"375,000 Syrians have come to Jordan since March 2011, which is 6-7% of our population. In American numbers, at that rate, this is 17-18 million people." The spillover effects of the Syria conflict were very much on the mind of Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh during a wide-ranging conversation over coffee in Washington last week. His government's focus for Syria was very much on finding a political transition which, he said, "everybody realizes at this stage is the only game in town." His other primary preoccupation was to advance a narrative of successful reform following Parliamentary elections against my more cynical perspective.
On the problem of Syrian refugees, Judeh and I had little about which to disagree. Jordan has good reason to be concerned about the impact of Syrian refugees on the Kingdom. The flow from Syria has been more intense than the wave of Iraqi refugees during the last decade: faster, more concentrated, and with no end in sight. The early accommodations for a much smaller refugee flow have struggled to keep pace, and Jordanians are feeling the strain from hosting this massive influx (things have only gotten worse since this sharply reported FP account by Nicholas Seeley a few months ago).
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2012 has been a difficult year in the Middle East in many, painfully familiar ways: descent into civil war in Syria, political polarization and frustration in Egypt, unrepentant repression in Bahrain, war in Gaza, the U.S. Ambassador's death in Libya, stalemate and backsliding in many other countries in the region. But it's been a great year for the Middle East Channel!
Stagnation in Egypt. Grinding insurgency in Syria. Unpunished repression in Bahrain. Frustration in Jordan. Parliamentary crisis in Kuwait. Fizzling protests in Sudan. Humanitarian woes in Yemen. Creeping authoritarianism and renewed bloodshed in Iraq. This summer has not been kind to the Arab uprisings. With the shining exception of Libya, which today celebrates its handover to an elected civilian government, almost every Arab country has sunk back into the bog of political stagnation, frustrated citizens, and in the worst cases grinding violence. Many observers have begun to give up on the hopes for change in the Arab world, and are now dismissing the Arab uprisings as a "fizzle," a mirage, or a false flag for Islamist takeovers.
It is far too soon to accept such a verdict. A frustrating as it has been to live through, this regression to repression is neither surprising nor cause for despair. In my book The Arab Uprising, I warned that there would be such reversals of momentum, unsatisfying political outcomes, activist frustrations, and competitive interventions by powerful states in newly opened political arenas like Syria and Libya. The forces driving the Arab uprisings are deep, structural, and generational. They don't guarantee happy endings, nor do they automatically privilege any one kind of political challenger, whether liberal, sectarian, counter-revolutionary, or Islamist. But persistent, creative, and unpredictable challenges to the Arab status quo will continue to manifest in new forms, undermining every effort to restore the authoritarian status quo ante. Don't be fooled by the current sense of stagnation -- but do be worried by the regional fallout of the new struggle for Syria.
Last week's stunning assassination of several key Syrian security officials, the sudden spread of serious fighting into Damascus and Aleppo, and the Russian-Chinese veto of a Chapter VII resolution at the UN Security Council have ushered in a new phase in the Syrian crisis. Five months ago, I wrote a policy report for the Center for a New American Security warning against U.S. military intervention or arming the opposition, and proposing a series of non-military steps which might help bring about a political transition. In April, I argued in a Congressional hearing for giving the Annan Plan a chance to work.
In an essay published today on CNN.com, I suggest that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have failed -- but that this is no cause for celebration. Annan's efforts, supported by the U.S., attempted to find some path to a "soft landing" which could avoid Syria's descent into sectarian civil war, insurgency and potential state collapse. For his pains, Annan was often treated as an enemy by Syrian opposition supporters anxious for external military intervention, outraged by the daily bloodshed or distrustful of any regime promises. But the likely course of the struggle to come demonstrates painfully why this was an effort worth making.
