It has been widely noted that monarchies have done better at surviving the Arab uprisings that began two years ago. Three Presidents (Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh) have fallen, along with Muammar al-Qaddafi's unique Jamahiriaya, while Bashar al-Assad's Baathist presidential regime faces a mortal threat. No Arab monarch has yet lost his throne. For some analysts and academics, this pattern suggests a fairly obvious "monarchical exception" which demands explanation.
In August, I launched a debate on Foreign Policy about whether and how monarchy matters in explaining the resilience of Arab regimes. I was not impressed. Against arguments that monarchies possess some kind of unique legitimacy commanding the loyalty of their people, I noted that Arab monarchies have in fact faced significant popular mobilization over the last two years: Bahrain has had one of the most intense and protracted uprisings anywhere; Kuwait is facing the deepest political crisis in its post-occupation history; Jordan experienced unprecedented protests; Saudi Arabia has had a protracted challenge in its Eastern Province; Oman experienced unusual levels of protest; Morocco's protest movement drove the king to adopt a significant (if underwhelming) constitutional initiative. I concluded, "the monarchies look like fairly typical Arab authoritarian regimes, surviving because they enjoy greater financial resources, less demanding international allies, and powerful media assets to perpetuate their legitimation myths."
The responses I got over email, over Twitter, across blogs, and at various academic conferences convinced me that the monarchy question remains an open one, however. It is an important debate for political scientists and analysts, with a wide range of arguments and evidence to consider. Over the last few months, I have reached out to a number of leading scholars to weigh in on the question of Arab monarchy. I asked them to move beyond simple binaries ("monarchy does or doesn't matter") to explore the specific mechanisms by which it might matter, to weigh them against competing explanations, and to show how monarchy operated in particular cases which they knew well. Those articles, along with some particularly relevant older Middle East Channel essays, are now collected in today's new POMEPS Brief, "The Arab Monarchy Debate."
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.
I have been fascinated by some of the findings of a massive new Pew Research Center global public opinion survey of Muslims in 39 countries in every region of the world. Pew conducted 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages between 2008 and 2012. What makes The World's Muslims especially interesting is that it doesn't ask questions mainly of interest to Americans, such as how Muslims feel about America. Instead, it asks a series of questions about their own understanding of Islam and their own religious practices and beliefs. The findings reveal some really interesting differences across regions, countries, and generations.
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader, #5
Last week's outbreak of the largest wave of popular protests in Sudan in nearly two decades has opened up the possibility for change in one of the cruelest regimes in the Middle East and Africa. Few regimes are more deserving of popular challenge than that of Omar Bashir, who should long since have been in custody in the Hague answering for his indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The "Arab spring" is hardly needed to account for the protests in Khartoum, which has a long history of popular uprisings, but it certainly frames the perception and politics of what is unfolding. The current wave of protests were triggered by austerity measures, including cuts to food subsidies, in a tenuous political arena framed by the tensions surrounding the new South Sudan. Activists, especially students who had been trying to keep protests alive for over a year and a half, have moved creatively to embrace the online communications and organizational tactics made familiar by the Arab uprisings of the last year and a half. The tortuous path of popular struggles in Syria, Yemen and so many other Arab countries following early waves of enthusiasm should be a cautionary tale about overly high expectations. But Sudan's rising protest movement in the face of a growing crackdown clearly merits the world's attention.
The uprisings that swept the Arab world following the fall of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 represented a stunning moment in the region’s political history. For political scientists specializing in the region, the events of the last year and a half represented not just an exhilarating moment of potential change, but also an important opportunity to develop new research questions, engage in new comparisons, and exploit new data and information. The Arab uprisings challenged long-held theories dominant in the field, particularly about the resilience of authoritarian regimes, while opening up entirely new areas of legitimate social scientific inquiry.
The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) was created in 2010 in part to build the capacity of Middle East experts to engage and inform policy-makers, the public sphere, and other political scientists about the region. On May 29-30, 2012, POMEPS convened a group of leading political scientists who specialize in the Middle East for its third annual conference at George Washington University to discuss the opportunities and challenges that the Arab uprisings pose to the subfield. Participants were asked: “What new and innovative research questions do you think have become particularly urgent, feasible, or relevant? How would those research questions fit into wider debates in the field of political science?” I am thrilled to announce the publication of a new special POMEPS Briefing collecting nearly two dozen of the memos written for the conference (free PDF download here).
