The Arab Uprisings, One Year On
Jerusalem Post, December 14,
It is now commonplace to note that, like 1948, 1967 and 1979, the year that
was -- 2011 -- will go down as a year of seismic change in the Middle East.
But what sort of change will it leave in its wake?
The term most often associated with the events of the last year -- the "Arab
Spring" -- provides virtually no clue. That phrase, borrowed from a hopeful
moment in Prague that was crushed by Soviet tanks more than a generation
ago, was first used in the Middle East context in 2005. That was when the
assassination of Rafik Hariri triggered an outpouring of Lebanese "people
power" that drove Syrian troops out of that country and raised hopes of a
truly new dawn in Lebanon after its bloody 30-year war.
In retrospect, its usage was tragically apt, in that Hezbollah -- like the
Soviets -- eventually triumphed, putting off until another day the potential
for truly positive change. One doubts that the Facebookers and Twitterati
who celebrate the Arab Spring of 2011 recall this unhappy history.
"Arab Awakening" is the second term whose use is increasing -- not least
because commentators have been told that many Middle Eastern countries,
especially Egypt, have only two real seasons, neither of which is spring.
News outlets as disparate as The Economist and Al Jazeera have begun to use
"Arab Awakening" to describe the volcanic eruptions across the region
sparked by the iconic self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor last
This term, too, has an historical antecedent, one that is actually rooted in
the Middle East, which is a plus. It harkens back to the landmark 1938 book
of the same title by George Antonius, a Greek Orthodox Lebanese and onetime
British mandatory official in Palestine who extolled the rising of a renewed
pan-Arab political and cultural consciousness after decades of European,
principally British, machination and domination. But setting aside the
ahistorical elements of Antonius' original work, "Arab awakening" conjures
up precisely the wrong imagery for what has been happening in Arab countries
over the past year.
First, Antonius' book was designed, in large part, to rally Arabs to the
Palestine cause. In contrast, the changes of 2011 were, at their core, a
sharp riposte to ideologues who contend that Arabs only, principally or even
mostly care about Palestine. And second, while Antonius' Arab Awakening was
a clarion call for pan-Arab nationalism -- the idea that Arabs from the
Atlantic to the Gulf share a linguistic, cultural, social and even political
patrimony -- the events of 2011 have been national, not pan-Arab, phenomena,
with Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, Syrians and others celebrating their
specific local nationalisms, not some abstract trans-regional ideology. So,
like the romantic term "Arab Spring," the equally romantic term "Arab
Awakening" obscures more than it explains.
There is, in my view, a widely used Arabic term of recent vintage that comes
closer than either of these more popular phrases to capturing the
explosiveness, the challenge and the uncertainty of what has occurred across
the region over the past year. While this term is most closely associated
with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the fact that it is linked in
political consciousness to a single national experience makes it appropriate
to use, in its plural form, to apply to the variety of national experiences
witnessed in 2011.
The word is "intifada," whose Arabic original meaning is "shaking off" and
has come to be used as the Arabic translation of "uprising." What the world
has seen over the past year is a series of "Arab uprisings," i.e., popular
efforts -- some more peaceful than others -- to shake off traditional
authority. Like their Palestinian namesakes, these uprisings reminded the
world that mass action can sometimes play as important a role in Arab
politics as elite behavior. And like those earlier "intifadat" -- plural of
intifada -- the outcome of these uprisings is decidedly uncertain.
Having decided the "what" (what to call the events of the past year), the
next task is to determine the "so what" (what do these events really mean).
This is even trickier. Identifying winners (Sunni Islamists) and losers
(Israel and Iran) of these uprisings has become a favorite parlor game, but
after just one year, it is far too early to judge if the events of 2011 will
have truly lasting impact, where that lasting impact will be felt most, and
how will it affect issues of strategic import, such as whether Iran will
persist with slow-motion development of a nuclear weapon capability or jump
to a breakout strategy.
Indeed, while leaders have been driven from power in four Arab countries --
Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya -- only in one of these (Libya) can one say
conclusively that the regimes they led have been driven from power, too. In
Tunisia and Egypt, the key institution that facilitated the original
transfer of power -- the army -- remains intact; in Yemen, the deposed
leader has not really even gone away.
One additional Arab republic, Syria, teeters on the brink of all-out civil
war; while four-and-a-half others -- Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and the
Palestinian Authority -- have barely been touched by the "uprising" tsunami.