Today, we face the grim reality that the prospects for a negotiated transition have largely ended and Syria now likely faces a long, grinding insurgency with few foundations for a viable post-Assad scenario. Sadly, such an outcome of long-term violence would be acceptable to many whose primary interest is weakening Iran rather than protecting civilians or building a more democratic Syria. At this point, it is vital to prepare for an end which won't come soon, but when it happens will likely be sudden and surprising.
"The stupidest transition in history" is how my colleague Nathan Brown recently described the last fifteen months in Egypt. Few would disagree. At virtually every step, it seems that almost every player has made the wrong choice: the SCAF, the activists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary, political leaders... and even political analysts. When I've been in Cairo, or talking to Egyptian friends or following Egyptian media, the sky is pretty much always falling. Every protest is the next revolution, every internet rumor the latest catastrophe, every erratic move by the SCAF the unfolding of its cunning conspiracy, every inflammatory Islamist statement the sign of impending apocalypse. Indeed, predicting disaster is virtually mandatory for Egypt analysts.
And yet... if one had fallen asleep in February 2011 and awoken over the weekend to see a country consumed with excitement by tomorrow's Presidential election, things might look different. Egypt now has an elected Parliament, which has underperfomed in some ways but does enjoy real electoral legitimacy. The Presidential election is hotly contested by mostly non-disastrous leading candidates in which the outcome is very much unknown. Politics, as predicted, has shifted mostly from the streets to the ballot box, and election fever has gripped the country. The military still seems intent on carving out its own empire within the state, but has consistently refused abundant opportunities to postpone the transfer of power to an elected government. Islamists, after sweeping Parliamentary elections, seem to be losing some ground with the public in part through their own political mistakes (such as fielding a presidential candidate after promising not to do so and poorly managing the Parliament they won). Former regime fullul were wiped out in those same elections, and remain on the defensive. Could it be that Egypt's disastrous transition might still end up pretty much okay?
The sudden, unprecedented resignation by Jordan's Prime Minister Awn Khasawnah last week threw a sudden spotlight on the ongoing shortcomings of political reform in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The deficient new election law rolled out last month, like every step the King has taken over the last year and a half, did too little, too late to respond to the concerns of Jordanian citizens. Limited reforms have done little to stem a rising tide of protest across the towns of the south, a deeply struggling economy, loud complaints of corruption, and an intensifying edge of political anger. Add in the potential impact of the ongoing crisis in Syria or of a new escalation in the West Bank, and concerns for Jordan's political future seem merited.
Veteran observers of the region can be excused for rolling their eyes ever so slightly at reports of instability in Jordan, of course. The Kingdom has seemed on the political brink virtually constantly for many decades, its stability always questioned and the monarchy's command doubted (often, admittedly, by me). And yet the Hashemite monarchy has survived. Warnings about political crisis in Jordan therefore sound just enough like boys crying wolf or Chicken Littles shouting about falling skies. That long history of frustrated protest and successfully navigated challenges should caution anyone predicting a real explosion. But it would be equally wrong to dismiss the signs of a rapidly escalating political crisis to which the Palace seems unable or unwilling to respond.
This post previews a new POMEPS Briefing, "Jordan, Forever on the Brink," which collects twenty articles from the last three years explaining the nature of the Kingdom's political crisis, the shortcomings of its attempted reforms, and the current political state of play.
On December 15, 2011, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the formal end of America's military presence in Iraq. The withdrawal came after the inability to reach agreement on a revised Status of Forces Agreement which would have allowed a limited number of troops to remain under legal conditions acceptable to the Pentagon. While the vast majority of Iraqis and Americans supported the departure of America's military presence, some supporters of a long-term U.S. military presence warned of disaster. Some, like Senator John McCain and the Romney campaign, continue to fume that we no longer occupy Iraq and complain that Obama has lost what Bush gained. But in fact, the American departure has hardly mattered at all -- and that's a good thing.
