- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
When the revolt in Tunisia occurred back in January, I wrote:
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.”
Tunisia is an obvious warning sign to other Arab dictatorships, and they are bound to be especially vigilant in the months ahead, lest some sort of similar revolutionary wave begin to emerge.”
While conceding that a revolutionary cascade was possible and that pressure for greater openness might succeed in the long term, I concluded that a rapid transformation was unlikely.
As I’ve noted previously, I underestimated the degree to which events in Tunisia would inspire like-minded movements in other countries, and it’s clear that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak didn’t respond as swiftly or effectively as I expected. But Arab governments are under no illusions now, and we seem to be witnessing precisely the sort of counterrevolutionary responses that often serve to contain a revolutionary outbreak.
In Libya, the Qaddafi regime has responded in brutal but increasingly effective fashion and now seems likely to retain power in at least part of the country for some time to come. With few genuine foreign friends, a big pile of cash, and no place to run or hide, Qaddafi and his family had little choice but to fight it out and hope for the best, even if their brutal suppression of the rebel forces lands them back on the list of international pariahs.
For its part, the Saudi government has sought to pre-empt significant protests by doling out $37 billion worth of new social benefits, while making it clear that protests will be dealt with harshly. In neighboring Bahrain, the Khalifa dynasty has responded to rising protests from its Shiite majority population with heightened repression. It has also invited the Saudis — which share the Khalifa regime’s fear of Iranian influence — to send several thousand troops there to back up the government.
So 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. Nor do we yet know how far-reaching the reforms in Tunisia and Egypt will ultimately be (though I remain cautiously optimistic).
All that said, I still find it hard to believe that these events do not herald more far-reaching political change throughout much of the Arab world. Even if some governments are able to keep the lid on for now, the social, political, and economic conditions that have given rise to these upheavals won’t vanish anytime soon. Whether they consent to real reform or not, ruling elites are likely to be more mindful of popular opinion going forward, for fear of facing new protests in the future or driving frustrated reformers in more radical and dangerous directions.
If this view is correct, then the days when the United States could base key elements of its Middle East grand strategy on alliances with a set of Arab regimes whose policies tended to ignore popular sentiment — including widespread popular anger at the U.S. role in the region — are coming to an end. A new grand strategy is going to be needed — and soon.