The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader #8
King Abdullah's approval this week of a controversial new law imposing potentially draconian controls over Jordan's internet is finally drawing attention to the country's increasingly dangerous political situation.
The new law's effort to stifle political expression puts at risk the Jordanian IT sector, which makes up some 14 percent of the country's GDP, produces a very significant share of youth jobs, and is one of the few bright spots in its grim economy. It's hard to see the gain in further alienating disaffected youth and crush their primary source of economic hope at a time of grinding economic problems and simmering political protests (for more background, see May's Jordan, Forever on the Brink). Jordanians in the IT sector, as well as conbributors to its vibrant political public sphere, point to the irony of the famously dysfunctional Parliamentary system managing to suddenly work so effectively to produce this legislation out of all the real problems in the country it has spent years neglecting.
It's also hard to see much hope in the regime's response to its political problems. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is reportedly again discussing a push for constitutional monarchy which it has intermittently floated for the last five or six years. But there does not seem to be much of a sense of urgency. Instead, there has been a combination of more repression and more of the same, tired political games: rumors of yet another prime ministerial shuffle, plans for a Parliamentary election by the end of the year under an extremely disappointing new election law. Fears of replicating Syria's bloody chaos may restrain protestors from fully challenging the King even with these escalating grievances, a familiar theme in Jordanian political history. But for how long can this be enough? And will a disappointing election be a trigger for simmering discontent to turn into something more?
Last week's scenes of angry mobs besieging America's embassies in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, and of one of its finest diplomats dead in the streets of a country he had helped to liberate understandably shocked and horrified Americans. Sensationalist media outlets rushed to exploit the moment, politicians pounced prematurely, and pundits reached for their great book of cliches about the roots of Muslim rage. Somewhere, I have no doubt, a great global assembly of strawmen is convening for anxious discussions about why they had been targeted for burning. This despair is wildly premature. The embassy attacks do not present the "true face" of the Arab uprisings. They do not mean that the hopes for democratic change have failed, and we have not entered an "Islamist Winter."
The crisis isn't over, of course. Small numbers of protestors continue to rage as the cycle unfolds across the world, and cynical politicians desperate to revive their flagging fortunes are banging the drums of outrage (no, no, I meant Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah). But after one week I am struck by the significant differences between 2006 and 2012 in how Arab and American publics have responded to the cycle of outrage. This week, a wide range of prominent leaders and ordinary citizens publicly rebuked the attacks on U.S. Embassies, and have denounced the riots (even if many continue to voice their right to criticize the anti-Islamic film). The protests, most of which were rather small in the first place, have in most places largely sputtered out, in part because key Islamist forces decided that their interests were better served by restraint than by escalation. What is more, a very significant number of Arab voices complained publicly over their peers demonstrating over an obscure film rather than over the slaughter in Syria or serious domestic challenges in their countries. I do not remember any similar backlash in 2006. (Please do check out the #muslimrage hashtag on Twitter for a fine outburst of humor over the attempt to gin up a new clash of civilizations.)
This is not to say that there has been some great outpouring of pro-American sentiment masked by the angry crowds shouting "Death to America." American foreign policy is as unpopular as ever, and the anger over this ridiculous film appears to be widespread and real. But the Arab uprisings have empowered multiple, competing voices which will not easily cede the stage to the old forces of Islamist outrage. And without dictators to fan the flames behind the scenes and then shut things down when they went to far -- the game perfected by the Mubaraks, Salehs and Assads of the world over too many years -- even the Islamists with seemingly the most to gain politically by fanning the flames of fury seem to have realized the need for restraint. Finally, thanks to social media links forged between Arab journalists and activists with American journalists and ordinary citizens over the last two years, there may be less dependence on "official" narratives and more opportunities for non-extremists to make themselves heard. Indeed, the real story of last week may utlimately be that it has become harder, not easier, to spark and sustain these "clash of civilizations" dynamics in the wake of the Arab uprising.
Source: Martyr's Square Media Facebook Page, Creative Commons License
I awoke this morning to the horrifying news of the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other consular officials during a mob attack on the consulate in Benghazi, which followed yesterday's storming of the embassy in Cairo. The embassy riots over an absurd, obscure anti-Islam movie are more "Danish Cartoons" than "Iranian Hostage Crisis" and were following a depressingly familiar script until the deaths in Libya. But now the stakes are far higher.