This isn't to say that Iraq has emerged as a peaceful, democratic paradise or an enthusiastic pro-American ally. Hardly. That was never in the cards, after the disastrous invasion and bungled occupation led to a horrific civil war and a near-failed state. Iraq today remains a violent, poorly institutionalized place with deep societal fissures and unresolved political tensions. But little has happened in the months since the U.S. withdrawal which differs significantly from what had been happening while the U.S. remained. The negative trends are the same ones which plagued Iraq despite the presence of U.S. troops in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The U.S. presence contributed to some of those problems, helped deal with some, and failed to resolve others. But it had always struggled to convert its military presence into political leverage, and by 2011 it had become almost completely irrelevant.
The real story of America's withdrawal from Iraq is how little impact it has really had on either Iraq or the region. There are even signs that the withdrawal has helped to nudge Iraqis onto the right path, though not as quickly or directly as I might have hoped. This month's death toll was the lowest on record since the 2003 invasion, while Iraqi oil exports are at their highest level since 1980. Baghdad successfully hosted an Arab Summit meeting, which may have done little for Syria but did go further to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold than anything since 2003. Maliki's jousting with his domestic foes and efforts to balance Iraq's ties with Tehran with improved Arab relations are what needs to happen for Iraq to regain a semblance of normality. It isn't pretty, and probably won't be any time soon, but there's absolutely no reason to believe that it would look any better with American troops still encamped in the country. Thus far, Obama's risky but smart gamble to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq is paying off.
How should the United States, and the international community, respond to the escalating bloodbath in Syria? Over the last two months, the overwhelming weight of editorial and op-ed commentary has been in the direction of calling for military action of some sort --- especially to arm a Free Syrian Army. The calls for military action span the spectrum: from John McCain and Lindsey Graham and the FPI-FDD group of conservative hawks to liberal interventionists and even... FP bloggers. For people desperate to do something to help the Syrian people, and at the same time for people keen to deal a blow to Iran or bring down a long-hated regime in Damascus, the time seems right for some form of military intervention.
I was a strong supporter of the intervention in Libya. But the diversion of the debate about Syria towards military options has been counterproductive. None of the military options on offer, including arming the Free Syrian Army, are likely to significantly help the Syrian people and most risk making things far worse. But the recent display of a broad-based international consensus, including the 137-12 vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the regime's violence, and the first meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group on Friday in Tunisia make this a crucial time to seriously explore non-military options which have a more realistic chance to be adopted.. and to succeed.
In a new report released today by the Center for a New American Security, I argue that if the goal is to help the Syrian people and not just to hurt an Iranian ally then the international response to the Syrian crisis must focus less on whether to use military options than on ways to improve the prospects for a "soft landing" after the fall of the Assad regime. The report lays out a number of concrete suggestions for mobilizing diplomatic pressure and breaking the intensifying polarization between two Syrian communities in order to push for a political transition. I can't offer any guarantees that this strategy will work quickly or cleanly... but neither can those now recklessly calling for poorly conceived military action.
Egypt's elections began today after a week of intense political conflict, violent clashes, and uncertainty. Thus far, they seem to be going very well, with reports of long lines, high turnout, few of the expected security problems and great enthusiasm. As someone who has been arguing in favor of these elections for months, I'm thrilled to see them off to a good start. There is a long way to go, though, as voting will continue for six weeks, giving all too many opportunities for enthusiasm to fade, political forces to panic, or security problems to appear. Even successful elections won't change the fact that the SCAF needs to be held accountable for its unacceptable violence against protestors last week and still urgently needs to transfer significant power to an independent civilian transitional government.
Village outside of Assiut, November 28, 2011. Photo by Lauren E. Bohn.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are streaming into Tahrir Square today protesting the massive violence over the weekend and demanding that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) transfer power to a civilian government. With huge numbers in Tahrir, it is difficult to see how this ends without major political changes: violence now by the regime will almost certainly backfire badly, while token concessions won't satisfy the mobilized crowd. The costs of the SCAF's incompetence have now become impossible to ignore, or to overcome. The Parliamentary elections which last week seemed the only workable route to a democratic transition have been overtaken by events -- and it's time for everyone to readjust.
