What are the big stories in the Arab world today? A newly elected parliament is being seated, and a deposed president is leaving the country. But beyond that, the remarkable thing is that there are any political stories at all. There weren’t, a year and a half ago. The political stories of today are not about the advent of paradise, but about the politics of transitions.
It was never acceptable to assert glibly in an op-ed that things have happened “Because Arabs are… ” such and such. It has the form of a racist argument. Arabs are only united, if at all, by a common language (and even it is diverse). Things happen because “Arabs do…”, because of actions they take for reasons of their social interests, not because of what they supposedly “are.”
The new Arab world created by the people power movements of 2012 is not suddenly Sweden. No one should have expected it to be. The Arab world had been stuck in a stagnating rut, of dictatorship, family cartels, embezzlement, corruption, and stagnation. Where economic growth of 5% a year began being reported, as in Tunisia or Egypt, it was either a lie or was mostly captured by a small economic elite, the Arab 1%.
What began in some of these countries in 2011 was a transition, a transition that activists hoped would be toward regular, free and fair parliamentary elections and ways for students, workers, office workers, women, religious activists, and religious minorities to have an impact on policy. None of these things would have been possible in the least under the old regimes. There was no hope. Now there is hope but no certitude.
In Tunisia and Egypt, that transition has begun. In Yemen, less stark change is afoot, but some sort of transition seems at least to be beginning. In Libya, the dictator was overthrown but elections are still some six months off. In Syria, a popular movement is still attempting to kick off the transition. In Bahrain, the movement was crushed, but village demonstrations bravely continue.
In Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan, there have been at least some reforms to forestall the outbreak of a more vigorous movement. In the oil rich states of the Gulf, the monarchs and emirs have attempted to bribe their publics into quiescence.
The transitions may fail. They involve politics, the working of social conflict among large social groups into political speeches, elections and policies. Sometimes a democratic transition begins and stalls out. Sometimes it is incomplete (one thinks of Russia). Sometimes it remains incomplete for a long time. Sometimes dictatorship returns (Ukraine?). Sometimes longstanding democracies themselves deteriorate politically (think of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi with high levels of corruption and a form of press censorship).
The success or failure of transitions depends on many things. It helps to have a wealthy country, but perhaps only Tunisia fits the bill even a little bit in the Arab region. It helps not to have strong ethnic divisions and grievances. It helps to have a strong middle class and institutions such as labor unions and chambers of commerce. Religion is probably irrelevant as an explanatory consideration.
Those who throw up their hands over the rise of Muslim religious parties in Egypt or the continued instability in Libya are not looking at what has happened as a set of processes. If anything good came out of the uprisings of 2011 it is precisely this flux, this opening toward possibilities, this politics. Because in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt or Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya there was no politics of an ordinary sort, only secret police and massive embezzlement and arbitrary arrest and torture.
If some of the transitions don’t get off the ground or if they fail, there are concrete economic and political reasons for it. Those need to be investigated and understood. The day when bigots could say that Arabs or Muslims are incapable of a certain kind of politics has passed. But the day when we can understand in detail why their politics evolves as it does is still not here.
So here are the stories of the transitions today, the stories of politics in a region formerly beset by censorship, secret police, domestic spying, and deadening silences.
1. On Monday, the newly elected lower house of parliament met. The last elected parliament, of fall, 2010, had been almost completely dominated by members of the corrupt National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak, and clearly all challengers to his regime had been excluded from winning seats by the police who counted the ballots. Public rage at a clearly phony electoral outcome fed into the uprising of Jan. 25-Feb. 11. The new parliament is dominated by Muslim religious parties, with the Muslim Brotherhood, at 47% of seats, the largest. It met with three other parties to choose the new speaker of the house, Mohammed al-Katatny, who is resigning from his position in the Muslim Brotherhood to take this post. That is, al-Katatny’s appointment was passed by the Wafd Party, which has a lot of Coptic Christians and secular Muslims in it, and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, as well as the Salafi Nur Party (the second-biggest). Nur and the Wafd will supply the two deputy speakers.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been attempting to become a central actor in Egyptian society and politics for many decades, so its dominance of this parliament is historic. As AP points out, they are avoiding triumphalism or extreme policies because they don’t want to provoke the kind of social conflict that occurred in Algeria in the 1990s after a Muslim religious party came to power at the polls there but was deposed by military intervention. Some 150,000 persons are said to have died in that fighting.
