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The War in Libya and the "Arab Spring"

A Reason roundtable

Christopher Preble, Jesse Walker, Hussein Ibish, Michael C. Moynihan, Michael Young, Brendan O'Neill, Shaazka Beyerle and Michael Totten
April 7, 2011

As the fighting in Libya shows no signs of abating and protests spread from Egypt and Tunisia to Syria, Yemen, and beyond, what comes next for the ossified dictators and entrenched autocrats of the Arab world? And what, if any, role should the United States play in the uprisings? Reason asks journalists and Middle East experts to assess the past and future of the “Arab Spring."
 

Brendan O’Neill

Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?

I think there are many reasons for the Arab Spring. One of the key reasons is the decommissioning over the past decade of the Palestinian national question. Everyone asks: What impact will the Arab Spring have on the Israel-Palestine issue? I think a more pertinent question is: What impact did the Israel-Palestine "peace process" have on the Arab world? It is impossible to overstate how reliant Arab dictators were on the unresolved Palestinian national question as a way of justifying their authoritarian rule and controlling their own people's aspirations. They effectively offset their own peoples' desires for self-determination through the Palestinian issue, justifying Arab authoritarianism and brute coherence as a necessity for the "grand showdown" over Palestine. It was deeply cynical...and it fell apart following the winding down of Palestinian nationalism. The lack of pro-Palestine placards on the Arab protests has been striking. This time people are fighting for themselves.

Also, there is the sheer corrosion of these regimes. They are simply old and withered and they have a serious crisis of succession. As we can see in Gaddafi's sons, and in Mubarak's too, there is no obvious person for these creeps to hand power to. So the very age of their regimes became a problem. I think this explains both Mubarak's and Ben Ali's obsession with hair dye and Gadaffi's penchant for botox. It's cosmetic surgery as a way of disguising political and physical exhaustion. Also, the speed with which the authoritarian yet flimsy regime in Tunisia fell revealed to the Arab people that their rulers—bereft of their Palestinian cause, lacking legitimacy, old, decrepit, caked in make-up—could be relatively easily pushed aside.

Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?

I think the uprisings will remain in the Arab world for the time being. There are many unique political and historical trends in the Arab world that have nurtured this domino-style spread of thirst for freedom. If it shakes things up in Syria and Jordan, then I think things could get really exciting and unpredictable (but in a good way). Bahrain is a key theatre of conflict too: a tiny country that not many people had heard of, yes, but the Saudis and the Americans are terrified of change there because of the impact it could have in its close neighbor and close political cousin, Saudi Arabia. Hence the Saudis have, with Washington's blessing, desperately sent an anti-uprising gaggle of cops and soldiers into Bahrain.

What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?

No role. The U.S. should back off entirely, as should Britain, France, Italy, Denmark, and all the other nations currently trying to win a few PR political points by hurling missiles at Libya. The intervention of the West in Libya is a disaster. The Arab uprisings are inspiring, but they are spontaneous and incoherent; they lack leadership—and the Libya intervention potentially sends the message that the best way for these peoples to liberate themselves is by agitating for Western intervention on their behalf. However, that would turn liberatory uprisings into international conflicts, robbing the Arab peoples of the democratic initiative and making them mere spectators to their "liberation."

In truth, only a people can liberate itself. Democracy is not some gift that can be delivered from without for people to unwrap and marvel over; that is a spectacular contradiction in terms. Rather it is in the process of fighting for liberty that people become free, and it is in the process of agitating for democratic rights that they create a democracy. Democracy is not a favor, a privilege, given to us by others; it is the living, breathing product of a people’s own yearning for more control over their lives. Get the West out—now.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked in London


Jesse Walker

Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?

The most important factor might simply be the sudden demonstration that it can be done. Each high-profile nonviolent revolt of the last few decades—against the Shah in 1978-79, the Communists in 1989-91, a stolen Ukrainian election in 2004-05—has served as an advertisement for the methods of civil resistance, inspiring dissidents in other countries to try to imitate those successes. Watching oppressive regimes collapse in Tunisia and Egypt has a galvanizing effect on the subjects of other dictatorships: If those superficially powerful states can fall apart so quickly, maybe we can kick out the local bastards too.

Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?

It's spreading rapidly already, and I don't expect that to stop anytime soon. One area to watch is sub-Saharan Africa, where protests have already erupted in Gabon, Uganda, and elsewhere. The roots of those revolts are local, but that hasn't stopped demonstrators from pointing to the North African revolutions as a rallying cry and an inspiration. It will be interesting to see to what degree the wave of people power penetrates the rest of the continent.

