Over the last several months, there has been very little good news from the Arab world, and a lot of very bad news: bloody stalemate in Libya, Yemen, and Syria; ruthless repression in Bahrain; ongoing military rule in Egypt; growing restlessness and frustration in Tunisia. The waning of the Arab Spring has been deeply disheartening to both democratic activists in the Middle East and their enthusiasts abroad -- i.e., folks like me. It has, however, offered a gratifying sense of vindication to the stern realists who always viewed the whole thing as a mass delusion. I'm thinking of you, George Friedman.
Friedman is the armchair Metternich of Stratfor, a "global intelligence" firm whose highly informed analyses of world events -- often by former intelligence officials -- have been arriving, uninvited but very welcome, in my e-mail inbox for the last few years. Friedman -- sorry, "Dr. George Friedman" -- is Stratfor's founder and CEO, an international affairs theorist of the old school who views geopolitics as the clash of state interests. The good doctor is thoroughly immune to the American habit of falling in love with democratic movements abroad. In the most recent installment of his "Geopolitical Weekly," Friedman dismisses the idea that the Arab world is now experiencing a "revolution." Elsewhere he has written, "There is no Arab spring, just some demonstrations accompanied by slaughter and extraordinarily vacuous observers."
Hear him out. A minimal requirement for a revolution is the upending of an existing regime -- and, as Friedman points out, even in countries like Egypt where the ruler has been forced from office, the military regime remains firmly in power. (His case is weaker in Tunisia.) Compare the situation to the genuine revolution that toppled one regime after another in the former Communist bloc in 1989. There, entire populations overwhelmed despised governments. Much the same happened in Iran in 1979. The Arab world, by contrast, has seen street demonstrations, lead by the young and the well-educated. "The most interesting thing in Egypt," Friedman has written, "is not who demonstrated, but the vast majority who did not." These limited demonstrations succeeded only in persuading the military to get rid of President Hosni Mubarak. Elsewhere, the mass movements have produced stand-offs rather than victories.
Friedman is right that Arab regimes have had far more staying power than democracy advocates in the West naively imagined. Libya is the example par excellence: The Western narrative was that once NATO openly sided with the rebels, the worm-eaten Qaddafi regime would collapse, even if Qaddafi and a few loyalists would fight on to the bitter end. As the bombing continued week after week, some people -- me, for example -- sagely noted that the aerial assault on Kosovo took 76 days to bring Serbia to its knees. About double that time has passed, and only now does Qaddafi's grip on Tripoli appear to have seriously weakened. The Arab Spring has stalled because key sectors -- tribes in Libya and Yemen, business elites and ethnic minorities in Syria, the upper ranks of the military in Egypt -- have either stuck with the regime or stayed on the sidelines.
So 2011 is not 1989. What is it then? A flash in the pan? "The key principle that appears to be driving the risings," Friedman wrote in February shortly after Mubarak's fall, "is a feeling" that regimes "enriched themselves beyond what good taste permitted." This is like saying that Marie Antoinette's shepherdess parties provoked the French Revolution. But Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, did not set himself on fire because President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali ran a kleptocracy, but because that kleptocracy had destroyed his dignity and reduced his prospects to nothing -- which is more or less why the French stormed the Bastille. Unarmed citizens are braving bullets in Syria not because they feel that President Bashar al-Assad is unseemly, but because they view him as cruel and illegitimate. And while Arab citizens hate their corrupt and contemptuous leaders, they have also stopped accepting the autocratic rules which for so long they took for granted. This force will not be put back in a bottle.