The Ripon Forum

Volume 45, No. 2

Spring 2011 Issue

Beyond the Arab Spring

By on October 20, 2014

by LORNE CRANER

Since the mid-1970s, Middle East experts have cited a variety of reasons as to why the Arab world would not change.

Some pointed to the belief that Islam was incompatible with democracy. Others noted the fact that Arabs generally favored strongmen as leaders. Still others pointed to the notion that the aftermath of the Iraq war had discredited the idea of democracy.

At most, it was assumed that if change did occur in the region, it would progress glacially, as it had for decades, and that whatever political openings would be generational. This assumption that developments would continue in a linear fashion generally led U.S. analysts to maintain contact primarily with individuals within official circles.

Consequently, when change did come this past spring with uprisings throughout the Arab world, Washington policymakers were left scrambling to identify and try to build relations with political and civil society figures outside of official circles – figures who were not only little known to them, but who were less than receptive to their new American friends as a result.

When change did come this past spring with uprisings throughout the Arab world, Washington policymakers were left scrambling…

Unfortunately, such linear thinking — with virtually no consideration of sudden change — continues among analysts of individual countries in other regions of the world.

Consider the following:

In Cuba, where the Castro’s have been in power for longer than many experts have been alive, the principal discussion amongst such analysts is how the United States should lift its embargo to take advantage of the existing market, not whether and how the island’s economic and political system might change for the better.

In China, Beijing’s economic policies have produced such astounding growth that most scholarly discussions center on when the country’s gross domestic product will surpass America’s. Rarely does one hear discussions of whether political and societal strains will result in a more open society.

In Iran, discussions among most analysts focus on our willingness to reach a modus vivendi with the current regime on its nuclear program. Despite the Green Revolution, there is little analysis of what a different government would mean on these issues.

And in Uganda, the government is lauded for its progress on AIDs and regional cooperation. Less consideration is given of societal resentments over events such as the disputed February election.

As was the case in the Middle East, dramatic change in these and other authoritarian countries is unthinkable among American and other analysts. Interestingly though, the rulers of these and other authoritarian countries appear to believe their tenure is more fragile, particularly since the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Havana is exiling scores of dissidents jailed some years ago, and making elimination of other nations’ democracy assistance programs a prime target of its foreign policy.

Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security dramatically intensified a three year old crackdown on dissent after outside bloggers urged Chinese to take inspiration from Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution; total official Chinese spending for internal security now surpasses that devoted to its military.

Iran, which first lauded revolutions in the Middle East, jailed Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubin, both candidates in the disputed 2009 presidential election, after the Green Movement renewed street protests.

And in Uganda, President Museveni cracked down on opposition supporters who threatened a Jasmine revolution.

Of course, change in the Middle East does not guarantee there will soon be revolution in other regions. The decay of the Soviet Union inspired unrest in Tiananmen Square, but did not produce change in China’s system of government. Iran’s revolution, just ten years old in 1990, was barely affected by the Soviets’ passing. The demise of regimes in Cuba, North Korea and elsewhere was thought to be inevitable with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, but all have endured for decades since.

There are, however, many differences between the world of 1990 and today. A principal difference is technology, which enables citizens in all but the most closed societies to know that the repression they endure is not the norm in today’s world. In addition, not only have most former Soviet bloc countries become democratic over the last 20 years, but more countries in Africa, Asia and now the Middle East have ridden themselves of authoritarian forms of government since 1990. At this point, there are many more democratic than authoritarian countries on earth.

Thirty years ago, a country’s form of government meant little in dealings between states. Today, even if there is little material effect in relations with other countries, less respect is accorded to authoritarian governments — a fact that is not lost on their people, decreasing pride in their country. Finally, there has been a sea change in theories of development in the last two decades. Accountability and freedom of thought and information are now seen as essential for a people’s material betterment and for ameliorating corruption by the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank and other multilateral and national development agencies. Seeing the economic advantages of democracy in everything from movies to the internet, people in authoritarian countries have also begun to draw the connection.

The revolts did not arise spontaneously for the abstract ideal of “democracy” … They occurred instead for a variety of homegrown reasons that should give all authoritarian governments pause.

Clever authoritarians will be sending study missions to Egypt, Tunisia, and when possible, Yemen, Libya and Syria to discern what indigenous factors led their people to become so dissatisfied. They will find that the revolts did not arise spontaneously for the abstract ideal of “democracy,” or because of the activities of outside democracy promotion organizations (as some authoritarian governments believed of the “colored revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan). They occurred instead for a variety of homegrown reasons that should give all authoritarian governments pause.

The first was a demographically youthful population with little reverence for their regimes because of events that happened decades before they were born, such as a struggle for independence or beginning an economic expansion.

Second was a widespread resentment over pervasive regime corruption, with leaders and their families profiting while many (especially young) people were unable to find jobs matching their education, and most of the population lived in poverty.

Third, even economic betterment – decent growth rates in Egypt and a middle class along Tunisia’s coast — proved insufficient to save the regimes. Indeed, in Tunisia, relative wealth along the coast was resented by the poorer interior population.

Fourth, decades of economic and political repression led to a yearning not necessarily explicitly for the idea of “democracy” but for its attributes –“dignity,” “justice” and “respect.” People believed these desires — exemplified in the story the Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation was the spark for revolution – could only be satisfied by ending their authoritarian governments.

Finally, as noted above, technology such as the Internet and satellite television showed people that their countries’ situations were abnormal and that they were falling behind in a more democratic and globalized word. Newer technological applications, such as Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social networking, while not the source of the population’s beliefs, enabled them to give expression to their desires in a more rapid and organized fashion.

If these are lessons for authoritarians, what should Washington learn from recent events? Beyond addressing what has already happened, by helping the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, Washington policymakers should gain wisdom for the future. We do not necessarily know when authoritarian regimes will fall, but we should by now know that they will, and plan accordingly.

We do not necessarily know when authoritarian regimes will fall, but we should by now know that they will, and plan accordingly.

First, the “it can’t happen here” attitude of most analysts and policymakers regarding authoritarian countries should be replaced by asking, “How could it happen?”, “What might take place afterwards?”, and “How should the U.S. therefore act?” We should not again, as has happened from Tehran in 1979 to Jakarta in 1998 to Cairo in 2011, have to scramble to keep up with events, often falling behind in our responses.

We need to have relations with many authoritarian governments and their militaries and security services, but in the meantime, we should be pushing them more forcefully – certainly in private and if need be, in public – to open up their systems in a deliberate manner. Having been reminded yet again of our lack of foresight and the transitory nature of authoritarians, we should also begin or redouble efforts to befriend and assist those who may well be the next generation of leaders. In all of these dealings, we should also enlist our European and regional democratic allies, who have as much interest as we do in stable openings in authoritarian states. Finally, we should ensure that the populations of poorer authoritarian states are aware of the bilateral and multilateral assistance that is extended to democratizing countries.

The Middle East was the final region assumed by area experts to be impervious to democracy. That democracies now exist in every region of the world should put rest to the canard that it is an “American” or “Western” system. It should also help us get past the idea that any authoritarian government is immune to freedom. As Hillary Clinton recently put it, “They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.”

America can’t implant democracy, but to ensure we are on the right side of history, we should responsibly do everything possible to catalyze it.
RF

Lorne Craner is President of the International Republican Institute.

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