What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?

The U.S. should stop subsidizing the region's regimes. Otherwise, it should stay out of the way. Theempirical record is pretty clear: Movements for liberty and self-government are more likely to succeed when they're rooted in civic action from below rather than intervention from outside or above.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.


Michael Young

Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?

I think the root cause is, quite simply, the failure of the modern Arab state, and its systematic repression of liberty, dignity, and opportunity. There are many types of such states, of course, from the Gulf monarchies to nationalistic so-called republics to multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic political orders. Most, but not all, have been mired in mediocrity and stalemate for decades, incapable of meeting the barest aspirations of their increasingly young populations, ruled by despots or despotic families.

At the same time, popular frustration has risen at a moment when it is simply no longer possible, given mass media existing today, to hide from Arabs the world around them. And what they see daily is how debilitated their lives, countries, and prospects have become when compared to what is taking place elsewhere. The latent violence of their regimes, the perpetual intimidation, the fact that most people in Arab societies are getting almost nothing from the one-sided social contracts imposed on them by corrupt leaders, probably had to lead one day to this outbreak.

Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?

When this started in January, I expressed skepticism that this would spread. I was thoroughly wrong, and am delighted I was. Still, I think that we have to take each case separately when predicting outcomes. In some places, such as Bahrain, repression until now appears to have worked; in Egypt, there were limits to what the Mubarak regime was willing to do, or could do, against the protestors. In Tunisia, the Ben Ali regime collapsed fairly quickly, though it appears that the president’s departure was hastened by an attempted coup by his security chief.

Syria may provide the best opportunity for where the wave or dissent will turn next. We may be at the start of a confrontation between the Assad regime and its own people that could become even more violent than it has been. The mood of revolt is spreading—societies are feeling that it may be now or never—but each regime, depending on a host of domestic and foreign factors, has a different latitude to crush discontent.  

What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?

I think the U.S. is realizing that the old rules of Pax Americana in the Middle East are changing. It will be very difficult to go back to a time when the American presence in the region rested on the pillars of immutable Arab despotisms friendly to the United States, cheap oil, and Arab governments unwilling to seriously challenge Israel. That’s not to say that these factors will collapse, but that the predictability of the old American order, the serene sense that the Arab world would simply not change and open up, because culturally it could not do so, has been deeply shaken.

We still have to see where these upheavals lead, but the U.S. would be making a terrible mistake in assuming it can rebuild what it once had. At this point, its best bet is to help ensure that democracy, the rule of law, and pluralism in general, are consolidated in those Arab countries that have overthrown their leaders, or are trying to do so. America is about democracy and pluralism, and that gives it a tremendous capacity to reinvent its role in the Middle East if it can grasp this moment.

But can it? Does it want to? Open societies are generally healthy societies, and this will mean a lot for American security down the road as it examines ways to contain terrorism. Yet this is not a region that Barack Obama wants to be a prisoner of, even as he is already its prisoner. This reluctance may well be preventing him from developing any real vision allowing the U.S. to exploit the opportunities that the Arab revolts are providing, and that may reinvigorate its regional role.

Michael Young is opinion page editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle.


Christopher A. Preble

Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?

The semi-short answer is that all illiberal governments are based on a shaky foundation, lacking popular support and unresponsive to changing political circumstances. Their ability to retain power depends upon a combination of sticks (intimidation, violence, incarceration of regime opponents) and carrots (economic opportunity, a decent standard of living, or simply co-opting some number of people through bribes). When the latter becomes shaky, as when food prices spike, or unemployment rises, or people rebel against corruption and cronyism (all factors in the recent protests) the regimes can resort to more violence, or make concessions. The different ways that the protests across the Middle East/North Africa region have played out reveals the different policies adopted in response to them. In that sense, I think that some of these protests will ultimately succeed in liberalizing some countries in a region where people have been consistently denied fundamental rights and liberties. But there will also be setbacks, as a few regimes will likely succeed in stifling domestic dissent, and therefore postpone the day of reckoning for at least a while longer.

Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?

It already has spread quite dramatically from what was considered to be, at the time, a fairly isolated protest in Tunisia. In addition to the countries mentioned above, the impulse to challenge the existing order clearly exists in Iran, Bahrain, and Jordan, or really any country where the regime's lacks the support of a considerable portion of its public, or even—as in a country like Iraq or Lebanon—where a vocal minority is systematically disenfranchised. Whether these impulses manifest themselves into public protests, or even open revolt, depends on the strength of the protest movements, and the regime's response to them.

What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?

