Saturday, June 08, 2013

Did Syria ruin the "Arab Spring"?

Marc Lynch thinks so. I would say it has certainly helped, but that it's far from the whole story. Another part of the story is that many people had excessively rosy expectations about the "Arab Spring" from the start. That shouldn't really surprise us, since the pattern of exhilaration followed by disillusionment has marked the responses to a lot of revolutionary waves in the modern era—going back to the so-called "Springtime of Peoples" in 1848, where this whole "spring" imagery probably originated.

But I agree that the Syrian catastrophe, in addition to its devastating effects for Syria itself, has had harmful and depressing political repercussions across the region So let's start with those.

=>  Back in early 2011, at the beginning of the grand political upheaval that has engulfed much of the Arab world, many observers and analysts of the Middle East did have great hopes that this would indeed prove to be an "Arab Spring", promoting transitions from authoritarianism and stagnation to democracy, reform, and revitalization across the region.  Some of them are less sanguine now.  So what went wrong?

As I noted, Marc Lynch thinks he has at least part of the answer to that question.  Lynch was one of the people who greeted the early stages of this political earthquake with optimism and enthusiasm. Last month, two years later, he wrote a piece titled "How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring":
When Bashar al-Assad gave his first major speech in response to the outbreak of protests in Syria in late March 2011, the Arab Twitterati's response was an amused, "one down, two speeches to go." That was the script followed by Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak: The president flounders about with a series of unsatisfying reform offers in the face of massive, cascading popular mobilization, and then, after the magical third speech, disappears forever. If Assad opted instead to unleash military force against his people, then Syria would presumably switch over to the Libya script -- a U.N.-authorized, NATO-led military intervention.

It's been a long time since anyone invoked the magical third speech. Two years, more than 70,000 dead, and millions of refugees later, it's painful to remember that easy joking about the inevitability of change. [....]

[...] I want to take a step back and look at how profoundly the Syrian nightmare has destroyed the spirit of fun, hope, and positive change of the early Arab uprisings. The promise of the Arab Spring has given way to Syria's highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare.

The most obvious way in which Syria has eaten the Arab Spring is the ongoing violence. Egypt and Tunisia may not have been quite as peaceful as many like to believe -- many protesters died in clashes with the police -- but it mattered that the militaries opted not to open fire on their people.  [....]  The Assad regime's decision to deploy all means at its disposal in order to hold on to power drove what began as a peaceful uprising into an unstoppable spiral of militarization. And those atrocities have been profoundly visible, documented in endless YouTube videos. The Libya intervention and early Arab diplomatic mobilization over Syria held the possibility of the formation of a new regional norm against leaders killing their own people. Those hopes are now long gone.  [....]

The Syrian war has also created an opening for al Qaeda and jihadist trends, which earlier Arab uprisings did not. While the early days of peaceful change in other Arab countries provided a potent challenge to al Qaeda's ideology, Syria's violence offered a nearly perfect arena for the revival of global jihad.  [....]

The resilience of Assad's regime also graphically demonstrated the possibility of less happy outcomes than in Egypt and Tunisia. Arab citizens who conquered the barrier of fear to join in mass protests against entrenched dictatorships in 2011 now have a raw, fresh example of the risks they face.  [....]

Syria also helped to dispel the intoxicating sense of an Arab public coming together to confront its despotic leaders. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were unifying moments, not only in those countries but across the region. Almost everywhere outside the palaces of worried leaders, Arabs joined in the moment of enthusiasm for political change. [....] There was never such consensus in Syria, though.  [...]  Those divisions have only intensified as the conflict has worsened.  [....]

The focus on international military intervention that hangs over the Syria debate also differed sharply from the other revolts.  [....]  The Syria conflict also quickly became the central arena of the regional cold war rather than a purely internal struggle for change. Strategic proxy competition between regional powers -- including support from the Gulf and Turkey for preferred rebel groups and support from Iran and Hezbollah for the Assad regime -- shaped the Syria conflict in ways not seen as blatantly elsewhere.  [....]

Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey had a variety of motives for supporting the opposition, and worked through different networks to accomplish their goals. They have often worked at cross-purposes, funneling weapons and cash to competing local forces in ways that undermined hopes for opposition unity and disproportionately empowered not only Islamists, but armed groups over peaceful ones.  [....]

Syria has also profoundly affected the Arab media landscape. It has been particularly cruel to Al Jazeera, whose descent is probably the most important story in the Arab media landscape in the last decade. Whether loved or hated, the Qatari-funded station served as a crucial common public sphere for Arab politics since the late 1990s.  [....]  But Al Jazeera's one-sided coverage of Syria and perceived support of Qatari foreign policy has cost it that central position. It is increasingly seen as just another partisan media outlet -- and nothing has replaced it.  [....]

