Vague thoughts on Arab uprisings (II)

This is a thought dump. It is concerned with the Arab uprisings in the same sense that similar long posts from February and March were concerned with more or less specific events in Tunisia and Algeria (Mauritania, too). The paragraphs are numbered to make reading easier (each is themed) but do not directly correspond to the topics discussed in a linear or direct way as other posts on this blog have (though in some places they do). These are [more] preliminary thoughts based on previous observations and more recent ones. The analyses here are not intended to be final judgements or assessments. Another similar post will follow shortly.

  1. After reviewing the measures taken by various Arab regimes to stave off, manage, or beat back popular protests, Stephen Walt remarks:
    1. [. . .] if you believed that the events in Tunisia and Egypt — which were both relatively bloodless and remarkably swift — were likely to be duplicated elsewhere, you were wrong. The revolutionary impulse has been remarkably contagious, but revolutionary outcomes much less so, at least thus far. [“A Short Lived Arab Spring?” 15 March, 2011]
  2. Walt previously doubted that other Arab regimes would meet similar fates as Tunisia’s Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, or that similar protests movements would be important elsewhere in the region:
    1. Although most Arab governments are authoritarian, they are also all independent and depend on a slightly different mix of political institutions and measures to keep the rulers in power. The fact that Ben Ali ultimately mismanaged a challenge and was driven from power does not mean that other Arab leaders won’t be able to deflect, deter, or suppress challenges to their rule.” [“Why the Tunisian revolution won’t spread” 16 January, 2011]
  3. Not everyone agreed. But early on many analysts (both Arab and Euro-American) were unimpressed by Tunisia’s uprising, viewing it as a particular case in what for many Levantines and western observers was a relative backwater that had never been a bellwether in the Arab world. Soon after the Sidi Bouzid events, an important debate took place among analysts and bloggers over the significance of the Tunisian uprising. Many intelligent writers doubted (or disputed) Brian Whitaker’s claim that  “Sidi Bouzid” was the “most important story” out of the Arab world in a year (or more). In the vocabulary of official people the formulation X is not Tunisia (and eventually, X is not Tunisia or Egypt) became common as protests and revolt spread to Egypt and Jordan and Yemen and Libya and Mauritania and so on.
  4. In most cases this was true: countries  poorer, more tribal, with less technologically savvy youth populations, stronger (and smarter) security and armed services, different non-official elite populations produced and responded to “revolutionary” protests significantly different than the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. But The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings did have a powerful demonstration effect across the region even if the structural reasons for the spread of protests and attempted revolutions differed from country to country in the Arab world. Countries typically thought of as chronically unstable or much weaker than Tunisia and Egypt saw protests and even violence but their regimes weathered the storm with greater ease than the “stable” regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak. Protests in Morocco, Mauritania, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Oman, and Algeria did take place and in some instances had significantly more impact (and less media attention) than others — and in some instances protests had very little impact but received aggressive media coverage. The “spread” of demonstrations and riots to neighboring countries in the wake of Tunisia’s was sometimes misinterpreted according to the evolving media [and political] narrative around the winter uprisings — riots in Algeria, for example, began well before the Sidi Bouzid events but were occasionally interpreted as “following” or being inspired by Tunisia. In the fervor of the early developments in Tunisia and Egypt some analysts probably projected their own excitement and expectations onto events taking place in the region, perhaps best symbolized by the wide use of the terms “revolution” and “revolutionaries” in relation to various protests and protest movements, which has become somewhat less frequent recently. Not enough time has passed for analysts to take stock of the full character and scope of the winter events, now described as the “Arab spring”. Without more distance between observers and the events at hand it seems premature to write about revolution.
  5. “Counterrevolution” (regime rollback) has thus far been more successful than “revolution” in the region, as the struggle in Libya and multi-lateral repression in Bahrain show. In Morocco, the February protests caused impressive reforms — the introduction of a new constitution, for example — although it remains to be seen what this will mean in practical terms. As government forces have beaten and shot demonstrators, the latter usually escalating unrest, the transitional governments in Tunis and Cairo have faced challenges as old elites seek to preserve old privileges by mixing genuine and symbolic reforms (and arrests of ex-regime big whigs) and the suppression of continuous protests and strikes. Egregious abuses against demonstrators and others continue in Egypt, not in the name of “revolution” but order, stability and power. And it is clear that the Gulf states hope to rollback some of the “revolutionary” fervor by using their economic and propaganda resources (the particular and partial coverage of specific uprisings by Gulf satellite networks bears this out) and by “teaming up” with other monarchies, such as Morocco and Jordan.