2. Thousands of political prisoners have been released in Tunisia, a year after dictator Zine El Abidin Ben Ali was overthrown. In addition, 122 prisoners on death row had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment by President Moncef al-Marzouqi, a human rights activist who had been exiled to France by his predecessor. He has pledged to work to abolish capital punishment.
3. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left Yemen for Oman on his way to the United States for medical treatment. (He had been wounded in a bombing in summer, 2011). Before he departed, he gave a speech asking the people to pardon him for any mistakes committed during his three decades of rule. Saleh’s opponents have opposed the immunity from prosecution granted him by the plan of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He had said that he turned power over to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who, however, complained that Saleh continued to interfere in the political process. On Sunday, Saleh is said to have finally relinquished all prerogatives to Hadi. Saleh says that he will return in February, as head of the General People’s Congress Party, which will contest the presidential election scheduled for that month. Hadi will be the standard bearer for the ruling party.
The Arabic press reports that on Sunday, tens of thousands of demonstrators came out at Change Square in Sanaa to demand that Saleh be tried for crimes he committed in the course of trying to put down the rallies of winter-spring, 2011.
4. Libya’s Transitional National Council is facing protests from activists in the country’s second largest city, Benghazi. That city was crucial to the movement that overthrew Qaddafi, but its residents say that they are the victims of neglect by the transitional government, which has a lot of former regime officials in it. In both Tunisia and Egypt, transitional prime ministers had to resign under pressure from democratic activists not satisfied with how much continuity there was from the old regime.
5. On Sunday, the Arab League called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down and to allow a government of national unity to guide the country to a new system. This plan sounds very much like the one adopted (or partially adopted) in Yemen. Al-Assad angrily rejected the suggestion as undue interference in Syria’s internal affairs.
It isn’t surprising that the Baath government castigated the Arab League for interfering. What is amazing is that the Arab League is attempting to suggest a way forward for Syria, out of its crises and gridlock. For decades the Arab League was a cypher. But under Secretary-General Nabil Alaraby, it has become an international organization of some importance. It called for the intervention against Qaddafi in Libya. Al-Assad has blown it off, treating it as if it was still divided and toothless, as in the past. He may be making a mistake. His strong alliance with Iran and the unsavory sight of all those sniping attacks on his own civilians has turned a lot of the Arab League against him.
My list of challenges last year this time more or less nailed it, especially my concerns about the Mubarak era ending in Egypt. Many of the dangers to which I pointed still exist, of course, but a whole host of new difficulties has emerged.
5. The compromise reached in Yemen is unacceptable to many reformers. Although Ali Abdullah Saieh says he is stepping down in favor of his vice president, he seems likely to remain the power behind the throne. He essentially has amnesty for his crimes through 2011. Yemen even in the best of times faces severe problems of water and resources and extreme rural poverty. Muslim radical movements are significant in the rural areas. Instability in Yemen can affect security in the Red Sea, southern Saudi Arabia, and even the US itself, as with the bombing plots originating there. The US should pressure Saleh to make the transition to another leader quicker and less chaotic.
4. Pakistan’s politics is crisis-prone, but this year governance reached new lows of efficiency. The possibility that president Asaf Ali Zardari attempted to reach out to the US military for help with curbing his own officer corps, dubbed “Memogate” in Islamabad, has made relations between the civilian government and the military “frosty.” The US Congress is withholding military aid to Pakistan this year, which has already begun driving Pakistan closer to China. Flashpoints include hot pursuit at the AfPak border, US drone strikes on militants in the Federally Administered Tribal areas, NATO transport of goods through Pakistan to Afghanistan, and covert Pakistani support for the Haqqani Network, which the uS calls a terrorist organization. Bad relations between the US and Pakistan could negatively affect the course of the Afghan War and presents problems for US policy in South Asia as a whole.