Here, as with most things, we need to draw a distinction between the U.S. government and the United States. If Washington, the White House or Congress, the U.S. military, or any other U.S. government agency, is seen as playing a very public role, the regime and its supporters can too easily claim that Uncle Sam's grubby fingerprints all over the protest movement, deflecting attention away from the root causes of public unrest, and likely causing some people to rally to the embattled regime. In a few cases, the U.S. government might be able to apply pressure on the regime through back channels, but there is always a chance that these efforts can backfire, especially if they become public. So the Obama administration needs to tread carefully, as they appear to have done successfully in Egypt. In the case of Libya, however, President Obama and other senior advisers loudly called for Gaddafi's ouster and openly backed the rebels. Now the United States is a party to a civil war. No one knows the end game. In contrast, the response to private citizens and NGOs doing the slow, patient, and non-violent work of democracy promotion is likely to have a more lasting impact. Liberty should spread organically, from the bottom up, not at the barrel of foreign guns.

Christopher A. Preble is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.


Michael J. Totten

Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?

The Middle East has been seething with discontent against its rulers for a very long time. Though dictatorships always have a base of support among those who benefit from the system and from those who fear the alternative, every autocratic regime in the region without exception is unpopular. The list of complaints varies somewhat from place to place, but a hatred of oppression, corruption, and economic stagnation seem to be common denominators.

In the Arab countries, there are at least two distinct types of people taking to the streets at the same time—democrats and Islamists. (Islamists aren’t really part of Iran’s Green Movement as they are already in power in Tehran.) The democrats want a more open and less repressive government while the Islamists yearn for a faith-based authoritarian regime which they believe will somehow work better than the failed secular states already in place.

It’s impossible to say in advance which of these two factions will win out over the other in post-revolutionary struggles for power. Maybe neither faction will come out on top. Egypt, for instance, could remain in the hands of the military, frustrating liberal reformists and Islamists alike. My guess is that the idealists who are swooning right now will be disappointed, and that the gloomiest pessimists who expect every revolution to turn out like Iran’s did in 1979 will be relieved. That’s just a gut feeling, though. The Middle East is too weird for easy predictions.

All this really did start in Tunisia, which, by the way, has the best chance of success as the country’s culture was semi-democratic to begin with even as the system itself was not. The overthrow of Ben Ali proved that internally-driven regime-change was possible, and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt proved that internally-driven regime change was not only possible but likely to succeed if enough people pushed hard enough at the same time.

Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?

No country is immune at this point. A while back I thought the Libyan and Syrian regimes would emerge more or less unscathed because they are so much more ruthlessly repressive than the others, but if Qaddafi isn’t safe, no one is safe. That doesn’t mean Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or Iran’s Ali Khamenei will actually fall, but it does mean they could face the biggest internal challenges they’ve ever seen as mass uprisings are producing results in one country after another.

What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?

Americans should side with the region’s liberals and democrats against entrenched autocrats and radical Islamist revolutionaries alike, but it’s not clear that we can actually do much in most of these places. Obviously we can’t impose a no-fly zone over every police state, nor would that be a good idea if we could. Throwing our moral support behind democratic movements is as much as we’ll be able to manage most of the time.

Some of the Middle East’s dictators are our allies, so that of course complicates things. Bahrain, for instance, hosts the U.S. fifth fleet, and Iran thinks it could replace our fleet with their own in the event of regime-change. The Jordanian government has a real peace treaty with Israel. It’s not in our interests to see those governments fall. We have leverage in both places, though, that we don’t have in Libya, Syria, or Iran. We can and should push friendly dictators toward liberalization and reform, and we absolutely should not tolerate the slaughter of unarmed demonstrators. If our allies insist upon acting like thugs we should cut them loose, and we almost certainly will even if they are otherwise useful. That’s what Barack Obama did with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and that’s what George W. Bush did with Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan after the infamous Andijan massacre in 2005.

We need to be on the side of democrats everywhere, or at the very least not hostile to them, even where they’re in the minority and too weak to prevail. And we should forget about even trying to appease bigoted maniacs like Egypt’s terrorist-supporting cleric Yusuf Qaradawi because he and his ilk are going to hate us no matter what.

Michael J. Totten is an independent foreign correspondent and foreign policy analyst and author of The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War against Israel.


Shaazka Beyerle

Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?

In listening to what people in the Middle East say, there is not a single root cause but a constellation of related grievances that people shared—involving poverty, endemic corruption, a rotting system, few opportunities for youth, growing anger over the denial of basic freedom, and an overall sense of being robbed of human dignity—and as importantly, the regimes were seen as the causes or sources of them.