Syria's disaster does not mean that the Arab uprisings have failed. These revolutions were a manifestation of a profound structural change in the region's politics, and will continue to unfold for many years to come. But it is sobering to step back and take account of how dramatically and radically the Syrian conflict has reshaped the world that the Arab uprisings created. An appreciation of these pathological effects, and a discussion of how they might be countered, should be part of the story as the international community struggles to respond to the unfolding disaster.
In many ways this overview is perceptive and illuminating, and it highlights some genuinely important phenomena.

But it slides over some important factors that help undercut the main thrust of Lynch's argument here. Lynch actually mentions one of those factors in passing, but then doesn't follow it up. Right after his observation that "The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were unifying moments, not only in those countries but across the region," Lynch adds this to-be-sure qualification that I didn't quote above:
Such unity would of course fade in the coming months, as polarization between Islamists and their opponents tore apart the Egyptian and Tunisian political consensus. But in those early days it was surprisingly strong.
Alas, there's the rub. That feeling was "surprisingly strong" at the beginning, but it didn't last.  Yes, that's disappointing.  But after the accumulated experience of more than two centuries of modern revolutions, beginning with the French revolution, it should be clear by now that this dynamic of ideological and political polarization is a standard, predictable feature of the revolutionary process—not universal or inevitable, at least in its most extreme forms, but definitely not exceptional.

When popular revolutions erupt against despotic regimes, there is often an initial burst of intoxicating enthusiasm and sweepingly inclusive solidarity that Marx once called the "universal brotherhood swindle". Then, within a short time, different elements of the revolutionary coalition are at each others' throats—and almost every time it happens, they're surprised! In some cases (France, Russia, and Iran among them), the results include civil wars and reigns of terror, including mass killings and intense repression, followed by the emergence of regimes even more despotic and repressive than the pre-revolutionary regimes. In other cases, periods of chaos and conflict that follow the overthrow of the previous rulers turn out to be a transition from one authoritarian regime to another. Again, those outcomes are neither universal nor inevitable, but they're not uncommon either.

(And, of course, we're talking only about cases where the regime against which the revolution is launched actually collapses at the first shock. In other cases, it may be temporarily shaken, but then it manages to crush the revolution and regain power within a fairly short time. That happened almost everywhere in 1848, and it happened in Bahrain this time around.)

Did the repercussions of the Syrian catastrophe play a significant role in poisoning the post-revolutionary developments in Egypt and Tunisia, helping to promote the "polarization between Islamists and their opponents" that tore apart those initial feelings of unity and optimism?  I am skeptical. Instead, it seems likely that this intensifying polarization would have occurred even if the Syrian civil war had never happened, due to the internal dynamics of those two revolutions.  And this outcome shouldn't really have been so surprising, even for analysts—like Lynch—who have been inclined to downplay or whitewash the authoritarian tendencies of Islamist movements and parties and the tensions these might generate.

  =>   In fact, the whole question could be posed from a different angle.  I notice that a report issued on May 13 by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (to which my friend Gershon Shafir alerted me) suggests, in effect, that it was really Egypt that ruined the "Arab Spring". (The report is titled "Delivering Democracy: Repercussions of the 'Arab Spring' on Human Rights".) Some highlights from the introduction:
The battle for the “Arab Spring” continues to be waged on three fronts: between the revolutionaries and remaining members of the old regimes, between secularists and those who call for the establishment of a religious state, and between various actors of the international community. The context in which this struggle is taking place has become even more oppressive since 2011, as is clearly the case in both the Arab countries which saw the fall of old regimes and in those which still aspire to catch this wave of democratic change. One look at the Arab states which did not experience regime change in the wake of the “Arab Spring” is sufficient to understand the fate of this “spring,” for it is clear that the regimes in these states no longer feel drastically threatened by it. Rather, some of the governments in these states have increased counterattacks, with Sudan and Algeria being two prominent examples.  [....]

The situations in the countries most directly affected by the “Arab Spring" vary. In Libya, the nascent state faces armed militias which exert their authority over much of the country. The Syrians who continue to struggle to topple the regime in Damascus cannot be sure that the situation will improve or even that the violence will cease following regime change, as grave crimes are being committed not only by the state but also by armed opposition groups. In Yemen, the struggle continues against the institutions of the old regime, which remain a center of power more influential even than the new interim president. Egyptians, too, struggle against values, principles, practices, legislation, and even a constitution belonging to the “counter-revolution,” which has come to rule in the name of the revolution. Tunisians are likewise working to resist falling prey to the same problems faced by Egyptians.