3. The crisis in Syria remains grave. It can only end in one of three ways: The regime succeeds in repressing the reform movement, 2) the reform movement comes to power, or 3) the regime makes enough changes to allow a slow transition away from one-party authoritarianism. In the meantime, destabilizing hostilities could break out, with resultant instability in Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
2. The elections in Egypt are producing a parliament strongly dominated by representatives of political Islam, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. The Muslim Brotherhood is making it clear that they want to submit the 1979 Camp David Peace treaty to a national referendum. A Muslim Brotherhood prime minister or president is most unlikely to be willing to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or to continue to help impose a blockade on the Palestinian civilians of Gaza. The Egyptian military is still ultimately in control, and it does not want hostilities with Israel, so that this change is unlikely to go beyond producing tensions. But if the Israelis believed that the Egyptians were lax in their inspections at the Rafah checkpoint at Gaza, they might well bomb it, risking killing Egyptian troops. How such actions could spiral out of control is something no one can predict. In any case, rising Egyptian-Israeli tensions for the first time since the early 1970s present a severe challenge to US policy, which attempts to maintain good relations with both.
1. Iran presents the greatest challenges to Washington policy, mainly because Washington insists on building up Iran as a threat. The Iraq of PM Nouri al-Maliki has been moving closer to Iran, both because al-Maliki owes his position as prime minister to Iran, and in part because Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain has alarmed Shiite-ruled Baghdad. The low-key war between the US and Iran could be ratcheted up by legislation just passed by Congress that targets the Central Bank, based in Tehran. The US is increasingly blockading Iran, an act of war in international law, and the possibility of escalating tensions leading in unexpected and tragic directions cannot be discounted.
1. The upheavals of 2011 were provoked by the Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq Bzzt! Wrong answer. None of the young people who made this year’s revolutions ever pointed to Iraq as an inspiration. The only time Iraq was even brought up in their tweets was as a negative example (“let’s not let ourselves be divided by sectarianism, since that is what the Americans did in Iraq.”) Americans are so full of self-admiration that they cannot see Iraq as it is, and as it is perceived in the Arab world. Iraq is not a shining city on a hill for them. It is a violent place riddled with sectarian hatred, manipulated by the United States, and suffering from poor governance and dysfunctional politics. I did interviewing with activists last summer in Tunisia and Egypt. The youth do not want to be like Iraq! They want to be like Turkey, or, now, Tunisia.
2. President Obama was wrong to ask Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down. This position has been taken by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It is a crazy thing to say. Mubarak could not have stayed in power, with nearly a million people in the streets and order breaking down in the country. If anything Obama was far too slow to act, and there was danger of Egypt turning seriously anti-American if he had not stepped in when he did. Trying to keep a dictator in power who has worn out his welcome is always a big mistake on the part of a great power, as was seen in the case of the shah of Iran.
3. Muslim radicalism benefited from the revolutions in the Arab world. So far, at least, the beneficiaries of the upheavals have been both secular, left-leaning dissidents and Muslim religious parties. Neither is violent. In Tunisia, the new president, Moncef Marzouki, is a staunch secularist. The al-Nahda (Ennahda) religious party got about 40 percent of the seats in parliament. But neither sort of movement is radical or violent. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is now peaceful and talks moderately, and is attacked for it by the radicals such as Ayman al-Zawahiri. Muslim radicals have not been able to take advantage of these largely peaceful movements in the way they could of George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, which really did fuel the spread of violent extremism. Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman of Yemen argues that if democracy can be achieved in the Arab world, it will finish off violent extremism, which only flourishes under dictatorship.
4. Muslim religious groups spear-headed the revolutions. This allegation is made by Iran from one side and Western conservatives from the other. It is for the most part incorrect. Leftists, secularists, workers and students made the revolutions. The Muslim forces had often been devastated by government persecution and were weak (Tunisia) or had been made a junior partner in governance and were reluctant to risk entirely losing that position (Egypt). In Egypt, the revolutionaries are referred to in Arabic as the thuwar, and they are contrasted to the Muslim Brotherhood and other forces. In Egypt, it is these secularists and leftista who are are still calling for demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The most effective revolutionaries in Libya, the Berbers of the Western Mountain region and the urban street fighters of Misrata, were the least fundamentalist in orientation. While the Muslim religious parties may be good at organizing to win elections and so are perhaps the main beneficiaries of the revolutions politically, they did not make the revolutions themselves.
