US Foreign Policy

Beyond Cairo: Prospects for change in the Middle East

in Program

This article was first published in The Hill on February 16, 2011.

After weeks of excitement and surprise, it is time to try to make meaning out of the momentous events in Tunisia and Egypt. 

Are we on the brink of a democratic tsunami across the region? Or will we discover that Tunisia and Egypt were special cases, and street violence in Yemen, Jordan, Iran and elsewhere will not lead to similar outcomes? What is the right balance between seeing each country’s unique history and characteristics, while identifying structural similarities and ways in which would-be democrats and dissidents in one place are inspired by other cases?

Let’s acknowledge that there are multiple factors driving events in the region. Bumper sticker interpretations – it’s all angry young men in search of jobs and dignity, or it’s a grand opportunity for non-democratic Islamist forces to exploit, or the military and vested interests will still prevail over the protesters – are to be avoided. Even if they contain a germ of truth, the complicated political, economic and cultural factors at play in the region defy simple slogans. To understand what these two cases might tell us about future trends in the region, we’ll be better served by examining relevant lessons from the past and assessing the conditions that drove political change in Egypt and Tunisia.

First, it is not yet clear whether either of the two great revolts of 2010/2011 are revolutions, or even transitions to democracy. The protesters of Tunis and Tahrir Square are not in power; their roles in shaping future governments are not yet determined. These revolts, as in Egypt in 1952, Iraq in 1958, or Syria in 1963, could still be squelched by military leaders who initially said the right things about political participation, but gradually consolidated their own power and established authoritarian regimes. 

Iran’s revolution in 1978 saw a different but no less disturbing pattern, where the revolutionary fever of intellectuals and secular liberals facilitated the rise of more dogmatic forces that eventually seized control of the Islamic Republic. Transitions are rarely linear or predictable, and they often end not in democracy but in some new form of non-democratic politics. The regional influence of Egypt and Tunisia among Arab publics will be heavily dependent on whether they move smoothly and quickly in democratic directions.

Second, while events in Egypt and Tunisia clearly grew out of a potent combination of socio-economic pressures and political grievances, what these factors imply about the fate of other Arab regimes is highly uncertain. Both Tunisia and Egypt are considered middle-income countries. Both have a sizeable middle class. Both have benefitted from recent periods of economic growth. In both cases, however, improvements in economic performance went hand-in-hand with increased inequality, corruption, and growing anger at governments seen as more concerned with their own survival–and with installing family members in positions of power–than the needs of their citizens. In both cases, high levels of youth unemployment fueled a corrosive sense of alienation among Internet savvy college graduates. These sentiments were reinforced everyday by the humiliations citizens experienced at the hands of omnipresent security agencies.

In Egypt and Tunisia, these conditions were sufficient to transform youth protests into mass movements that overturned entrenched authoritarian regimes. Should we anticipate similar outcomes in other Arab countries, many of which have socio-economic and political profiles similar to Tunisia and Egypt? Are the protests we’ve seen in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria harbingers of regime collapse in those cases, as well? While such outcomes cannot be entirely ruled out, a deeper look at the conditions that contributed to success in Egypt and Tunisia suggest that we are not on the cusp of a region-wide wave of regime transition.

In recent demonstrations in Algeria, for instance, protesters were outnumbered by security forces that quickly suppressed calls for change. In Yemen, protests have largely failed to achieve significant scale. In Jordan, protests have tended to focus on economic grievances, and have remained relatively small. In Syria, a “day of rage” planned on Facebook for February 5 fizzled entirely: more Syrians demonstrated in Brussels than in Damascus. These countries share many of the same socio-economic and political grievances that sparked mass movements in Egypt and Tunisia. Why have similar movements not emerged in these cases?

What these examples make clear is that political grievances and socio-economic pressures cannot, on their own, explain the success of mass movements in Tunisia and Egypt. What was also needed to translate discontent into popular mobilization was a set of “enabling conditions.” As it turns out, however, these conditions are not widely distributed in the Arab world. And in their absence, it will be difficult for discontent to serve as the basis for large-scale collective action.

Two enabling conditions stand out from the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences. First, both Egypt and Tunisia are relatively homogenous societies. Egypt is affected by sectarian tensions between the large Muslim majority and a small Coptic minority, but that pales in comparison to sectarian, tribal or communitarian cleavages that exist in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan and Bahrain. 

In homogenous societies, it becomes possible for a critical mass of citizens to develop a shared commitment to an alternative political future. Where groups in society are focused on what divides them, and fear that democracy might bring their enemies to power, such a shared vision is very hard to achieve.

Second, both Egypt and Tunisia possessed militaries that presented themselves as defenders of the nation, not as protectors of the regime. Although Egypt’s regime had been run by former officers since 1952 and senior officers have long dominated positions of power, the military was, nonetheless, able to separate its responsibilities as a national institution from its political commitment to the survival of Hosni Mubarak. The same cannot be said of other militaries in the region. 

In Algeria, the survival of the military and the regime are virtually inseparable, and the regime has often demonstrated its willingness to resort to violence to preserve its hold on power. In Syria, the military is dominated by carefully selected regime loyalists and there, too, the regime has never shied away from using armed force against its own citizens. In Yemen, a militarized authoritarian regime sits on top of a highly fragmented society, and is already deeply enmeshed in two insurgencies, one led by Houthi rebels in the North, the other by increasingly militant secessionist movements in the South. In Jordan, the divide between Palestinian-Jordanians and East Bankers who dominate in the military–an army which battled Palestinian forces in 1970–is a similar constraint on the possibility of the military “defecting” from the ruling coalition.

Given the absence of the enabling conditions in these countries that contributed to the successful mobilization of mass movements in Egypt and Tunisia, we should not expect the presence of social and economic grievances alone to generate the kind of popular uprisings we’ve seen in Cairo and Tunis. Moreover, the Arab world’s remaining authoritarian rulers have not stood idly by while neighboring regimes toppled. Every single one has taken some kind of measures to mitigate economic grievances and address immediate targets of political anger. Yemen’s president has promised to step down at the end of his current term. The King of Jordan dissolved his government. In Bahrain and Kuwait, oil resources are being lavished on citizens to offset immediate economic pressures. Even in Syria the regime has made some cosmetic changes, expanding access to social media. 

Change in these remaining autocracies is not impossible, but our analysis suggests that until deep social barriers to collective action are overcome, until it becomes possible to forge a shared collective sense of an alternative political future, and until militaries in these countries can be distanced from the regimes to which they remain loyal, further cases of authoritarian breakdown in the Arab world will remain out of reach.

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