Last night's violent clashes in Kuwait have brought its long-brewing political crisis to a dangerous point. It did not have to be this way, in a Gulf state that has long stood out for its robust public sphere, electoral traditions and vibrant parliament. But a series of unusually provocative steps by both the royal family and the opposition, in the context of a long-running battle over the powers of parliament and accountability for the royal family, have taken their toll and tempers are running hot. After months of growing popular mobilization and a complex crisis of political institutions, Kuwait's political future suddenly seems deeply uncertain.
Before it gets too late to de-escalate, the Kuwaiti leadership needs to offer meaningful political concessions, including standing down on its deeply controversial plans for a December election, relaxing its attempt to shut down public dissent, and allowing a greater parliamentary role in the selection of cabinet ministers. It seems to have instead decided that now is the time to crack down hard before things get out of hand. Its repressive turn and the galvanizing effect on a mostly moderate opposition offers a troubling echo of Bahrain's brutal path ... one which the Kuwaitis seemed uniquely well-placed to avoid, but now looms large. Kuwait's long-developing political crisis is discussed in depth in the essays collected in today's new POMEPS Briefing, "Kuwait's Moment of Truth."
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Image
Arab public opinion is increasingly important following the Arab uprising, the empowerment of public forces, the more open online and traditional media, and the contentious political transitions in some countries. I've recently discussed the findings of opinion surveys in Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt, as well as Pew's extraordinary survey of global Muslim attitudes. Now I'd like to point out some of the key findings of the second wave of the Arab Barometer, conducted in seven countries in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings. Mark Tessler, Amaney Jamal and Michael Robbins, the scholars who lead the Arab Barometer project, have just published an article detailing some of its key findings about democracy in the Journal of Democracy. They show that Arabs continue to strongly support democracy as the best form of government, even as understandings of democracy continue to evolve, while Islamism at the time of the survey seemed to be receding rather than advancing with broad Arab publics.
Few developments associated with the Arab uprisings have generated as much concern of late as the rapid emergence of Salafi movements into the public arena. The performance of al-Nour Party in Egypt's parliamentary elections stunned many observers. Waves of attacks on Sufi shrines in Tunisia and Libya, denunciations of secular citizens, and loud calls for the imposition of sharia have raised fears at home and abroad. The violent protests over the anti-Islam YouTube film, the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the emergence of Salafi-jihadist trends within the Syrian opposition have made these political concerns ever more urgent.
Who are these new Salafi movements? How should we interpret their rise? I am pleased to announce the publication of our new POMEPS Brief, available as a free PDF download, which collects more than a dozen recent ForeignPolicy.com essays on Salafis across the Arab world, including a detailed look at Salafi politics in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The picture that emerges is troubling -- but also unexpectedly reassuring. These well-funded and well-entrenched subcultures will likely continue to thrive in the open, contentious new Arab political realm. But how they will behave, the response they will generate from other political trends and societal sectors, and how they will approach political institutions remains very much in question.
Last month's frightening scenes of mobs attacking the American Embassy and an American school in Tunisia should focus Washington's attention on the birthplace of the Arab uprising. President Moncef Marzouki has made great efforts to apologize for the attacks, to emphasize his government's commitment to democracy, and to crack down on what they clearly label an extremist minority. But concerns over the emerging salafi challenge should not distract attention from the deeper issues confronting one of the most hopeful of the Arab transitions. The protests themselves were rooted in a deeply contentious political arena facing rising polarization around the role of Islam, anxiety about the drafting of the constitution, and the failure of the transitional government to effectively respond to a deep jobs crisis.
A new public opinion survey released by the International Republican Institute shows that Tunisians have a grim view of their future. They remain overwhelmingly focused on a disastrous economy rather than on Islamist cultural issues. But they are also exceedingly keen to see the drafting of a new Constitution completed -- and by a spread of 52%-41%, Tunisians said they would prefer a democratic Tunisia which was unstable and insecure over a non-democratic system which was prosperous and secure. This latest snapshot of public attitudes demonstrates again both how Tunisia's revolution has stalled.. and why there is still reason for hope.
On September 11, 2012, in the wake of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and a wave of protests around the region against that absurd YouTube video, an attack in Benghazi killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. officials. American officials were surprised by the attack, shocked and horrified by the death of a close colleague, clearly confused about what exactly had happened, and a bit disorganized in their public statements. Reporters, politicians, and analysts have a number of serious important unanswered questions about the nature of the attack, security arrangements in Benghazi, the real role of al Qaeda, and the implications for possible future attacks. They might also be asking questions about why the protests so quickly fizzled and why so many Arab governments and political activists denounced the attacks and their perpetrators.
But that's not the debate we're having. Instead, in what passes for foreign policy debate six weeks before a presidential election, Republicans are focused on selectively parsing words to concoct a fantasy of the greatest scandal in American history -- worse than Watergate! As dangerous as the failure to connect dots before 9/11! Grounds for impeachment! The political calculations here are almost painfully transparent, as the Romney campaign desperately flails about for a way to attack Obama on foreign policy and change the subject to anything which doesn't include the phrase "47 percent." The media, bored with the current electoral narrative and always infatuated with sensational images of Muslim rage and the hint of scandal, is happy to play along. Such is policy debate during election season.
fficial White House Photo by Pete Souza
Last week's wave of protests and attacks on U.S. embassies launched a million op-eds (along with an instantly notorious Newsweek cover) about the return of "Muslim rage," the failure of the Arab uprisings, the collapse of Obama's foreign policy, and the inevitability of the clash of civilizations. When a satirical French newspaper leaped forward to run some more hopefully offensive cartoons, everyone braced for another round of violent protests across the region. But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypose: almost nothing. There were a few tiny demonstrations, but most Arab countries (in contrast to Pakistan and Lebanon) saw no mass rallies, no burning embassies, no screaming for the television cameras.
The fizzling of the protests against that awful YouTube film was obvious before today, of course. As has been widely noted, the protests last week were actually quite small -- vastly inferior in size and popular inclusion to the Arab uprisings protests last year, and small even in comparison to the ongoing pro-democracy or other political demonstrations which occur on a weekly basis in many Arab countries. The killing of Chris Stevens and his colleagues, and the dramatic images of broached embassy walls and al Qaeda flags, radically inflated Western perceptions about the magnitude of the protests.
By far the biggest story of popular mobilization today came in Libya, where tens of thousands came out in Benghazi in an inspiring rally against militias and against the attack on the U.S. consulate. Thus far, millions of opeds have failed to be produced in response. That's a pity. The failure of the Arab world to follow its assigned script really deserves as much attention as did last week's outburst. I wish that the relative fizzle of today's protests and today's large rally in Benghazi denouncing the attack on the U.S. consulate and militia violence would get even one-tenth of the media attention lavished upon the supposed meaning of last week's embassy attacks.
Benghazi photo found on Flickr
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
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.