Though largely ignored or dismissed in policy circles, there has been ongoing citizen dissent in the Middle East during the previous decade. Mary King, the "mother" of modern nonviolent scholarship, writes, "Tunisia and Egypt’s upheavals were years in the making, as are all national nonviolent revolutions that I’ve studied."

In Egypt, the April 6, 2008, general strike (Facebook Revolution) was organized by youth who formed the April 6 movement. The anti-corruption campaign, Shayfeen.com (meaning "we see you"), spawned the Egyptians Against Corruption movement. As well, the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights had been actively studying civil resistance and engaging in nonviolent actions well before 2011. It's playing an important role in the country's nonviolent uprising, which is experiencing severe repression with the help of Saudi forces, while the Western reaction, including the U.S., has been reserved. In May 2006, a group of young men and women, communicating through text messages, launched the “Orange Movement” against political corruption in Kuwait. Their nonviolent tactics, including leafleting the parliament, enlisted public support and participation, resulted in early parliamentary elections in which legislation to change electoral districts (to prevent corruption) became a major campaign issue and was later adopted.

The chances for success are greater through civil resistance rather than violent struggle. Groundbreaking research by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth found that "from 1900 to 2006, 35 percent to 40 percent of authoritarian regimes that faced major nonviolent uprisings had become democracies five years after the campaign ended, even if the campaigns failed to cause immediate regime change. For the nonviolent campaigns that succeeded, the figure increases to well over 50 percent...Nonviolent resistance is about finding and exploiting points of leverage in one’s own society. Every dictatorship has vulnerabilities, and every society can find them."

Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?

Predictions are a game of sorts. Rather than predict, it's possible to ascertain where the underlying potential exists by recognizing the building blocks of civil resistance, such as: cooperation and new alliances at the grass-roots; ongoing small-scale or even low-risk, larger scale expressions of citizen dissent (both on the ground and digitally); common grievances among citizens; and a shared awareness of everyday concerns that are linked to the regime's impunity, denial of freedoms, corruption, mismanagement, and role in economic and social injustice. One can also look below the surface. Is the dissent spontaneous and limited to high-risk street demonstrations or is there evidence of organization among people and groups? Peter Ackerman, a scholar of nonviolent movements for over 30 years, has distilled three principles for success: nonviolent discipline, unity of people and goals, and strategic planning. I'd add a fourth factor, particularly if a regime is repressive and violent—anticipating crackdowns, creating an array of nonviolent tactics (e.g. dilemma actions and low-risk mass actions that are more difficult to repress), and developing strategies to make repression backfire by using it to delegitimize the oppressors, transform public and international outrage into active support for the movement, and shift the loyalties of those within the regime who don't approve of such harsh measures against peaceful citizens.

There is a danger in superficial copycat actions. While I don't have enough information, this may be the case in the rash of demonstrations taking place from Sudan to Syria. Gene Sharp, the pioneering nonviolent theorist and scholar, commented recently about Burma, which also applies to other countries in the Middle East in which citizens are rising up. He said "they could organize very powerful and brave demonstrations in Rangoon and elsewhere, but they did not plan a grand struggle. If you don't plan, if you don't have a bigger strategy, you're not going to win."

What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?

People power movements are home-grown and bottom-up. The international community—nations, UN, other mulilateral bodies, media, NGOs, global citizens—cannot foster or determine the success of civil resistance. But it can offer solidarity and affirmation of what people are doing; expedite knowledge-sharing about the dynamics and practice of civil resistance; expose crackdowns; condemn repression; enable access to information and communication technologies; disrupt regimes by tracing and freezing assets, denying visas, and foregoing VIP treatment to regime officials; communicating with regime insiders whose loyalties are starting to wane; holding global boycotts where possible; encouraging defections; etc. For example, a few weeks ago, before external involvement in Libya began, Barry Gan at St. Bonaventure University started an intesting exchange amongst some of us in the people power realm. He said the U.S. or other international actors could offer $100,000 to each Libyan pilot who defects with his aircraft. As Libya has about 200 fighter aircrafts, the total cost, if all pilots were to defect, would be $20,000,000, which is far less expensive than any military operation. The underlying dynamic of his idea goes to the heart of civil resistance, namely, disrupting the status quo and capacity of rulers to control and repress; undermining the loyalty of those carrying out regime orders (which keep the system running smoothly), and disobedience. It was Gandhi who said, "Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled."