5. The uprising in Bahrain was merely a manifestation of sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite. The protesters in Bahrain included reformist Sunni Muslims. And the conservative forces pressuring the king to crack down on the crowds included the country’s great merchant families which comprise both Sunnis and Shiites. The struggle in these islands, like that elsewhere in the Arab world, was over authoritarian forms of government versus popular democracy, accountability and transparency. The king’s constitution allows him to over-rule both houses of parliament, allows him to appoint the upper house, and allows it to over-rule the lower house. The Shiite protesters were upset that these arrangements, along with gerrymandering that reduced Shiite representation, preventing the majority from asserting itself (Shiites are about 58% of the population). But the discourse was about constitutional monarchy, not about Shiite rule or an Iran-style Shiite theocracy, with some small exceptions.
6. Iran was behind the uprising in Bahrain. There is no good evidence for this allegation, which is the basis for the Saudi and United Arab Emirates military intervention on behalf of the Sunni Arab monarchy. Bahrain’s Shiites are Arabs and probably a majority of them belong to the conservative Akhbari school of jurisprudence, which rejects ayatollahs in favor of the ability of laypeople to interpret the law for themselves. Bahrain Shiites of the Usuli school, prevalent in Iran and Iraq, are more likely to look for leadership to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, than to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Bahrain’s Shiites claim educational and workplace discrimination, and dispute a constitution and electoral system that disadvantages them. They are not agents of Iran.
7. The Arab Spring is a Western plot. This allegation was made by the Qaddafis in Libya and is currently asserted by many in Syria’s Baath Party. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is quite clear that the upheavals in the Arab world came as a surprise to the G8 nations, and were mostly at least initially unwelcome. France’s minister of defense offered help with police training to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia once the demonstrations got going last year this time. The US initially signalled support for Hosni Mubarak during the rallies against him of late January. Hillary Clinton said she was sure that the Mubarak regime was “stable.” Vice President Joe Biden was constrained to deny that Mubarak was “a dictator.” Obama only saw the writing on the wall with regard to Egypt at the last minute, and was starting to be a target of protest posters in Tahrir Square. The US was reluctant to lose an ally against al-Qaeda in Yemen such as Ali Abdullah Saleh, and still has never sanctioned him for killing hundreds of innocent protesters. Washington was likewise unhappy with the uprising in Bahrain, and at most urged the king to find a compromise (the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered in the capital, Manama, and so the US did not feel itself in a position to support the protesters strongly). Obama was famously reluctant to get involved in Libya. There is substantial ambivalence over the upheaval in Syria, and so far the main form of intervention is targeted financial sanctions. If there is anything that is already clear as we catch history on the run here, it is that the uprisings were spontaneous, indigenous, centered on dissatisfied youth, and that and presented the status quo Powers with unwelcome challenges.
8. The intervention of NATO in Libya was driven primarily by oil. European sanctions on Libya began being dropped in the late 1990s, and US sanctions were lifted in 2004. Western oil companies had sunk billions into the Libyan petroleum sector by 2011, and it is highly unlikely that they would have wanted to risk instability there or the advent of a new government that might not honor their bids. The oil majors suffered substantial losses because of the loss of Libyan production last spring and summer. The conservative government of David Cameron in the UK and that of Nicola Sarkozy in France allegedly feared that if Qaddafi were allowed to crush the Libyan reformers by main force, he might drive them into the arms of al-Qaeda, as had happened in Algeria in the early 1990s. And, they may have feared that Qaddafi would provoke a big exodus to Europe at a time when European economies are poorly situated to absorb such immigrants in large numbers. Sarkozy may have felt the need for a quick victory to bolster his position in the polls ahead of next year’s presidential elections. Cameron, as a conservative, may have sought to rehabilitate the use of military force to enforce international order, which had been tarnished in UK public opinion by the Iraq disaster. Those who say Europe would not have intervened in the absence of the petroleum factor forget the Balkans, which presented similar challenges of massive violence on Europe’s doorstep. Likewise, oil isn’t everything; Bahrain has very little, and so it cannot explain Washington’s reluctance to lambaste the monarchy there. To argue that Western Europe had interests in Libya that drove its intervention is common sense. To peg everything to oil is vulgar Marxism.