This state of affairs has facilitated the work of the rulers in the countries less affected by the “Arab Spring,” for it is not difficult to convince their peoples of the need to avoid the fate of the “Arab Spring states” and to opt instead to accept the status quo, with the hope of gradual improvements along the way.

The Egyptian example has been prominently used to convince other Arab peoples that “contentment with what one has is a treasure that does not run out” and that “one bird in the hand is worth ten in the tree,” according to popular Arab proverbs which have aided rulers in subduing their citizens for centuries.

In light of Egypt’s experience over the past two years, other Arab populations have been easily deterred from running the risk of attempting to replace their current rulers with new regimes which may not prove to be any less repressive.

Given Egypt’s size and the major influence it holds in the Arab region, the events that played out in Egypt and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak embodied a nightmare for other Arab rulers, who feared that their peoples would be inspired by and attempt to follow the example of their Egyptian counterparts. Now, however, the daily occurrences in Egypt have become a tool in the hands of these autocratic rulers, who hold up the Egyptian experience as a warning to their own citizens of the fate that awaits those who overthrow their leaders. Indeed, Egyptians have incurred severe losses in all areas – not only have they lost stability, security, and consistent access to electricity, fuel, and food, but they also find themselves on the verge of losing the very freedoms won by their revolution.
Treating Egypt as the central discouraging example that undermined general enthusiasm for the "Arab Spring" may be as overstated as Lynch's attempt to put Syria in that role. But the report's account of post-revolutionary developments in Egypt does make it clear that there were plenty of internal factors that helped undermine those initial feelings of euphoria and unity in Egypt itself, and those factors had little or nothing to do with the news from Syria.
It is impossible to compare what is happening in Egypt to merely a difficult delivery before the birth of democracy. Indications that Egypt is not moving towards democracy but rather away from it include: the regular use of violent repression against the political and social protest movements; the daily harassment of media professionals and institutions – whether through bringing legal cases against them or through targeted physical attacks; the battle against the independence of the judiciary in both the constitution and legislative framework as well as through political and institutional attacks; the preparation of draft legislation which would ‘nationalize’ civil society organizations and transform them into semi-governmental bodies; and the use of rape and sexual harassment as a political tool to eliminate the participation of women in the political. Clearly, Egypt is transitioning from one authoritarian regime to another, albeit with different features on the surface. It is the counter-revolution that has come to power, and this at the expense of the revolution that called for “freedom, bread, and social justice.”

Even as Egypt’s transition suffers from this multi-faceted repression, the Muslim Brotherhood was been careful to comply with the demands of the military establishment when drafting the country’s new constitution. As such, the military continues to enjoy all the privileges that it had under Mubarak, the only difference being that now these privileges are constitutionally protected.  [....]  It is clear that before moving on to establishing a totalitarian theocracy, the political priority of the Muslim Brotherhood is to re-establish the pillars of autocracy. The reasons for this appear to range between the unanticipated political resistance they have met and the need to avoid provoking the institutions of the state, which are still unready to accept such drastic changes, despite the fact that many had moved towards Islamization even during the Mubarak era. [....]
The report goes on to consider some reasons why the prospects for a successful democratic transition might be less dire in Tunisia than in Egypt.  These include the fact that the Tunisian military, unlike the Egyptian military, has never wielded independent political power and does not aspire to do so; the greater strength of secular and modernizing values among the Tunisian middle classes; and the role played by effective non-Islamist intermediate associations, including unions and "civil society organizations", with democratic agendas.  Although the Islamist Ennahda Party won a plurality in the first Tunisian elections after the fall of the old regime, it does not control an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats the way the Islamist parties do in Egypt, and has been forced to cooperate and bargain with opposition parties. And so on.

But a happy outcome is not inevitable in Tunisia, either. Among other things, the report notes that in both Egypt and Tunisia the 'official' political activities of the Islamist parties have been complemented by various sorts of political violence, including assassinations, carried out by armed groups, mobs, etc. In Tunisia, for example, the assassination in February 2013 of Chokri Belaid, a leading figure in the non-Islamist opposition, touched off a major political crisis that is still not fully resolved. That assassination seems to have come as a surprise to the Ennahda leadership, and the reactions it provoked have complicated their life. But it remains to be seen whether the assassins had more radical long-term aims than Ennahda or were simply more impatient with respect to timing and tactics.