This question actually touches on the role of the international community, not only the U.S. Other countries have leverage with various regimes, for example, Turkey with Syria and Libya. The international media can get over its fixation about what the autocrats say, and complement such coverage with comparable attention to what activists and nonviolent leaders say. With few exceptions (e.g., Al Jazeera), where were the interviews with the leaders of the April 6 movement? I may have missed it, but I've not seen one interview with any of the youth leaders from Bahrain, such as Mohammed Al-Maskati. There could be more in-depth reporting and analysis on the full extent of nonviolent actions going on throughout a particular country, as well as emerging alliances, the involvement of ordinary citizens, regime defections, and disobedience of government orders, for example, to stay indoors under curfew, to repress, to deny medical care to the injured, to show up for work in government offices, to report regime propaganda, etc.

Shaazka Beyerle is an international educator, writer, and researcher on people power.


Hussein Ibish

Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?

These uprisings have been brewing in the Arab world for many decades. Almost everyone who carefully observed the region knew that this was going to happen at some point, but nobody knew how or when it would begin. Some narratives attribute the origins to the self-immolation of an underemployed Tunisian fruit seller who was being harassed by the authorities, or the beating death of an ordinary Egyptian in Alexandria at the hands of the police, both of whom became emblems of abuses by autocratic, unaccountable governments and their oppressive internal security forces. Other narratives emphasize social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Honestly, I think the causes for the uprisings are overdetermined and cannot be put down to either specific events or technological developments. For causes that may be analyzable many years from now with hindsight, there was clearly a critical mass that built at the very end of 2010 and has carried through this year with a vengeance.

Of course there are common root causes to most of these revolts: a demand for accountability from leadership; more social and political inclusivity; less corruption and nepotism and arbitrary misadministration by dysfunctional bureaucracies; extreme and growing social and economic inequality; the lack of political freedom; and an overall feeling that the Arab world is stagnating as the rest of the globe marches forward beyond modernity and even postmodernity towards a new and exciting era. I think many Arabs feel they are being left behind, not because they lack the skills or education, but because the governmental, social, and economic systems they lived under prevent them from participating in these global developments. The sense of being treated as a subject rather than a citizen by an unaccountable government, almost always corrupt and very frequently kleptocratic in nature, the lack of any serious space for political and social input through civil society or fundamental democratic processes; and the chronic underemployment of well-educated youth meant that there are a set of grievances that cut right across Arab states that have very different individual characteristics. Of course each society differs in many ways, and there are at least three Gulf states—Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait—that have so much money and such small populations that they are probably immune to major unrest.

What's most fascinating about the Arab uprisings is that they have not been ideologically Islamist in character, although the Islamists are clearly hoping to benefit from early elections and the opening of political space. It wasn't religious identity at all that brought millions of Arabs into the streets demanding their rights and the overthrow of long-standing dictators. It was instead qualities that had been considered moribund if not dead in the Arab world by many observers, both Western and Arab: patriotism, national consciousness, and a sense of fellow feeling based on national and ethnic identity. The "Arab Spring" has produced a fascinating resurgence of a kind of Arab nationalism, or at least Arab ethnic consciousness as opposed to Muslim religious identity consciousness, but it's very different than the Arab nationalism of the past that quixotically sought to unite disparate Arab states. Instead, the Arab movements are inspiring each other, such that in Tunisia Islamic slogans were ejected in favor of patriotic ones, and the Tunisian flag predominated. In Egypt, the same thing happened, with Muslims and Christians, the devout and the skeptical, the upper middle class and the working poor, all uniting as Egyptians, waving Egyptian flags and symbols, but also Tunisian ones. In Libya and Yemen, national flags have been important but Tunisian and Egyptian flags have also been very present. In other words, people are proud to be Arabs again: They are proud of themselves, and they are proud of each other. They're sick of being subjects to lifelong dictators and their sons, and resentful of monarchies that resist constitutionalism and parliamentary reform.

So clearly there are root causes that are common, and rather vague, often nonideological, goals that are common as well. But of course there are differences too. Because of their sectarian and ethnic heterogeneity, Iraq and Lebanon have their own dynamics and probably won't be part of this wave of uprisings, even though a very interesting, but somewhat unrelated, movement is beginning in Lebanon. Bahrain has become almost entirely a sectarian conflict, which might have been avoidable, but due to the gross miscalculations of the government and their Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, and their paranoia about Iranian intentions towards the island kingdom (Iran has a full territorial claim on Bahrain that it has never formally renounced), it has already become virtually a proxy conflict between all the Sunni Arabs of the Gulf and the Shiites of the region, unfortunately led by Iran. In both Libya and Yemen, there is the threat of national disintegration and, potentially, failed-state status. So in all cases, there are unique challenges. But, as I say, there are many common grievances and ambitions that Arabs throughout the region clearly share and that are motivating the “Arab Spring.”

Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?

As I say, I think there are only three Arab states that are almost certainly immune to revolutionary uprisings: Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait. All three have small indigenous populations, very large amounts of money to keep people happy, no hesitation in using repression against dissidents (so you've got lots and lots of carrots but a few sharp sticks too), and huge numbers of migrant workers from the West, the Arab world, and other developing states who do not have a long-term stake in the future of those societies and are unlikely to risk all for social reform in places they live in only to make money. It's true that there are Shiite minorities in the UAE and, especially, Kuwait that can prove difficult at times, and are certainly making a fuss about the intervention in Bahrain, but this is almost certainly manageable. Kuwait also has an ongoing problem of undocumented Bedouins who have been protesting for their rights for many decades. But again, this isn't really part of the generalized Arab uprising and has a fairly easy solution: Normalize their status. Bahrain is a unique case also because it has a strong Shiite majority and an uprising that has become almost entirely sectarian. It's seen as a flashpoint and redline for the other Sunni-ruled Gulf Cooperation Council members, especially Saudi Arabia, and as a proxy battlefield with Iran.

But other than the three small and hyper-rich Gulf states I mentioned above, I think all Arab countries are potentially liable to see popular unrest and antigovernment demonstrations. Sudan is still shell-shocked from the loss of the South, but it could spread there too. There are signs in Mauritania. It's already well underway in Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia too is very brittle, with a large and oppressed and disenfranchised Shiite minority in the oil-rich eastern provinces, dormant but potentially resurgent tension between Nejdi and Hijazi identity, large numbers of poor and neglected people in rural provinces, and it's also very susceptible to negative influences coming from a disintegrating Yemen and sectarian tensions emanating out of Bahrain. In some countries popular monarchs such as the kings of Jordan and Morocco, and some Gulf states as well, might be able to draw a distinction between themselves on the one hand and the governments on the other hand and proceed with reform on that basis.

This is even possible in Syria where Bashar al-Assad has somehow managed to create a very different reputation for himself personally to the deeply unpopular regime that he heads. How long that can be sustained or what he can do with it is very much open to question, and he already missed his first big opportunity in his recent speech in which he did not lift the draconian emergency law (presumably because either the inner circle around him wouldn't let him do that, or he and all the others fear that it would open the floodgates to a generalized uprising). Syria is especially complicated because it is ruled largely by an Alawite sectarian minority and the potential for bloody vengeance against that community in the case of the fall of the regime is a serious concern. In addition, Syrians have had a very good look at what happened in Iraq (there are huge numbers of Iraqi refugees in Syria at the moment) and would not want to go through a similar period of social disintegration, and the Syrian government has a good deal of experience managing difficult political waters through its hegemonic efforts in Lebanon. So in my view while Syria is certainly vulnerable to the same kind of uprisings we've seen elsewhere, and that have begun in that country already, it may well be one of the last dominoes to fall for these reasons, and also because I don't doubt the willingness of the Syrian army to use massive force at an early stage.

The outcome of all of this is most likely to be shaped by what happens in Egypt, which always has been and remains the bellwether for most of the Arab world. If the Egyptians can succeed in creating an inchoate and fledgling but pluralistic, inclusive democratic system that also protects minority rights, then we probably are seeing the beginnings of an Arab Spring comparable to the democratic transformations in Latin America and Eastern Europe in recent decades.

What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?

I think the United States has to be extremely careful in how it deals with the situation. First of all, it has to seize every opportunity to make it clear to the Arab peoples that we are not the guarantors of an unacceptable status quo—that we are not so addicted to oil supplies, regional stability, our own hegemony, and Israel's security that we would regard any dramatic or revolutionary change in the Arab world as inherently undesirable. I think the Obama administration finally got it right in Tunisia and Egypt, and although they waited too long to participate in creating a no-fly zone in Libya, that action has helped to communicate the right message to the Arab world. If the United States had acted early, in the immediate aftermath of Col. Qaddafi's first televised speech after the revolt began, in which he claimed the uprising was a joint Al Qaeda-American plot and threatened to cleanse Libya “house by house” among other bloodcurdling threats, an intervention would have been seen by almost everyone in the Arab world except for the most extreme left-nationalists and radical Islamists as a genuine rescue operation unconnected to self-serving American interests. The fact that we waited several weeks before joining a large coalition probably helped diplomatically in terms of securing Arab League support, a rock-solid UN Security Council resolution, a wide coalition including significant air power from Qatar and the UAE, and other important diplomatic achievements, but I think it also cost a great deal politically and strategically in terms of how this intervention plays out in Libya itself and, even more importantly, is viewed by the majority of Arab public opinion. I think now it looks much more like what it has become, an intervention in a civil war, and it looks much more calculated, self-serving, and reluctant, and hence is much more vulnerable to the specious charge of imperialism and neocolonialism.