9. The Arab dictatorships now overthrown or tottering were better for women than their likely Islamist successors. The postcolonial Arab states often pursued what my friend Deniz Kandiyoti of the School of Oriental and African Studies has called “state feminist” projects of female uplift. But because these policies were pursued by unpopular dictatorships, they created a male backlash. The Muslim Brotherhood’s patriarchal pushback against the upper class feminism of Suzanne Mubarak was a feature not of 2011 but of 1981-2010. The massive trend to veiling among Egyptian women took place in the past 20 years, not all of a sudden today. That is, “state feminism” often backfired because it was felt as intrusive and heavy-handed. Women’s progress was tainted, moreover, by association with hated dictatorships. Nor was Hosni Mubarak exactly Germaine Greer. Two of my Ph.D. students had their projects initially rejected by the Egyptian authorities because they included a focus on feminist issues, which were increasingly controversial in Mubarak’s dictatorship. If Tunisia and Egypt can now move to democratic systems, women will have new freedoms to organize politically and to make demands on the state. Nor can outsiders pre-define women’s issues. Their actual desires may be for social services, notably lacking under Mubarak and Ben Ali, rather than for the kinds of programs favored by the old elites. In any case, while women’s causes may face challenges from conservative Muslim forces, it is healthier for them to mobilize and debate in public than for faceless male bureaucrats to make high-handed decisions for women.
10. The Arab upheavals are an unmitigated disaster for Israel. This position has been argued by Netanyahu and others. While it is true that the Muslim religious parties coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt are more sympathetic to the Palestinians than were Ben Ali and Mubarak, the issue is more complex than that. The Syrian National Council that is opposing the Baath Party in Syria has said that it will cease supporting Hizbullah and Hamas if it comes to power. The National Transitional Council in Libya is not anti-Israel. Moreover, you cannot gauge whether the changes are good or bad for Israel only by whether they might affect Israeli policy toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Dictatorships such as that of Mubarak were politically pathological, pursuing policies advantageous to the Israeli Right wing that were deeply unpopular with the Egyptian people. A democratic Egypt that actually represented public opinion would not necessarily be militant (no Egyptians want a return to a war footing), but it would be honest in its dealings with Tel Aviv. Israel has not been benefited by its denial of statehood to the Palestinians, by Mubarak’s corrupt collaboration in right wing policies, nor by the Syrian Baath Party’s cynical deployment of Palestine as a domestic issue. In a politically healthy Middle East, when Israel steals Palestinian land and water, it would get regional push back of a political and economic nature (as has finally started happening with regard to Turkey). That isn’t apocalyptic, it is politics. What has been wrong with Israel’s relationship with its Middle Eastern neighbors has been a lack of politics in favor of bribed sycophancy or ginned-up militancy, which has bred terrorism on the one side and arrogant hawkishness on the other. The changes in the Arab world, if they lead to more democracy, could well normalize Israel and Palestine in the region. It wouldn’t be the end of disputes, but it might be the beginning of the end of pathological politics.
Egyptian reformer Saad Eddin Ibrahim observed in the late 1990s and 2000 that the Arab world was beginning to be characterized by a bizarre gryphon-like form of government, the republican monarchy. In a republic, power is supposed to be vested in the people, who are sovereign, and who can change out their leaders through elections. In a monarchy, power is vested in a hereditary monarchy.
Air Force general Hafiz al-Assad made a coup in Syria in 1970. By the late 1990s, as his health failed, he groomed his son Bashar as his successor. Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist, succeeded his father. Initially he was thought likely to make significant reforms. But he was constrained by the powerful Jama’at al-Assad or al-Assad clan to retain the regime’s closed and authoritarian ways.
Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who had taken over Libya in 1969, was by the first decade of the 21st century grooming his son Sayf al-Islam to succeed him. Sayf did a degree at the London School of Economics and was rumored to have enlightened ideas.
Hosni Mubarak, an Air Force general, came to power in Egypt in 1981, succeeding the assassinated President Anwar El Sadat. In recent years, he groomed his son Gamal to succeed him, provoking a strong backlash from military circles (Egypt has since 1952 been a military dictatorship) and from civil society.
Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen came to power in 1978 and was positioning his billionaire son Ahmed, a military commander of the Republican Guards, as his successor.