The authors are all academic political scientists and Middle East specialists who speak Arabic and have lived in and studied Arab countries for extended periods. They include scholars at all career levels, from senior faculty at top universities to advanced graduate students still writing their dissertations. The memos reflect on a wide range of debates and paradigms within political science, and taken together lay out an impressive set of marching orders for the subfield. Graduate students looking for dissertation topics and junior faculty looking for articles that might make a big splash take note.
The Social Science Research Council's Transformations of the Public Sphere Initiative has been publishing an outstanding series of reflections by leading academics on the transformative effects of the evolving public sphere. Some of the key contributions to the series thus far by political scientists include "Too Much Information," by Lisa Anderson; "Political Science and the Public Sphere in the 21st Century" and "The Public Responsibilities of Political Science," by Rogers Smith; "International Affairs and the Public Sphere," by Stephen Walt; and "Intellectuals and their Public," by Jurgen Habermas. I was honored to be invited to contribute to such a stellar series. My new essay in the series, "Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere," appears here with the permission of the SSRC.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
The United Nations should establish an investigation commission to collect evidence about war crimes in Syria to prepare the ground for any future investigation, leading Arab international law expert Cherif Bassiouni told Foreign Policy during a wide-ranging interview yesterday following his talk at George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies [videos of both the interview and the talk will be posted shortly]. He warned that Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh should not count on his immunity deal holding up, discounted the ability of Libya's courts to try Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and blasted Egypt's post-revolutionary trials as focusing on flimsy, marginal cases which avoided dealing with systemic, institutionalized corruption.
Also, he explained that Moammar Qaddafi was a sex addict whose heavy use of Viagra badly affected his decision-making -- which could complicate the ICC's efforts to convict Saif al-Islam (FP's web editors wanted that to be the lead, for some reason).
The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it. Critics of the withdrawal have blasted Obama for putting politics over policy, risking the alleged gains of the "surge" in order to meet a campaign promise. Many of those who played a role in the desperate attempt to reverse Iraq's 2006 descent into civil war have entirely legitimate and justifiable fears for Iraq's future. But in fact, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics -- and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.
In many ways, it would have been safer politically for Obama to keep the residual force in Iraq which hawks demanded to insulate himself against charges of having "lost Iraq". But it would have been wrong on policy. It's not just that the U.S. was obligated by the SOFA to withdraw its forces, once it proved unable to negotiate the terms of an extended troop presence with the immunity provisions which the Pentagon demanded. It's that the remaining U.S. troops could do little for Iraqi security, had little positive effect on Iraqi politics, and would have soon become an active liability. This is the lesson of the last two years, when U.S. troops were reduced in number and largely withdrew to the bases under the terms of the SOFA. The American troop presence didn't prevent bombings and murders, didn't force political reconciliation, didn't usher in real democracy, and didn't significantly increase American diplomatic influence in the region. But nor did Iraq fall apart. Obama's gamble is that the same sequence will play out in 2012 and that he will have successfully left behind an Iraq which isn't perfect but which has avoided yet another catastrophe.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011. That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline. In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.
First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).
And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:
Like approximately 99 percent of the Arab world, and the U.S. government, I've been glued to Al Jazeera all morning watching the astonishing images of mass demonstrations and brutal security force repression across Egypt. I'm not going to even try to summarize the course of events thus far -- for now I just wanted to quickly note that the Obama administration needs to get out in front of this very, very soon. Its messaging has been good thus far, consistently and firmly been speaking out against Egyptian repression and in support of political freedoms. The message has been muddied by a few unfortunate exceptions such as Clinton's early comment about Egyptian stability, presumably before she had been fully briefed, and Biden's bizarre praise for Mubarak last night. Despite those false notes, it's been a strong message.... but one which is rapidly being overtaken by events.
The administration has to get out in the next few hours with a strong public statement by a senior official, such as Secretary of State Clinton, which clearly lays out that using violence against citizens is a U.S. red line and which goes beyond "urging" or "hoping" that the Egyptian government responds. It's really important that the United States be clearly and unambiguously on the right side of these events, and not wait and see too long for it to matter. The public message should be paired with blunt private messages to the Egyptian government that there's no going back to business as usual, regardless of whether Mubarak rides out this storm in the short run.