  6. Sober analysts have noted that dictators, like everyone else, learn. Arab leaders observe the consequences of each others’ campaigns against dissidents and “revolutionaries,” and they gauge where outside actors will draw the line in supporting or tolerating repression and how best to carry out their struggle for survival. On 26 January, Marc Lynch wrote:
    1. Dictators learn from each other, not just from the past. The Arab Summit last week displayed this very clearly. Every Arab leader is on red alert at the moment, determined not to repeat Ben Ali’s mistakes. They are frantically offering concessions on economic issues, reversing price rises and increasing subsidies. And of course they are ramping up the repressive apparatus, on the streets and online, to try to stop any snowballs from rolling before they get too big. The lesson most seem to have learned is not “be more democratic,” it is “be tougher.” No Arab leader seems likely to be taken by surprise, or to disregard the early signs of trouble. The success of Egypt’s protestors yesterday doesn’t mean that they won’t be violently crushed today. [“Will the Arab revolutions spread?” 26 January, 2011]
  7. Arab regimes are both stronger and weaker than they appear: they may dominate society through the closest living replicas of the Stasi and KGB but, as is the case the world over, they do not and cannot control, monitor, let alone predict the activities and sentiments of all elements of their increasingly complex and atomized societies. Most Arab regimes lack anything like an air of ideological or spiritual legitimacy with their overwhelmingly young populations (with notable exceptions like Morocco and Saudi Arabia). The youth are often as well, if not better, educated than the leadership class. Younger elite segments outnumber their mentors and patrons in control of the political and military apparatuses, though they tend to lack popular legitimacy. Though many populations are dissatisfied with political exclusion, poverty and corruption, they often compare themselves with their neighbors and judge their condition in relative terms according to transactional considerations as opposed to explicitly political ones. On the whole, as this writer has said before, the Arab world is made up of pre-revolutionary societies and the stability of the states there clearly depends in part (and not entirely) on the prudence of its leaders and their cronies in managing this volatile status quo. Some have done it with more competence than others with obvious consequences. The point is that there are many variables involved in the Arab uprisings which makes analyzing and assessing them extremely difficult in the moment, particularly as the situation evolves rapidly. Recent events show that interest bases that were previously passive, broken, repressed or underground (youth, labor, religious people, leftists, etc.) are now actively moving to do their part in re-defining and stabilizing their societies. But one should not overstate the extent to which Arab populations (1) have “broken the wall of fear” between themselves and their rulers; (2) been penetrated by activist forces seeking systemic or even incremental change (in more than a few countries such activity has been monopolized by the urban middle and upper classes and is yet to be class inclusive); (3) are disinterested in or disengaged by calls for change/revolt/revolution/protest based on local and regional conditions, or; (4) are interested in or engaged by calls for change/revolt/revolution/protest based on local and regional conditions.
  8. The difference between personalized “sultanistic” dictatorships and those more broadly and thoroughly institutionalized is important. These regimes inspire their own patterns of protest and respond to them in their own ways. A “sultanistic” dictatorship can appear quite strong but fall quickly, as Jack A. Goldstone notes regarding the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators. The centralization of power makes command and control more direct and powerful and also brings down the whole apparatus swiftly. Goldstone mentions the factors that enable revolution:
    1. The government must appear so irremediably unjust or inept that it is widely viewed as a threat to the country’s future; elites (especially in the military) must be alienated from the state and no longer willing to defend it; a broad-based section of the population, spanning ethnic and religious groups and socioeconomic classes, must mobilize; and international powers must either refuse to step in to defend the government or constrain it from using maximum force to defend itself.
  9. The composition of the military elite is key: if personnel are drawn from the population at large, rather than selected from loyal family, tribal, or sectarian elements, the likelihood of defection is not great. “Coup-proofed” regimes possess this characteristic, with others.
    1. (1) the effective exploitation of family, ethnic, and religious loyalties for coup-critical positions balanced with wider participation and less restrictive loyalty standards for the regime as a whole; (2) the creation of an armed force parallel to the regular military; (3) the development of multiple internal security agencies with overlapping jurisdiction that constantly monitor the loyalty of the military and one another with independent paths of communication to critical leaders; (4) the fostering of expertness in the regular military; and (5) the financing of such measures. (pg. 133) (See here.)