(We might add that there have also been widespread sectarian attacks on Egypt's Christian minority.  Most Arab countries, of course, no longer have any significant Christian minorities. Syria is one notable exeption—but however the current civil war turns out, it seems unlikely that there will be many Christians left in Syria within a decade or two.)
Before the “Arab Spring,” many analysts, academics, and politicians predicted that armed Islamist groups would give up their violent activities once an Islamist government came to power. [....] However, in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamist groups have come to power through democratic means (or so they claim) and opened up unprecedented space for other Islamist groups, including those which are not legally recognized or which carry out armed operations. Even so, resorting to violence and even acts of terrorism as a means to achieve political or religious ends has not declined; rather, such acts have increased in these two countries since the revolution as compared to the five years prior. [....]

[S]ince the Islamists came to power Egypt has seen a series of physical attacks committed by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups against media professionals and peaceful protestors. Moreover, it is strongly suspected that assassinations of political activists have been carried out purposefully, yet the judiciary has not been able to conduct serious investigations into these cases. [....]
In the end, the author of the report returns to his central focus on Egypt and its paradigmatic significance ... and draws some gloomy conclusions:
The historic failure of political Islam in Egypt – with all of its organizations and parties – to adopt a consistent democratic discourse, to respect basic human rights, and to follow democratic principles in practice is a major loss for all Egyptians and is in no way mitigated by the success of these parties in elections, which is achieved through any means. Furthermore, this failure is preventing Egypt from emerging successfully from its current crisis and from avoiding falling into the grip of another repressive regime. In light of the major influence of Egypt on the whole Arab region, and due to the fact that Egypt is the center of the international Muslim Brotherhood organization, the repercussions of this failure will indeed be of historical proportions, and its effects will be felt far beyond Egypt’s borders. [....]

Once again, we raise the same question: Is it possible for a political group which exerts all of its efforts to restrict its opponents and to undermine the pillars of democratic transition - including an independent judiciary, free media sector, functioning civil society10, and independent unions – to accept results which are not in its favor from the ballot box by which it came to power?

The domination of political Islam on the course of the “Arab Spring” has become perhaps the most prominent feature of this historic development – to the point that the “Arab Spring” has now come to be known as the “Islamist Spring,” a term that describes the reality that the fruits of this spring have been overwhelmingly enjoyed by only one political group.

In the end, the question remains: Is the suffering experienced by the Arab peoples over the course of the past two years really leading to the birth of democracy in the wake of the “Arab Spring”? Or have secular forms of autocracy merely been traded for religious forms of autocracy? I fear that, because of the inability of political Islam to accept and uphold human rights and democratic principles for which the uprisings occurred, Arab peoples will be forced to pay an even greater price in order to hasten the coming of autumn for political Islam before true democracy can be born out of the “Arab Spring.”
That prognosis may or may not turn out to be excessively pessimistic, but it certainly can't be dismissed as entirely implauslble. However, if Egypt does wind up passing from one form or authoritarianism to another, part of the blame will also have to be attributed to the weakness and ineffectiveness of non-Islamist political forces that might have helped to promote a more democratic outcome. And their weakness, in turn, is part of the legacy of many decades of despotic rule under Mubarak and his predecessors.

=>  So was it Syria that ruined the "Arab Spring"? Not really.

It's true that if the conflict in Syria had not turned into such a murderous and regionally polarizing civil war, the overall picture of the last two years would look a lot less depressing. But there was never a realistic prospect that this political upheaval in the Arab world would wind up looking like, say, East/Central Europe in 1989. The revolutionary wave that began in 2011 unleashed powerful and disruptive forces in societies that were in various ways deeply divided (along economic, sectarian, and/or ideological lines), in which the social and cultural foundations for successful democratic politics ranged from weak to almost non-existent. Furthermore, in most cases the revolutions of 1989 were driven by a broadly shared vision of the kind of socio-political system that could replace the bankrupt post-Stalinist order initially imposed by the Soviet Union. Essentially, the socio-political system that had become consolidated in western Europe and North America provided what looked like a model of successful modernity worth emulating, and that model included a political regime of democratic representative government. By contrast, the post-revolutionary political dynamics in the Arab world include clashes between radically differing visions of society—and it would be foolish to try to pretend otherwise.

On the other hand, if we view the Arab 1848 with more modest expectations, it's not yet entirely clear that it has been totally "ruined".  In some countries, like Syria, it's hard to imagine a non-awful outcome.  But in some other countries it still seems possible, at least, that the ultimate outcomes may  be better, and perhaps more democratic, than what came before.  Let's hope so.

—Jeff Weintraub