Flickr Creative Commons, January 27, 2011
The end of the Tunisian story hasn't yet been written. We don't yet know whether the so-called Jasmine Revolution will produce fundamental change or a return to a cosmetically-modified status quo ante, democracy or a newly configured authoritarianism. But most of the policy community has long since moved on to ask whether the Tunisian protests will spread to other Arab countries -- Egypt, of course, but also Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and almost every place else. Most experts on each individual country can offer powerful, well-reasoned explanations as to why their country won't be next. I'm skeptical too.
But I found it unsatisfying to settle for such skepticism as I watched the massive demonstrations unfold in Egypt on my Twitter feed while moderating a panel discussion on Tunisia yesterday (I plead guilty). As I've been arguing for the last month, something does seem to be happening at a regional level, exposing the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarianism and empowering young populations who suddenly believe that change is possible. There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn't ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn't ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow.
Flickr Creative Commons, January 26, 2010
I don't have a lot of time this morning before the panel discussion I'm hosting at GW on Tunisia -- webcast here, if you can't make it to the Elliott School! But I do want to make a few quick comments on Egypt. The images and stories of protests today have been impressive, both in numbers and in energy and enthusiasm. The Egyptians are self-consciously emulating the Tunisian protests, seeking to capitalize on the new mood within the Arab world. Their efforts are not new, despite the intense Western desire to put them into a narrative driven by Twitter, WikiLeaks, or demonstration effects. Egyptians have been protesting and demonstrating for the last decade: massive demonstrations in support of Palestinians and against the Iraq war from 2000 to 2003; Kefaya's creative protests for political reform and against succession which peaked in 2004 to 2006; lawyers and judges and professional associations; the Facebook protests and April 6 movements; the plethora of wildcat labor strikes across the country.
One key factor was missing, though, at least early on. Al Jazeera has played a vital, instrumental role in framing this popular narrative by its intense, innovative coverage of Tunisia and its explicit broadening of that experience to the region. Its coverage today has been frankly baffling, though. During the key period when the protests were picking up steam, Al Jazeera aired a documentary cultural program on a very nice seeming Egyptian novelist and musical groups, and then to sports. Now (10:30am EST) it is finally covering the protests in depth, but its early lack of coverage may hurt its credibility. I can't remember another case of Al Jazeera simply punting on a major story in a political space which it has owned.
Flickr January 25, 2010
An interesting discussion has already broken out over whether Tunisia should be considered a "Twitter Revolution" -- a far more interesting and relevant discussion than whether it was a "WikiLeaks Revolution" (it wasn't). I've seen some great points already by Ethan Zuckerman, Evgeny Morozov, Luke Allnut, Jillian York, and others. I'm looking forward to being one of the social scientists digging into the data, where I suspect that both enthusiasts and skeptics will find support for their arguments. For now, I would just argue that it would be more productive to focus more broadly on the evolution of the Arab media over the last decade, in which new media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, forums and blogs work together with satellite television stations such as Al Jazeera to collectively transform the Arab information environment and shatter the ability of authoritarian regimes to control the flow of information, images, ideas and opinions. That feels like a sentence which I've written a hundred times over the last decade… and one which has never felt truer than the last month in Tunisia.
Al-Jazeera Screen Capture, January 14, 2011
It's very clear that most Arab regimes are on edge over the possibility of the spread of the protests in Tunisia and Algeria. Arab columnists and TV shows have been excitedly debating the real causes of the protests and what they might mean, while in country after country warnings are being sounded of a repeat of the "Tunisia scenario." It's not at all clear whether these protests actually will spread yet, as regimes on high alert will not be taken by surprise and local conditions vary dramatically.
For the last few weeks, a massive wave of protests has been rocking Tunisia over the Ben Ali regime's alleged corruption, authoritarianism, and economic failings. A grisly suicide attack on a Coptic Christian Church in Alexandria on New Year's Day has sparked escalating worries about the state of Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt. Over the last few days, Jordanian security forces have struggled to put down riots in the southern town of Maan, the latest in an increasingly worrisome trend towards local violence and clashes. Kuwaiti politics continue to be roiled by the fallout from the Dec. 8 attack by security forces against law professor Obaid al-Wasimi and a group of academics and parliamentarians. What do these have in common?