  10. Such an arrangement is found in a variety of Arab regimes (the original article looks specifically at Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria). This helps to explain, in part, why the Libyan government has been able to sustain its campaign against the rebels — in addition to the gap between the regular and elite units in training and provisions is enormous (especially the regular units from which the rebel’s leaders defected). The parallel/paramilitary forces (and the intelligence services which occasionally take the place of paramilitaries) are of extreme importance in the Libyan, Tunisian, Egypt and nowadays Syrian cases.
  11. The question of professionalism has been problematic. Tunisia and Egypt possessed relatively professional armed forces; Arab regimes have viewed professionalization as a means of de-politicizing the military and keeping it out of politics, from making coups. Yet the military terminated the first stages of national crises in both Tunisia and Egypt by means of what can only be seen as shades of coups — a “soft” coup in Tunisia and a more overt one in Egypt. Both militaries took part in extensive exchanges, training and exercises with highly professional western NATO militaries, which some observers have attributed to their moves against Ben Ali and Mubarak (though there is limited evidence of this being a major factor on its own). Both were key points of contact in their autocrats’ relationships with Washington, Brussels, London and Paris. The role of the professional army was distinct in either case with Tunisia’s military being comparatively small and outside of the political inner circle and Egypt’s being a prominent regime pillar with large numbers and a sizable economic role. The exact reasons for these militaries’ defections are still unclear though one can generalize in two directions: (1) the preservation of the regime writ-large (the military’s “flexibility” helps the overall regime, of which it is a part, avoid total collapse due to increasingly dangerous mass activity against the regime) and (2) the alienation of the military from the methods of regime preservation adopted by the leaders in question (the heavy use of the internal security forces and police in both cases) particularly with respect to how their continued use would affect the armed forces in the event of systemic change. In the Tunisian case the second point seems most important, largely because of its comparatively weak role in the regime in general and its experience and comfort under civilian control. In the Libyan case, which has many of its own particularities, there are heavier tribal and moral reasons for key defections. The nuances of the specific reasons for defection cannot be discussed here but one must keep these in mind in other precarious circumstances.
  12. The regimes most destabilized by the winter and spring events have been what Goldstone calls “sultanistic” regimes, the personal dictatorships of big men like Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qadahfi and As’ad. The monarchies and the competitive clienteleist regimes have seen relatively less drama than the more personalistic regimes in the region. These regimes benefit from structural flexibility that buys them more time than the tightly centralized ones. Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have shown more resilience to recent events because their regimes rely on more varied networks of support that cut more broadly across the elite and population and/or have significant foreign support and spiritual or historical legitimacy making the removal of potentates less feasible means of exerting meaningful change. They distribute money to potential opponents if they have it and leverage traditional tribal, religious and social linkages to the extent they exist (and when they are they are tightly integrated into the regime as in the case of Algeria’s major trade unions and religious networks in Morocco).
  13. The Algerian case, which preoccupies this blog, there is a strong element of the management concepts raised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, in Foreign Affairs. Taleb notes that such regimes fluctavat nec mergitur (fluctuate but do not sink). He quotes Seneca: “Repeated punishment, while it crushes the hatred of a few, stirs the hatred of all [. . .] just as trees that have been trimmed throw out again countless branches.” The Algerian regime understands this, and has targeted its repression so that it does not confront restive segments of the population, the student protest movement in particular. The limited response to the December-January riots and the generally tame containment (in comparison to other regimes in the region and protests in the past) of the 12 February and March-April demonstrations represents a realization of how destabilizing overt and excessive violence can be and the powerful potential in the student movement, whose activities have been more active and sustained than perhaps any other segment of the opposition, broadly defined. Sit-ins, marches, roadblocks and similar protests have proliferated in recent months and have become increasingly political. The independent student groups have put thousands onto the streets, militating against Higher Education Ministry reforms and poor campus conditions. A heavy hand on these youths would escalate the situation and perhaps accelerate a shift in the demonstrators’ focus from the Higher Education Ministry toward more general points of discontent.