Al-Jazeera screen shot, November 22, 2011
Egypt erupted in violence over the weekend as protestors and police battled once again for control of Tahrir Square. Genuinely shocking brutality by Egyptian security forces has left at least 22 dead and many hundreds wounded. The chaos, still ongoing a week before the scheduled beginning of Parliamentary elections, has thrown Egypt's already extremely shaky political transition into doubt. It is not likely the second coming of the Egyptian revolution of which many enthusiastic participants and outside onlookers dream. But it shows with painful clarity the costs of the incompetence of Egypt's military leadership and the urgency of a rapid transition to civilian rule.
Photo courtesy of Lauren E. Bohn
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians packed Tahrir Square today demanding an end to military rule. Islamists and non-Islamist forces combined forces on the eve of Parliamentary elections in a show of popular strength demanding a real, rapid transition from military rule to democracy. The size of the turnout and the unity of the message will send a strong, and incredibly important, message to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: it should not delay a transition to civilian rule, it should back off from its proposed pro-military supra-constitutional document, and it should stop its abuses of military courts and emergency law.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
The Arab League is today considering the demand by the Syrian National Council, human rights organizations and a wide array of other actors that it freeze Syria's membership over its killing of civilians. Few expect that the Arab League will seriously affect the Assad regime's behavior. But the very fact that it is even considering such a move is frankly astonishing. Since when do Arab leaders agree that a regime's legitimacy can be forfeit if it kills too many of its own people?
The rapid spread of a new norm against Arab regimes killing their own people is a frankly astonishing, but largely unremarked, change in the regional game. Since the Arab League backed the UN intervention in Libya in March, the idea that regimes might be sanctioned for their domestic brutality has become a normal part of the Arab political debate and enshrined in official Arab League resolutions. Both the GCC's political transition plan for Yemen and this month's Arab League peace plan for Syria condemned regimes for their violence and called for far reaching political changes. They haven't stopped the violence. But the idea that they should is something genuinely new -- and has major implications beyond the immediate outcome in either country.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama's announcement today of a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 should be cause for real celebration. This is the right decision, at the right time. It may have been forced upon the administration by Iraqi political realities. But the end result will be a mutually agreed upon and orderly American withdrawal from Iraq on the timetable which both Bush and Obama promised but which few believed would ever really happen. This should be seen as a positive moment for America and for Iraq. Indeed, removing the distraction of the polarizing and largely irrelevant debate over the presence of U.S. troops could actually improve the chances of building a positive, enduring relationship with Iraq -- though that opportunity could all too easily be lost.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Egyptian activist groups have called for another "million man march" on Friday, September 9 in an attempt to "correct the course" and to revive what they see as a flailing revolution. Friday is shaping up as a significant test of the continuing power of the activist groups after a summer where they have struggled. The exuberantly successful mass demonstration of July 8 gave way to an unpopular Tahrir sit-in and a disastrous attempt to march on the Ministry of Defense. Recent calls for protests have produced small turnouts. Friday is therefore being widely taken as a test of the continuing relevance and power of the activists.
But in some ways the turnout on Friday is a sideshow compared to the decisions to be made about the upcoming Parliamentary elections now scheduled for November. It's no secret that many activists are deeply disenchanted with the SCAF-led political process. They see street protests as the source of their power, and understand their identity as the "soul of the revolution." They have done little to prepare for elections and don't look likely to win. Some view the coming elections as themselves counter-revolutionary since they will likely produce a Parliament dominated by Islamists and ex-NDP fulul. When I was in Egypt in July, I already began hearing whispers that activists might boycott the elections. Those are now spilling out into public.
Will activists actually boycott? What would happen if they did? I think that it is distressingly likely, and growing more so, and that it would be a disaster. An activist boycott probably would not be joined by the major political parties, and probably wouldn't affect the overall turnout or results. But it would have a disproportionate impact on the perceptions of the legitimacy of the election, especially in the West, and would seriously undermine hopes of achieving a democratic Egypt. I am putting this out here now mainly to draw attention to the risks, provoke some public discussion... and, hopefully, to be proven wrong.