The republican monarchy was not a quirk. It reflected the realities of political economy. From the 1990s, the Arab states were beginning to adopt Neoliberal (laissez-faire, anti-regulatory) policies after a long period of socialism. Privatizing public economic resources created enormous opportunities for graft, favoritism and nepotism. The government knew where the opportunities were for investment before the public, and state officials could tip their relatives and cronies.
There is a sense in which the great Arab upheavals of 2011 were in the first instance revolts against republican monarchy. The Arab youth who came in the streets viewed the nepotistic elites as predatory, and as pursuing policies that lined their own pockets at the expense of fostering opportunities for their publics.
When people ask if the Arab Spring has really changed or accomplished anything, this reality should be remembered. Since a whole future, in which the sons of the dictators would come to power, has now been erased from the arena of possibility, it will be easy to forget that it had ever been in the cards.
We should also consider that the very prospect of republican dynasties was one of the motivators for the youthful crowds who made the revolutions. However hopeless the political, cultural and economic scene might have been, if there had been hope of eventual change than perhaps people would have stayed home and not risked their lives to make a revolution. The very likelihood that the dynasty would just go on, and that its policies would change little, produced the anger and despair that fueled popular discontent.
This year marked the end of republican monarchy, and of its peculiar, nepotistic, form of state economy. Gamal Mubarak is in jail in Egypt. Sayf al-Islam Qaddafi is in jail in Libya. Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has stepped down in favor of an unrelated prime minister, and it seems unlikely that Ahmed will be allowed to become president. Bashar al-Assad and the Assad Clan are under severe pressure and whatever happens seem likely to be weakened and to be unable to govern as dynasts into the next generation.
The end of republican monarchy is also the end of rule by a small oligarchy of persons related to or intermarried with one another. That is, the Arab 1% has begun being overthrown by the 99%. If the government and economy open up, bribes aren’t demanded for every little thing, and leaders emerge who put the interests of the country first, economic and political opportunity may be gained by the Arab millennials.
The Mubaraks put Saad Eddin Ibrahim (with whom I studied) in jail for pointing out their aspirations to republican monarchy. Gamal Mubarak is now in Saad Eddin’s old cell.
The king is dead, and lives no more in the republics.
I asked her not only about high politics but about social issues such as the role of women in the revolution and the threat of religious radicalism. I asked each question twice in the beginning, once in Arabic for her and for precision, and then in English for the video. We cut the former in editing; but in any case it gradually became apparent that Ms. Karman understands English well.
Ms. Karman is urging the US to sanction President Ali Abdullah Saleh personally to force him completely to relinquish power.
After the interview was concluded, Saleh accepted the Gulf Cooperation Council plan for resolving the crisis. He now says, at least, that he has transferred power to his vice president in anticipation of February presidential elections. A national unity cabinet has been formed, mixing Saleh loyalists with pro-change politicians.
Ms. Karman’s perspective on the revolution in Yemen is invaluable, since she has been a major figure, camping out in a tent in “Change Square” in Sanaa and making all the sacrifices and taking all the considerable risks that entails. Her importance as a model of social activism for a new generation of Arab women cannot be underestimated.
She is clearly a dynamic, inspiring person of unflagging energy and high ideals, and the full force of her personality doesn’t really come through on video.
The University of Michigan Near Eastern Studies Department set up the interview, which was shot and edited by the UM News and Information Service’s “UM Productions.” Many thanks to kind colleagues who involved me and to the latter for all their help.
The Arab upheavals of 2011 have been very different from one another across countries, but have in common a language of parliamentary democracy as the ultimate ideal (albeit one that sounds more like the old West German Social Democratic Party ideal than like the Neoliberal parliamentary regimes of the US and its close allies). Democracy is not a black and white quality but rather a range of practices that can be highly mature (“consolidated”) or still imperfect and fragile (“unconsolidated”). Whether the aspirations of many Arab young people and intellectuals for greater political freedom will be realized or not, the breadth, depth and fervor of the aspiration is remarkable in itself.
Events are moving quickly in the region, and here are some notable developments with implications for democracy in the Middle East:
1. Despite the Interior Ministry’s crackdown on protesters last week, Egypt held the first round of elections for the lower house of parliament on Monday. Some activists had called for a(n inevitably self-defeating) boycott of Monday’s polls, but luckily the Egyptian public paid no attention. The LAT says that the turnout at the voting booth was heavy. As Ahmed Amr argued here Monday, the ruling military council has attempted to undermine the outbreak of democracy. But an elected parliament has a great deal of legitimacy and it won’t be as easy to over-rule as youth protesting in a square. Over time, there is at least a chance that civilian politicians with great popularity can begin whittling away at military perquisites, as happened in Turkey.