  14. The 25 April protests in Mauritania were lightly covered and of undetermined political significance. Previous protests were led by a coalition of youth groups organized protests in February focused on the Blocks square in Nouakchott, drawing on grievances over poverty, education quality, the military’s role in politics, and so on. This same coalition of youths orchestrated a detailed protest plan, backed up with a Facebook and YouTube campaign designed to build momentum which resulted in a “Day of Anger” on the Egyptian model aimed at occupying the Blocks square until their demands were met. The youths were dispersed by riot police with tear gas and others were arrested and beaten. At a workers’ protest in Zouerate, one man was killed by police. The Day of Anger timed to play on emerging divisions within the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party and sympathy from the established opposition parties. The organizers aimed to occupy the square and, failing that, creating a human chain in the center of the city which would force the police to confront them, helping to build support from Mauritanian observers and others. The 25 April plans were the most sophisticated yet to be produced by Mauritania’s youth coalition. While it is unlikely that current levels of unrest will cause major change in Mauritania, 25 April was the most violent day of protests in Mauritania yet and this may have an impact on the attitudes of the opposition parties and elements within the regime.
  15. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere are not revolutions in the proper sense: the old elites and regimes are still in place and still dominate the political landscape in all the Arab countries — though relatively less so today than in January. This is not to say the Arab uprisings have not made significant change. The replacement of the old political elite with new (or at least different) actors within new political structures has not yet taken place. Tunisia’s interim process represents a reformist tendency but is relatively less representative of the retrenchment of the old elite there than Egypt’s military council. Narratives that view the Egyptian military as the savior of the uprising there risk conflating the defense of the regime with the defense of a popular revolt as such. The armed forces were at the core of the Mubarak regime and while they enjoy important popular legitimacy their interest in the economic and political status quo inside Egypt is substantial. The Tunisian military, being smaller and farther removed from a direct role in politics (and the economy) since the country’s independence than Egypt’s, has not had a direct administrative or even political role (beyond providing moral support) in the interim process. While both militaries played key role’s in their country’s modernization programs in the 19th century the colonial and post-colonial environment has produced two very different militaries with separate approaches to political crises and regime change. The Egyptian military appears unlikely to produce thoroughgoing changes which was reflected in the 19 March referendum and its curbs on protests and union activities, as many Egyptians and others have noted. The chances are about even that arrests of former regime officials and the confiscation of their assets represent measures taken for public consumption versus genuine attempts to “clean house” and implement “real” political change. The point is this: more men (and women) who were key pillars of the anciens regimes before the uprisings than are not.
  16. This early in the region’s process of change one cannot speak about a conclusive tendency such a “revolution,” as events evolve quickly but not in any clear direction. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings removed presidents in a matter of weeks and days. But the problems the protesters sought to address are too complex to be solved by the removal of despots alone and the project of altering political order will take a great amount of time for the revolutionaries (there can be no doubt that the people that drove the uprisings fancied themselves revolutionaries) to capture the key to real political transformation: the state administrative apparatuses. The ability of the regime elites to control the “post-revolutionary” processes of reform has outpaced the ability of opposition elements to build their own networks and institutions or penetrate the institutions of political control. Efforts by various opposition parties, professional, labor and social segments to organize themselves since the uprisings began have been slow to form independently with large coalitions forming but largely outside the state domain. Better organized civil society and party infrastructure will likely help to prevent the old regime elites from rolling back the fruits of the uprisings and may indeed lead to more or less overt confrontation between the old official and dependent classes and new (and legalized) political forces with uncertain results.
  17. In many cases roll back has surely been the rule (thus far). Bahrain’s monarchy was reinforced by troops from Saudi Arabia and tacit consent to repression from the United States and Europe. Fears over the potential for Bahrain’s uprising to empower and emplace an Shi’i Arab regime under Iranian influence have led much western (and Arab) consideration to focus on the external as opposed to internal questions of the Bahraini uprising. The resulting analysis prioritizes Iranian and Saudi/American interests at a hypothetical and ideological level first, while placing the political, social and sectarian grievances and narratives of the Bahraini demonstrators second. Observation of the Bahraini uprising provides a relatively clear picture of a protest movement that deliberately avoided sectarian coloring and, for the most part, tended to actively disassociate itself from Iran. The perception of the uprising there was immediately and principally filtered through the lenses of the Iranian-Sunni Arab-American confrontation in the context of Gulf geopolitics. The Sunni monarchy in Bahrain likely feels Iran breathing down its neck with sincerity given Iran’s claims on the country’s territory and its place at the top of a minority regime ruling over a Shi’i Arab majority. Saudi fears of Shi’i empowerment in Bahrain affecting its own, downtrodden, Shi’i minorities ambitions were contributing factors to its aggressive posture on Bahrain. It is wholly reasonable speculate that these actual concerns have been exaggerated by Manama to secure American support (apart from the placement of the US Sixth Fleet there).