It would be a tragic mistake to allow the images from Cairo and Benghazi to undermine American support for the changes in the Arab world. The protesters in Cairo and Benghazi are no more the true face of the Arab uprisings than al Qaeda was the face of Islam after 9/11. We should not allow the actions of a radical fringe to define our views of an entire group. The aspirations for democratic change of many millions of Arab citizens must not be delegitimated by the violent acts of a small group of radicals.
But the response to the eruption by empowered publics, elected leaders and influential voices across political society -- including, especially, Islamists -- really does matter. Authoritarian regimes in the past frequently allowed, or even encouraged, such violent eruptions over these issues. Islamist movements in perennial opposition leaped at the chance to score political points while taking no responsibility for what followed. Today will be a pivotal moment in the urgent debates about how such movements will respond to political power and a stake in the political system. Libya's leaders thus far look to be passing that test. Egypt's do not.
I've been busy the last few days with a trip to Iowa -- thanks University of Iowa and Drake University for a gracious welcome!; a panel discussion today on the regional politics of the Syrian crisis (video will be posted soon); a few video interviews for a new series of POMEPS Conversations with Middle East experts (to be launched shortly); and updates to the POMEPS Arab uprising bibliography (coming soon). But I wanted to briefly note two intriguing public opinion surveys relevant to Middle East policy debate --- one from the United States, and one from Jordan. Both suggest reasons for doubting popular calls for an activist American policy towards Syria and the broader Middle East.... for better or for worse.
Have you wondered how Middle East specialists have dealt with the Arab uprisings? Do you want to know how the field has responded to the scathing indictment offered by Gregory Gause in Foreign Affairs last summer that "the vast majority of academic specialists on the Arab world were as surprised as everyone else by the upheavals?" Or are you just looking for new books and articles which might be useful for course syllabi or research projects?
With the Labor Day weekend marking the traditional launch of a new academic year, I am delighted to share the new POMEPS bibliography of academic books and journal articles about the Arab uprisings. The bibliography includes books and journal articles, and will soon be expanded to include selected policy reports written by academics. We won't try to include the many shorter articles such as those published on the Middle East Channel and other online publications. Over the summer, I edited a collection for the Project on Middle East Political Science of a set of reflections by more than two dozen leading political scientists about new research opportunities presented by the Arab uprisings. This bibliography shows a field beginning to grapple with and hopefully to deliver on those ideas.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
What does it mean that no Kings have thus far fallen in the Arab uprisings while four non-monarchical rulers (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi and Saleh) have toppled from their (non-royal) thrones and a fifth has plunged his country into a brutal civil war? Is there a monarchical exception in the Arab world? The significance of monarchy has been one of the most vibrant debates among political scientists over the last two years, as I wrote about a few months ago. A new article in the Journal of Politics by Victor Menaldo claiming statistical evidence for a monarchical advantage prompted me to revisit these arguments this week.
The advantages of monarchy have taken on the feel of "common sense" among the public and in academic debates. But I remain highly skeptical about the more ambitious arguments for a monarchical exception. Access to vast wealth and useful international allies seems a more plausible explanation for the resilience of most of the Arab monarchies. Surviving with the financial resources and international allies available to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE seems like no great trick. The active, concerted economic, political, media (and occasionally military) Saudi and Qatari support for their less wealthy fellow monarchs seems to be more important to the survival of the current crop of kings than the intrinsic institutional characteristics of a throne.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's sudden move last week to oust the senior leadership of the Egyptian military broke a long period of political stagnation and began to bring into view the contours of the emerging political order. It reversed views of Morsi almost overnight. Only two weeks ago, most analysts had written Morsi off as a weak and ineffective executive boxed in by the ascendant military leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). After his bold move against the SCAF and reversal of its constitutional decrees, many now fear that he and the Muslim Brotherhood stand at the brink of nigh-totalitarian domination.
After long weeks of political gridlock and stagnation, Egypt's elected President Mohamed Morsi suddenly hit the gas over the weekend. Over the span of a few days, Morsi removed the head of General Intelligence, the head of the Military Police, the top two senior leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the heads of all the military services. In addition to this SCAF-Quake, Morsi also canceled the controversial constitutional amendments promulgated by the SCAF just before he took office and issued a new, equally controversial amendment and roadmap of his own. What's more, this all came after he replaced the editors of major state-owned newspapers with people viewed as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and cracked down on several other critical papers. Zero to 180 in three days -- even Usain Bolt would be impressed by that acceleration. Swirv.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.