I like the way President Obama in his speech on the Libyan intervention framed his criteria (he did not lay out a fatuous “doctrine” as other less sophisticated presidents have tried to do) for international action. He said that when our security is directly threatened, we will act without hesitation, but that even when it is not directly threatened, if there is a convergence between our interests and our values, then we will act. Libya is a perfect case in point, as there was every reason to suspect that as the Qaddafi forces were bearing down on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, a major massacre was a distinct possibility based entirely on his own rhetoric and threats, not to mention his conduct. This is where it becomes a matter of values. But at the same time, the United States, the international community, and the Arab world had to consider the prospect of a decisive victory by a bloodied, enraged, embittered and still oil-rich Qaddafi stalking the region and the world with a new revenge agenda that undoubtedly goes far beyond Libya and probably beyond the Middle East. In other words, from the point of view of our interests, that outcome was unacceptable. Hence there was a perfect confluence between our values and our interests, and Obama was absolutely right to act, although I wish he had done so earlier when it would have had a much more profound political and cultural impact in the Arab world, and also probably enhanced our ability to shape the outcome of what is ultimately going to be decided by Libyans with some external support.

Obviously there are other instances where our values and interests don't intersect in the same way. Bahrain is a good example, although the violence inflicted there pales in comparison to what Qaddafi was doing in Libya. However, the overthrow of the royal family in Manama is not acceptable to the United States or its GCC allies because the Fifth Fleet is based there and it is therefore a vital military ally, because of its strategic location, and because of Iran's thinly disguised designs on the island. Therefore, intervention in Bahrain will be left to the GCC based on the treaty obligations that allow for the kind of intervention those countries have already undertaken. If it were simply a matter of values, we would have already been intervening in Côte d'Ivoire and Congo. If it were simply a matter of interests, we would have supported the crackdown in Bahrain and not criticized the GCC intervention. There is a delicate interplay at work here between values and interests, understanding that when American security is directly threatened, all bets are off.

But I think that rather than establishing any kind of fatuous “doctrine,” what Obama has done is lay out a series of criteria that can help guide when intervention is useful and when it isn't. I've been a supporter of the no-fly zone almost from the earliest stage, and I strongly agree with the case he made for that intervention, although he put much more emphasis on the humanitarian aspects (intelligently appealing to people's consciences and emotions) and less emphasis on a Qaddafi victory as a politically unacceptable outcome. And he did explain the need to get on the right side of history in terms of the aspirations of the "Arab Spring" when we can do so without compromising our core interests, as we could in this case. It's really impossible to argue, as some on the far left are desperately trying to do, that this is a neocolonial or imperial intervention designed to split Libya into pieces so that it will be easier to control, and seize the oil wealth of that country. This is absurd! The West had no problem dealing with Qaddafi until the uprising began and he was happily selling all his oil at very reasonable prices to the global marketplace. In fact, both the uprising and the no-fly zone intervention, which has prolonged the war by preventing what seemed as if it might have been an imminent and decisive Qaddafi victory, have driven the price of oil up even further, directly harming the U.S. economy and the economies of most of our allies as well. I'm not saying we are acting altruistically. States don't do that. But I'm saying that the real calculus bears no resemblance to the faux-Marxist, pseudo-materialist gobbledygook you get out of the knee-jerk, tin can “antiwar” left. The professor and blogger Juan Cole has offered one of the most powerful rebuttals to this nonsense and I urge everyone to read his "open letter to the left."

When it comes to our allies, obviously we need to push for serious reforms that can answer the legitimate grievances of the Arab peoples before chaos ensues in countries in which we have a major stake. And I think if the Egyptian transition proves effective in moving towards real democracy, that will set the stage for the process to spread in a more orderly, serious manner through much of the Arab world, with the exception of the Gulf, Lebanon, and Iraq, which will require their own solutions because they really are very different in many ways. What I've been arguing recently is that most Arabs, including most Islamists, have understood that government legitimacy must be based on elections and the consent of the governed through voting. That debate, it seems to me, is resolved in Arab political culture with the exception of a few ruling and royal families and the most extreme Islamists like Al Qaeda who find voting “un-Islamic.” What I think we ought to focus on, as well as urging orderly reforms and transitions based on the principles of accountability, inclusivity, rule of law, and pluralism, is the flipside of democracy: the limitations of government power. To put it in American terms, I think the Arabs get Jefferson: Government legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed. But I think too few Arabs really get Madison: that democracy depends on a healthy balance between the right of the majority to rule within limits set by the inviolable rights of minorities, individual citizens, and women. In other words, one of the great dangers facing the "Arab Spring," assuming it really does move in the direction of functional parliamentary democracies, is the emergence of tyrannous majorities, whether Islamist or otherwise.