  18.  The Libyan situation, now a civil war, represents a similar situation to the one in Syria in which the regime likely views the use of force as a more viable means of prolonging autocratic rule than continuing attempts to promote phony reforms or speeches, especially in a complex regime that probably lack the internal capacity for genuine reform in any case. The Libyan and Syrian struggles exemplify situations where years of brutality, consolidation and the deliberate fracturing of society have produced systems that cannot be uninstalled but by the dearest struggle, by means of which regime elements foment unrest and inflict suffering not only in the midst of fighting rebels but also in their wake. Syria or Libya’s total “collapse” could produce chaos that might spread to neighboring countries with devastating affects (think “too big to fail”). This causes anxiety in official circles in the region and the west; it also acts a card for regimes to play in their own interests, an attempt at blackmailing outsiders into looking the other way in service of “stability” (in the current situation such appeals are particularly naked and whatever real credibility they have is surely undermined by their brutality, as one can see in the case of Libya and Syria where such appeals have been discredited by ludicrous accusations over Nescafe and other wild exaggerations).
  19. Aggressive Islamist groups and terrorist factions have had little to do with the winter and spring unrest in the Arab countries despite the claims of multiple governments that protest and opposition movements are part of a terrorist (particularly al-Qaeda)-linked conspiracy fomenting revolt. Among detached leaders this can be attributed to mis-analysis, existing paranoia, ignorance and vanity (especially those showing evidence of hubris-nemisis complexes). More rational leaders are likely to deliberately make such exaggerations in pursuit of external tolerance and support, producing misinformation to corroborate their wild claims. Supportive commentary from al-Qaeda leaders like Ayman Zawahiri and the leaders of the various al-Qaeda affiliate groups have generally been ignored at the popular level and where there is greatest risk of individuals with links to terrorist organizations such individuals are generally heavily outnumbered and have not set up deep links in society at large.
  20. The general Islamist question is more relevant: organized Islamists played relatively small roles in the uprisings but they have participated in most of them in some way or another. Fear of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Nahda in Tunisia tends to concern progressive and otherwise non-Islamist Arabs (who have to compete with them for popular support and who often fear persecution under Islamist rule) and westerners. These fears are based on the assumption that the Islamist tendency has distinct advantages over secular or otherwise non-religious political groups: (1) that their religious identity will draw followers who are unfamiliar with other factions (Islam as the “default” setting in religiously conservative societies); (2) their presence in the mosques and other religious centers gives them a (supposedly) ready pool of recruits and voters; (3) they have larger political “bases” than other political groupings and especially recently formed political groups, the result of years of underground activity and struggle; (4) their programs are frequently genuinely appealing to significant parts of Arab polities. The 1989-1992 Algeria experience and the Iranian revolution in 1979 are only two examples of where Islamists’ appeal was underrated by significant parts of the political class and many analysts. The pull of Islamist factions in general (whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Mauritania or elsewhere) should not be overstated: young people, largest part of the Arab public, very often have limited experience with the major Islamists groups whose heyday was often during their childhood or before, as has been noted by keen observers, and others have been unimpressed by the compromising tendency of Islamist parties in the last ten years. Additionally, internal ideological and generational tensions within older Islamist parties and competition from other emergent Islamist parties is likely to dampen their ability to deliver sweeping results (especially if parts of them break off to form new parties), especially if non-Islamist parties and factions organize effectively. Furthermore, the behavior of particularly conservative factions, like that of Salafi groups in Egypt who have victimized Coptic Christians in recent weeks, may alienate them from key demographics and empower more moderate Islamists and secular factions (despite widespread feelings against sectarianism, the chances are about even that certain groups will attempt to co-opt the sectarianism such factions stir up in hopes of keeping them out of the broader fold, in Egypt and elsewhere). But one should be clear: the Islamist tendency has real pull in the Arab context and must be treated as a fact of life in the region’s politics especially as elections carry on.

4 thoughts on “Vague thoughts on Arab uprisings (II)

  1. RE: Algeria
    With the variety of student protests, the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research has remained largely quiet on most of the issues raised. Do you think this will result in the students bringing the protest to a higher level, particularly since they don’t seem to be getting any concessions?

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