Elsewhere, one monarchy fought back against its uprising and appears to have
triumphed (Bahrain) while other monarchies employed a rope-a-dope strategy
of reform to absorb the challenge of uprising and have, so far, avoided any
significant unrest. The variety of national experience is itself the
Despite all this, the events of the past year -- no matter how they
ultimately turn out -- have already had a profound impact, not so much in
shaping a new Middle East but in demolishing several long-held assumptions
about the old Middle East. Here are five.
* First, no longer valid is the idea that competition among elites,
rather than the influence of popular will, determines the rise and fall of
Arab regimes. For four decades -- from the mass outpouring of Egyptians who
rejected Gamal Abdel Nasser's resignation in the wake of the catastrophic
1967 war to the mass outpouring of Egyptians who demanded Mubarak's
resignation after 30 years of peace with Israel -- the Arab street was
largely irrelevant to assessments of the region's politics. Tahrir Square
brought that chapter to a close. This does not mean the mob will always
determine the fate of Arab nations, but it is an actor on the Arab stage
* Second, no longer valid is the idea that authoritarian regimes can
and will use the full power of the state to retain their control. For two
generations, the spectre of the omnipotent state cast a dark shadow across
the region's politics, stifling the development of any real opposition
worthy of the name. The might and power of these regimes grew meteorically
in recent decades, as many leaders looked at the frightening collapse of the
Shah of Iran and decided to pour every marginal dollar (or pound, lira or
riyal) into their manifold security and intelligence apparatuses.
Over time, however, the rot of corruption and a preening sense of
invincibility ate away at these regimes from within. The result was that the
former commander of the Egyptian Air Force, a hero of the Suez crossing
against mighty Israel, was forced to dispatch machete-armed camel riders in
a last-ditch effort to salvage his rule. This decrepitude has not been the
case everywhere, of course, as the brutality of the Libyan and Syrian sagas
shows, but the rapid demise of authoritarianism in Tunisia and Egypt
underscores the limits of presumed omnipotence.
* Third, no longer valid is the idea that the main threat to moderate,
pro-West regimes across the Levant emanates from the emergence of an
Iran-dominated "Shi'ite crescent." In its place is the potentially greater
fear that a "Sunni crescent" of regimes led or influenced by the Muslim
Brotherhood -- regimes that espouse Osama bin Ladin's anti-American,
anti-Western and anti-Israel objectives without his radically violent and
urgent means -- will stretch from Morocco to the Gulf.
Already, Ikhwan-related prime ministers are or are poised to be in office
from Rabat to Gaza, with the exception of Algiers, and they are likely to be
joined by colleagues in Damascus and perhaps Amman before 2012 is over.
Some will see in this an antidote to the destructive message of al-Qaida and
welcome this as a more evolutionary and authentic trend, but their optimism
is almost surely misplaced. (The canary in the Islamist coalmine will be the
local Christian communities. The pace of Christian, especially Coptic,
emigration, will be an especially useful bellwether. After two millennia,
predictions that half of the current Arab Christian population will be gone
within the next decade are not fantastical.)
* Fourth, no longer valid is the idea that the Saudi gerontocracy
lacks the energy and vision to do anything but pay off enemies or count on
America for its preservation. To the contrary, the year of "Arab uprisings"
-- which has paralleled a year of unusual travails for the Saudi royal
family -- has witnessed an unusually bold and assertive Saudi penchant for
self-preservation, exemplified by the deployment of Saudi and other Gulf
forces in Bahrain. This even led to the enunciation of Riyadh's version of
the Monroe Doctrine, i.e., that no neighboring monarchy should be permitted
to experiment with, let alone succumb to the allures of, liberal democracy.
The Wahhabis of the Nejd, it seems, aren't going down without a fight -- and
aren't about to let their royalist neighbors go down either.
* Fifth, no longer valid is the idea that the United States will
always prioritize preservation of "the devil we know" over the uncertainty
and inherent instability of "the devil we don't." To be sure, official
Washington believed that the intercession of the Egyptian army to ease
transition to a post-Mubarak future was a way to safeguard its diminishing
equities, not a way to throw its lot in with the throngs of street
But in less than a year, an administration consumed with domestic woes and
eager to shed foreign entanglements has already begun to reconcile itself to
a new, Islamist-dominated Middle East. While neither unchangeable nor
irretrievable, the speed with which America made a strategic pivot in the
Middle East, in the process making peace with the idea that elections, not
institutions, build democracy, is nothing short of astounding.
It is too early to define a new set of assumptions that will explain the
ways of the Middle East in the next few decades with as much acuity and
precision as the old assumptions helpfully guided us through the last half
century. But we begin 2012 much as Middle Easterners began 1949, 1968 and
1980 -- confident only that uncertainty is the new norm.
Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute.
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Received on Thu Dec 15 2011 - 18:14:35 EST