It's important for the United States to back off and let the Arabs work things out for themselves with as little interference as possible, but at the same time we really should press our allies to begin the reform process in earnest in order to forestall chaos and civil conflict. More broadly, I think government agencies, and even more importantly nongovernmental organizations, especially those that are already engaged in Middle East research and policy work, Arab-American and Muslim organizations, think tanks, and other such bodies should begin to focus very heavily on the other side of the democratic coin: the limitations of government and majority powers. Arabs need a solid dose of Madisonian insights to balance their present infatuation with Jeffersonian ideals if they are to create well-functioning democracies that allow for majority rule, even by popularly, freely, and fairly elected Islamists (assuming they are peaceful, unarmed, and playing within the rules), that do not threaten the rights of individuals, minorities, and women.

This means empowering the moderates in the Arab world who understand this, and helping to create new orders in which the obviously totalitarian impulses of Islamist parties are restrained by constitutions that do not allow them to act on such impulses even if they become serious political players through elections. It means engaging heavily with practitioners on the ground who have been working towards Arab reform before the uprising in Tunisia suddenly erupted. It means spending money to help ensure that this process goes in that direction rather than the three great pitfalls facing the “Arab Spring”: the rise of new military dictatorships, as could happen in Tunisia and Egypt, that are currently undergoing “transitional periods” under military leadership; the emergence of fragmented or failed states as may be developing in Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere; and the potential rise of tyrannous majorities in unrestrained parliamentary democracies which lack sufficient protections for the rights of individuals, minorities, and women. I think this is an area the United States as a society, and not just the government but even more civil society organizations and NGOs, can be of enormous help. And I think we should start working on that right away, as closely as possible with the practitioners on the ground in all of these societies who understand this and are trying to both explain it to the general public and to the elite, and work towards creating systems that reflect these understandings.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and executive director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership.


Michael C. Moynihan

Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?

The common root cause is rather simpler than the various outcomes: The Arab world is dotted by tyrannies, some more sinister than others, but all expert in suppressing non-regime voices and repressing dissident political parties. The question of why is, of course, more complicated—each regime has created very different sets of grievances—but is still rooted in the rejection of human rights and democratic pluralism. It is important to belabor the obvious: What is happening in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria is a cascade of indigenous revolts—something that our previous president hoped would happen as a result of the invasion of Iraq. Instead, the inspiration came from the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?

We can start with the Green Revolution in Iran (or the 2005 Cedar Revolution which, while greatly wounded in the years since, resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon) and continue through all those countries mentioned above. In other words, it has spread and, seeing the result in Egypt and the war in Libya, I fear that the response from thugs like Bashar Assad will be increasingly heavy handed—the only language in which these regimes are conversant. And there is, of course, a legitimate concern that these uprisings will merely transfer power from one bad actor—Qaddafi to ex-members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group; Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood—to another. As the Bush administration discovered, to its apparent alarm, Democratic elections in Gaza brought the Palestinians the psychopathic leadership of Hamas.

What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?

Not much, other than throwing moral support behind those seeking a peaceful transition to democracy; those who demand that bloggers, activists, and independent journalists not rot in various Arab versions of the Lubyanka; the brave young people who, in the face of the storm troopers from the basij andmukhabarat take to the streets demanding liberty and personal freedom. But the reality, as the air strikes in Libya show, is rather different. And while I understand the impulse of Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton, both of whom I suspect believed that intervention was necessary to stop a massacre in Benghazi, this entire operation seems poorly planned and ill-considered. If averting a massacre in Benghazi was the administration’s endgame, that goal has been achieved. If the endgame requires, despite Obama’s flimsy denials, chopping the head off of the Qaddafi snake, it would be nice if the American people were told what comes next in Libya, when a power vacuum is created by the regime’s ouster. I seem to recall, in the not too distant past, Washington toppling a dictator with impressive speed and…well, you know the rest.

Michael C. Moynihan is senior edition of Reason magazine. This first appeared at Reason.com.


Michael Young is Contributing Editor, Reason magazine

Jesse Walker is Senior Editor

Michael C. Moynihan is Senior Editor, Reason Magazine


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