Why change in the Arab world may not be as radical as you think
Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Jordan have led both administration officials and the chattering classes to conclude that democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Having once again been caught by surprise by events overseas — one wonders where our intelligence agencies have been hiding — the Obama ...
Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Jordan have led both administration officials and the chattering classes to conclude that democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Having once again been caught by surprise by events overseas -- one wonders where our intelligence agencies have been hiding -- the Obama administration is now trying to push itself into the forefront of those seeking democratic change in the region.
Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Jordan have led both administration officials and the chattering classes to conclude that democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Having once again been caught by surprise by events overseas — one wonders where our intelligence agencies have been hiding — the Obama administration is now trying to push itself into the forefront of those seeking democratic change in the region.
Yet it was not democracy that led a young Tunisian to immolate himself and, apart from English-speaking educated intellectuals, it does not appear that democracy is what most people have been demonstrating about. Instead, what they are seeking, first and foremost, is economic opportunity unfettered by corruption and favoritism. Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire because he was prevented from earning a modest living. Three Egyptians have burned themselves because of lack of job opportunities.
Secondly, Tunisians and Egyptian appear to be seeking responsive government, which is quite different from Western notions of democracy. In fact, it is arguable that they and other demonstrators in the Arab world would be quite comfortable living under a Chinese-style system, where there is a high and consistent level of economic growth and standards of living continue to rise. Would Tunisia have overthrown Ben Ali if its economy grew, as it had in the 1990s, and if the President’s family curbed their greed? Would Mubarak be in the trouble he is now if he had a far greater percentage of the population benefitting from Egypt’s economic growth?
It is noteworthy that for all the talk of upheavals in the Arab world, there has so far been little unrest in the traditional Gulf emirates or in Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the smaller Gulf States have long made it their policy to distribute wealth widely among their citizens. (Non-citizens don’t count, of course. And if they made any trouble they would be deported.) Despite predictions of their imminent demise over the past two decades, the Saudis likewise have so far remained quiet. The al-Saud family recognized some ten years ago that it needed to spread more wealth to ensure the support of its increasingly younger population; so far so good.
Even Bahrain, which might have been expected to be the scene of riots, given the secondary status of the majority Sh’ia population, has not witnessed any major demonstrations. Again, most of the Bahraini Sh’ia appear to recognize that a stable Bahrain means more wealth for them too — even if they do not achieve economic parity with the dominant Sunnis. They also know that Saudi tanks are not far from the causeway that links their state to its much larger and more powerful neighbor, and that those tanks would be quick to cross into the island kingdom if the ruling family came under siege.
Interestingly, Syria has not yet seen much trouble either, even though the al-Asad family’s Alawi confreres form a small minority of the Sunni-dominated state. However, there have been Facebook-driven calls for protests. Obviously, Bashar al-Asad’s secret police are hard at work — even so, secret police did not save Ben Ali. If al-Asad remains in power, it would be as much thanks to his standoffish policy toward Washington, and unremitting hostility to Israel, as to his mukhabarat.
Jordan, for all its demonstrations, is unlikely to see a toppling of the monarchy. The majority Palestinians know that the king’s Bedouin supporters may, like others in the Arab world, demand a larger part of the economic pie. But that does not mean they want majority (Palestinian) rule. Nor will the Israelis sit idly by if the Palestinians try to reprise Black September from 1970.
At the end of the day, change will no doubt come to Egypt, as it has come to Tunisia and will likely come to Yemen, and perhaps one or two other states in the region. But that change may not be as radical as some predict, if those who replace Ben Ali, Mubarak, and perhaps Saleh of Yemen, are quick to push through economic reforms. And even if both countries become more radicalized — despite the rather conservative nature of the fast majority of Egyptians and Tunisians, radicalization is unlikely to spread to the entire Arab world.
There is a reason that the traditional monarchies have survived as long as they have — they are actually quite responsive to their people. Through the diwan system, in effect constituency meetings, Gulf ruling families maintain more contact with their citizens than the average member of the U.S. Congress. Through careful economic management, they have been able to keep their citizens satisfied, if not happy. Their formula has proved durable — and their greed, while massive, has not distorted their countries’ economies. It is a fair bet that the ruling families will survive and that, as a result, the United States will still have a web of friends and allies in what clearly has become a more volatile Middle East.
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