The scenes of the joyous reception for Libyan "Freedom Fighters" entering Tripoli with little resistance yesterday sent an electric shock through the Arab public. The Jordanian blogger Naseem Tarawnah beautifully captured this regional effect: "Staying up last night to watch the events unfold on the streets of Tripoli, I cannot help but feel the sense of confidence that swept across the region last night; radiating from TV, computer and mobile screens." My Twitter feed could barely keep up with the rush of excited declarations that Assad must be watching Tripoli on TV and seeing his own future.
The reactions yesterday once again show the potent and real demonstration effects which characterize today's highly unified Arab political space.I don't see how anybody watching al-Jazeera, following Arab social media networks, or talking to people in the region could fail to appreciate the interconnected nature of Arab struggles. It's the same sense of shared fate and urgency that those who follow the Arab public sphere could feel in February and March. I supported the NATO intervention in Libya in large part because of that powerful Arab popular demand and the likely impact of the outcome in Libya across the region.
Now, as Syrians march chanting "Qaddafi is gone, now it's your turn, Bashar!" and excited protestors in Yemen's Change Square shout "our turn tomorrow!" there's suddenly a chance to recapture some of that lost regional momentum. It has been a long time since there has been such a unified Arab public sphere, or such hope that the long summer's stalemate might be broken and the momentum of January and February reclaimed. As one put it, "the fight isn't over in Yemen & Syria; Libyan friends remind us when we think its over we're closer to victory than we think."
Everybody understands that there is a long way to go and that the new Libya will face many challenges. Nobody thinks that the new enthusiasm from Libya will on its own magically end the stalemate in Yemen or stop the bloodshed in Syria. But the impact of Qaddafi's fall is resonating powerfully across the region in all the right ways.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisia's post-revolutionary politics are being profoundly shaped by the meteoric rise of the long-banned Islamist movement al-Nahda. Decades of fierce repression during the regime of former President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali crushed almost every visible manifestation of Tunisia's Islamist movement. The banned movement played a very limited role in the revolution. But since Ben Ali's flight and the triumphant January 30 return of exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda has grown with astonishing speed. A recent survey found support for the party at just below 30 percent, almost three times that of its closest rival. Its ascent is fueling a dangerous polarization, leading putative champions of democracy to endorse the postponing of elections, and frightening many secularists and women who fear for their place in the new Tunisia.
I have just returned from a trip to Tunisia focused on the resurgence of al-Nahda. I emerged impressed with al-Nahda's organizational strength, democratic rhetoric, political energy, and by their determined efforts to engage with their political rivals and reassure their critics. But I also emerged with real concerns about the growing polarization and collapse of trust across the political class, which risks dividing the Tunisian public and crippling the desperately needed democratic transition. And I found even al-Nahda's leaders unsure about how to grapple with the rising salafi trend, which may be more of a source of weakness than a source of electoral strength.
There is far more to Tunisia's emerging political arena than just al-Nahda, of course. Its rise and the resulting polarization come at a time of deep uncertainty about the fate of the revolution. Much of the old regime remains in place within state institutions, as well as in the Tunisian media, business sector, and cultural elite. Many of those who drove the popular uprising are deeply disgruntled about how little the revolution has changed their lives; while many of the people with whom I spoke were delighted with their newfound freedom, few saw real improvement in economic conditions. Many, particularly in the southern cities where the revolution began, feel that the world has abandoned them and that their revolution has been stolen. While the world has largely turned away from Tunisia to focus on crises elsewhere across the region, the transition to democracy there is far from accomplished. This is an important time to refocus on the place where the Arab upheavals began. Look for more coverage of these broader issues on Foreign Policy in the coming weeks.
Photos by Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.