These four seemingly unrelated incidents over the last month all draw attention to the accelerating decay of the institutional foundations and fraying of the social fabric across many of the so-called "moderate," pro-Western Arab regimes. What seems to link these four ongoing episodes, despite the obvious differences, is a combination of authoritarian retrenchment, unfulfilled economic promises, rising sectarianism at the popular level, and deep frustration among an increasingly tech-savvy rising generation. The internal security forces in these states remain powerful, of course, and it's unlikely that any of the regimes will fall any time soon (though some analysts seem more enthusiastic about the prospects for change in Tunisia). But even if these upgraded authoritarians can keep hold of power, there's a palpable sense that these incidents represent the leading edge of rising economic, social and political challenges which their degraded institutions are manifestly unable to handle.
Almost all of the discussion about the WikiLeaks documents seems to have followed the lead of the New York Times in emphasizing a few of the cables showing inflammatory private anti-Iranian rants by Arab figures such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Hamed of Bahrain and Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. A lot of Iran hawks are taking this as proof that the Arabs really do want war with Iran. I can understand why they are leaping at the framing, either to score points or to pave the way towards normalizing the idea of a military strike. But that's only one small part of what the cables which have been released show. So, in response to Jeffrey Goldberg, I've got to say that I think that the cables show that he got Israeli views mostly right, as I wrote at the time. But I also think that they show that I got the Arab views mostly right too.
The cables thus far released show that most Arab leaders deeply fear rising Iranian power and want the U.S. to solve their problems for them, and that in private Jordanian, Egyptian and Gulf leaders expound at length on Tehran's perfidy (as many of us have heard before, without the benefit of leaked cables). They are indeed "suspicious and hostile towards Iran." But they also fear retaliation by Iran and exposure before their own public opinion, are internally divided about how to respond, and insist on keeping their private views to themselves. And Arab public opinion is sharply against war with Iran, despite years of anti-Iranian propaganda in the Saudi-backed Arab media, and harshly critical of much of the foreign policy of these regimes. As Mossad Director Meir Dagan bluntly, and accurately, put it in one of the leaked cables, the Arab states "all fear Iran, but want someone else to do the job for them."
There's plenty of evidence throughout the cables of the well-known suspicions of Iran in Arab palaces -- with some of the wildest comments coming from Egyptian officials. But there's also plenty of evidence of their reluctance to get involved in military action. In February, for instance, the office director of Kuwait's Foreign Ministry is quoted as saying that "Kuwaitis are equally concerned about military pre-emption, which they believe would not prove decisive and would lead Iran to lash out at US interests in the Gulf." An Omani military official says " he advocated a non-military solution as the best option for the U.S." The Saudi Foreign Ministry "strongly advised against taking military action to neutralize Iran's program." In other words, "while Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation."
And there's even more examples in the cables of their desire to avoid taking a public stance. Hosni Mubarak rails about Iranian support for terrorism in private, but then says that this is "well-known but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation." An Israeli official tells his American counterpart that "Emiratis are "not ready to do publicly what they say in private." The Kuwaitis "will welcome any proposals that can move Iran off its nuclear path… but will not expose itself to Iranian ire by getting out front to push for these." Or, in other words, "those who expect these regimes to take a leading, public role in an attack on Iran are likely to be disappointed."
The point here is not to say that the cautious views matter and the hawkish ones don't. Nor does it say that Arab leaders haven't been calling for tough measures against Iran, since they have been doing just that for years. It's to say that Arab leaders are divided and uncertain about how to deal with Iran, and fearful of taking a strong position in public. In other words, it would be a mistake to "make too much of the private remarks of selected Arab regime figures, without considering whether those remarks reflect an internal consensus within their regimes or whether they will be repeated in public in a moment of political crisis." That's pretty much still where we are today.
I expect to delve into the substance of the WikiLeaks cables over the next few days -- I've been flagging noteworthy ones on Twitter all afternoon, and will keep doing so as I go along, and I will blog at greater length about specific issues as they arise. But I wanted to just throw some quick thoughts out there now after reading through most of the first batch. My initial skepticism about the significance of this document leak, fueled by the lack of interesting revelations in the New York Times and Guardian reports, is changing as I see the first batch of cables posted on WikiLeaks itself.
