Marc Lynch

Taking Stock of the Arab Revolutions

I’ve been traveling and writing some longer-form essays over the last two weeks, and am about to take off for two weeks in the Middle East.   But before I do, I want to put in a plug for the "Revolutions in the Arab World" FP e-book which I edited with Blake Hounshell and Susan Glasser.  ...


I’ve been traveling and writing some longer-form essays over the last two weeks, and am about to take off for two weeks in the Middle East.   But before I do, I want to put in a plug for the "Revolutions in the Arab World" FP e-book which I edited with Blake Hounshell and Susan Glasser.  I’m very proud of how quickly we were able to turn around the book, how well the real-time reporting and analysis stands up, and how beautifully produced the final version really is.   From the day we returned from the holiday publishing vacation, FP and the Middle East Channel were all over these historic, exhilerating, sometimes terrifying transformations.   The eBook offers a fantastic new publishing format to bring together the best of that analysis, to create something new and lasting out of the frenzy.   Check it out

In the meantime, this seems like a good time to step back and reflect:  where do things stand in the great upheavals which have shaken the Arab world over the last two months?  What should the Obama administration do about it?   

The greatest structural change of the last two months is not the fall of Mubarak but  the region-wide empowerment of Arab publics.  All of this is playing out in a unified political space, shaped primarily by al-Jazeera and social media and by the demand by Arabs of all stripes to now be heard and felt.  That means that the whole idea of "diffusion" or "contagion" from one country to another is misguided — from the perspective of Arab publics, this is all a single story of challenge and revolt in which all are involved.  Yemenis don’t watch Tunisia as spectators but as participants, and al-Jazeera shows five-way split screens of simultaneous protests in different Arab cities.  I see Saudi Arabia as particularly vulnerable, but nothing would really surprise me — not Syria, not Jordan, not Kuwait.  OK, maybe Qatar.   

At the same time, even as protests continue from Bahrain and Oman to  Yemen and Algeria, there’s a sense of stalemate emerging.   The bloody stalemate in Libya has drained away the carnival atmosphere from the Arab upheavals — something which may not be displeasing to many of the other Arab leaders, despite their distaste for Qaddafi.   Arabs who yearn to be part of the Tahrir Square celebrations may be less excited to be part of a brutal, grinding struggle against entrenched security forces — a lesson which I suspect that Arab leaders are quietly encouraging.  But they may have miscalculated.   If force fails  here, it may be seen to fail everywhere… which is one more reason to make sure that it does in fact fail. 

I’d say that Tunisia and Egypt are going well despite turbulence along the way and great uncertainty about the future. One of my real worries was that reform would stall in these countries as the al-Jazeera cameras moved on to the next Libya.  Al-Jazeera is astonishingly good at "Days of Rage," less well-suited to "Days of Constitutional Committees Considering Amendments to Article 78."  Normal politics might not suit the new age.  But I’m feeling better now than a couple of weeks ago.  The recent changes in the Egyptian government, with Ahmed Shafik and Ahmed Abou el-Ghait and others finally departing, are particularly encouraging and hint at more real shifts than many anticipated (the storming of the state intelligence buildings is something even more astonishing, about which I’ll write at a later date).  I’m uneasy about the proposed Egyptian election schedule — I would prefer to see elections to a caretaker President first, then Constitutional reforms and finally Parliamentary elections — but I’m encouraged by the continuing forward momentum.   Tunisia’s recent announcements also look promising after some weeks of drift.   But those two key cases seem to be doing okay for now.

But then there’s Libya.  From the start, I warned that this should not be viewed through the prism of Tunisia and Egypt but rather as an incipient bloodbath for which international action was urgently needed.   Nor is this Iraq 2002, with the United States pushing hard to find a reason to invade.  I pushed for an aggressive range of American and international responses from the start, and still think that these are needed. But I will admit that the debate which has unfolded about a No-Fly Zone has been instructive. I take very seriously the warnings of military analysts that such a No-Fly Zone could not likely be enforced without bombing and could very well lead rapidly towards a ground intervention which few Arabs or Libyans would accept and which I would likely oppose. And the parade of war hawks braying for forceful action now gives me pause, since their judgement has not generally been good.  I’m actually glad that a serious debate has unfolded which is forcing us all to re-examine our assumptions. 

Beyond the military options, I thought that the UN Security Council resolution was extremely well-done:  fast, strong, unanimous, and carefully targeted at the regime and its supporters. Its a good starting point, and only a starting point.  The stakes here are regional and global:  all the dictators contemplating the use of brutal force to stay in power — and over the coming weeks and months there may be many — will watch carefully to see if Qaddafi’s brutality pays off.   Locking in the isolation and criminality of his regime regardless of what happens on the ground is therefore crucial in and of itself.   So is the consistent and  effective multilateralism, with the UN at center stage rather than pushed aside as an irritant.  

Beyond those three headline cases, the Obama administration is now wisely beginning to think regionally and strategically about where the region is headed.  The upheavals have obviously exposed the myth that the status quo could be sustained indefinitely, and that Arab authoritarian regimes could be counted upon to suppress the preferences of their people indefinitely. The administration has already been using the new urgency to push regimes to begin serious reforms, and should continue to do so.  They are trying to say that the U.S. is not abandoning its friends, but rather that it can only protect them and help them if they take the initiative and begin meaningful reforms immediately. Whether "reform" can satisfy a revolutionary moment remains very much uncertain.  But what is not uncertain is that even where existing regimes survive, they will be far more attentive to the views of these newly empowered publics. 

That has real consequences for U.S. policy towards Israel, towards Iran, and across the region.  We should not fool ourselves into believing the common refrain that these revolts are not about the United States.   Foreign policy is not the driver or the main slogan of the protests, but the foreign policy of these regimes is an organic part of the wider critique of their incompetence and failure.  The al-Jazeera narrative criticizing the Arab order has always equated domestic repression with a foreign policy subordinated to the U.S. and Israel.   The empowered Arab public really does care about Palestinians, even if their leaders didn’t much, and is far less enthusiastic about confronting Iran.   If Obama tries to align the U.S. with these other aspirations but avoids Palestine or other foreign policy issues, he will fall on deaf ears.  But while I’m skeptical of a grand new peace initiative right now in such turbulent conditions, it’s worth pointing out that the current upheavals strongly suggest that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo, which seems so comfortable for many involved, is just as unsustainable as the status quo of Arab authoritarian regimes.   

I expect that Obama will soon want to give a broader, coherent statement of how the U.S. fits within this changing Arab world.   should acknowledge that America has in the past too often limited its dialogue and engagement to like-minded, English-speaking groups and individuals.  Now is the time to listen to and engage with the whole Arab public in all their complexity – because they will play an important role whether we like it or not.  The model and metaphor should be Tahrir Square:  Muslim Brothers, Christians, liberals, conservatives, wired youth, workers, all together.   I’d like to see the administration articulate a new strategic vision for the region, which aligns the United States with the aspirations of this rising, newly empowered Arab public as it actually is… not as we wish it were or fear that it might be. 

And now, to the airport. 

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