2. Yemen has witnessed some surprising developments in the past week. Ali Abdullah Saleh finally signed on the dotted line and accepted the Gulf Cooperation Council’s plan for resolving that country’s crisis. Saleh agreed to step down and turn power over to his vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who in turn has set elections for February 21. The revolutionaries in Yemen are not happy with the consensual, kiss and make up, approach of Saudi Arabia and its allies. An amnesty has been announced that includes Saleh, whom the protesters want put on trial for crimes against humanity. The ruling council going into elections is made up half of dissident parties and half of members of the old ruling party. Nobelist and journalist Tawakkul Karman has led a charge to repeal the amnesty and, indeed, has asked the International Criminal Court to indict Saleh. But a month ago, it could not have been foreseen that Saleh would step down nor that elections would be set so soon. Yemen is a complex place and not out of the woods, but it would be foolish to deny that some progress has been made.
3. Morocco had elections and the Muslim fundamentalist party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), got a little over a fourth of the seats. Turnout was light at 45 percent but up from 37 percent the last time. The big change in that country is that the king has now pledged to appoint the prime minister from the party that won the biggest number of seats. It wants to lower tax rates on the rich, earning it a seal of approval from Forbes. Thus, as in Tunisia, self-proclaimed moderate Muslim politicians will have the opportunity to show whether they can rule and face the electorate again in the next election. Morocco’s baby steps away from absolute monarchy should not be exaggerated. But it is remarkable that even the mild reforms so far enunciated by the king should ever have been enacted at all, and surely we see a faint echo of the Arab revolutions putting fear in the heart of the Moroccan Establishment.
The Arab League is no longer nothing more than a club of dictators. 4 of its 22 members have now had changes at the top induced by popular uprisings, with elections held or promised. Three (Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco) had already been classified as “partly free” by Freedom House. Another, Iraq, holds regular parliamentary elections, though its democracy is compromised in other ways. So 8 of the 22, about a third, can’t be dismissed as simple dictatorships or absolute monarchies. While the absolutist states have their own reasons for wanting the Baath Party of Syria to fall, especially its alliance with Iran, the youth and populace of the countries that have experienced upheavals are strongly anti-Bashar al-Assad and they are a constituency that the new or transitional governments cannot afford to alienate.
Many of Yemen’s problems come from being badly governed. For instance, the government has not been good about providing universal K-12 education. The literacy rate is only 54 percent over-all, and 25 percent of school-age children are not in school. Only 37% of high-school-aged youngsters were actually in high school in one recent year. Only 25 percent of high-school-aged girls were in high school.
Not only is there a problem with the formation of human capital, but there is a severe resource problem. Some 60% of Yemen’s income is from its small petroleum production. In ordinary times, it only produces 280,000 barrels and day, and exports 105,000 of them. Since the revolution began, Yemen’s oil exports have fallen because of poor security (one pipeline was attacked by rebellious tribesmen, costing the country hundreds of million dollars a year).
Yemen has many coastal areas with strong wind potential, not to mention highlands. A small wind project at Mocha was planned for 2012, but the political turmoil has probably impeded progress on it. Someone needs to buy Yemen lots of those new enormous 7-megawatt wind turbines, along with an electrical grid that can deliver the power around the country.
Saleh is clearly incapable of running Yemen in a forward-looking way. The country needs a new government desperately. But it also needs new sources of energy and jobs, which renewables could accomplish. All the violence we hear about in Yemen, including that of sectarian groups such as the Huthis and that of radicals such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is driven in part by struggles over scarce resources, especially water rights.
For the world community to let Yemen sink would be for it to risk violence, terrorism, and displacement on a vast scale (millions of Yemenis could be forced to emigrate, potentially causing more disruption to their host country– likely Saudi Arabia). The world community not only needs to find ways of easing Saleh out, it needs to find ways of funding green energy projects in Yemen, which among all the countries in the world probably most urgently needs them. Yemen is facing the water and electricity shortages now that the whole world will likely confront in the not so distant future.