I don't think that there's going to be much revision of the American foreign policy debate, because most policy analysts have already heard most of what's in the cables, albeit in sanitized form. The cables still generally confirm the broad contours of what we already knew: many Arab leaders are deeply suspicious of Iran and privately urged the U.S. to attack it, for instance, but are afraid to say so in public. I haven't seen anything yet which makes me change any of my views on things which I study -- the cables show Arab leaders in all their Realpolitik and anti-Iranian scheming. I never thought that Arab leaders didn't hate Iran, only that they wouldn't act on it because of domestic and regional political constraints and out of fear of being the target of retaliation, and that's what the cables show. I'll admit that I'm finding a wealth of fascinating details filling in gaps and adding information at the margins. Nobody who follows regional politics can not be intrigued to hear Hosni Mubarak calling Iranians "big fat liars" or hearing reports of the astoundingly poor policy analysis of certain UAE royals. This will be a bonanza to academics studying international relations and U.S. foreign policy comparable to the capture of Iraqi documents in 2003 (I wonder what norms will evolve about citations to these documents, which the U.S. government considers illegally released?).
But, as Issandr el-Amrani pointed out earlier today, the real impact may well be in the Arab world, where rulers go to great lengths to keep such things secret. The Arab media thus far is clearly struggling to figure out how to report them, something I'll be following over the next week. One of the points which I've made over and over again is that Arab leaders routinely say different things in private and in public, but that their public rhetoric is often a better guide to what they will actually do since that reflects their calculation of what they can get away with politically. Arab leaders urged the U.S. to go after Saddam privately for years, but wouldn't back it publicly for fear of the public reaction. It's the same thing with Iran over the last few years, or with their views of the Palestinian factions and Israel. But now those private conversations are being made public, undeniably and with names attached.
So here's the million dollar question: were their fears of expressing these views in public justified? Let's assume that their efforts to keep the stories out of the mainstream Arab media will be only partially successful -- and watch al-Jazeera here, since it would traditionally relish this kind of story but may fear revelations about the Qatari royal family. Extremely important questions follow. Will Arab leaders pay any significant political price for these positions, as they clearly feared? Or will it turn out that in this era of authoritarian retrenchment they really can get away with whatever diplomatic heresies they like even if it outrages public opinion? Will the publication of their private views lead them to become less forthcoming in their behavior in order to prove their bona fides -- i.e. less supportive of containing or attacking Iran, or less willing to deal with Israel? Or will a limited public response to revelations about their private positions lead them to become bolder in acting on their true feelings? Will this great transgression of the private/public divide in Arab politics create a moment of reckoning in which the Arab public finally asserts itself... or will it be one in which Arab leaders finally stop deferring to Arab public opinion and start acting out on their private beliefs?
Now those are interesting questions.
UPDATE: thus far, most of the mainstream Arab media seems to be either ignoring the Wikileaks revelations or else reporting it in generalities, i.e. reporting that it's happening but not the details in the cables. I imagine there are some pretty tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now, as they try to figure out how to cover the news within their political constraints. Al-Jazeera may feel the heat the most, since not covering it (presumably to protect the Qatari royal family) could shatter its reputation for being independent and in tune with the "Arab street". So far, the only real story I've seen in the mainstream Arab media is in the populist Arab nationalist paper al-Quds al-Arabi, which covers the front page with a detailed expose focused on its bete noir Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the details are all over Arabic social media like Facebook and Twitter, blogs, forums, and online-only news sites like Jordan's Ammon News. This may be a critical test of the real impact of Arabic social media and the internet: can it break through a wall of silence and reach mass publics if the mass media doesn't pick up the story?
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
One year ago today, President Obama delivered a much anticipated speech in Cairo, Egypt in which he pledged "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect." That new beginning seemed a long time ago this week, as Muslims expressed outrage over America's seeming support for Israel's naval commando attack on an aid convoy headed towards Gaza. It is no accident that the anniversary of Obama's speech has gone virtually unremarked in the Arab media this week, except for a few comments about unmet promises and some juxtaposition of that glorious moment with America's anemic response to Gaza.
The President's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told a press conference that he did not believe that the American position would have a great impact on Obama's relations with the Muslim communities of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Obama administration does not change its cautious approach quickly and forcefully address the blockade of Gaza which is the real heart of this week's scandal, it will confirm the crystallizing narrative of a President which either can not deliver on its promises or did not mean what he said. This would be a sad epitaph for the President's carefully nurtured outreach to the Muslim world.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.