian Provisional Government, 1917. (1976). The latter are memoirs and contemporaneous notes from one of the key individuals in the Kadet Party both prior to and after 1917.