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How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring

Hopes for peaceful change have been replaced by sectarian animosity and unending bloodshed.

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. It reminds me of the famous preface to the third and final edition of Malcolm Kerr's The Arab Cold War:  "[S]ince June 1967 Arab politics have ceased to be fun. In the good old days ... it was like watching Princeton play Columbia in football on a muddy afternoon," Kerr wrote. "The June war was like a disastrous game against Notre Dame ... leaving several players crippled for life and the others so embittered that they took to fighting viciously among themselves."

Washington today is consumed by another round of its endless debate about whether to intervene in Syria, this time in response to the regime's alleged use of chemical weapons. I have little to add to the thousands of essays already published on this, beyond what I've already argued. I might add that defending American "credibility" is always a bad reason to go to war. The reputation costs of not enforcing a red line are minimal, and will evaporate within a news cycle; military intervention in Syria will be the news cycle for the next few years. The United States should act in Syria in the way that it believes will best serve American interests and most effectively respond to Syria's horrific violence, not because it feels it must enforce an ill-advised red line.

Rather than continue that debate right now, 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 NATO intervention began in Libya barely a month after the first days of the uprising, before Muammar al-Qaddafi's violent backlash gained full strength. But Syria's almost incomprehensible scale of death and devastation has ground on for two long years, with only worse horrors on the horizon.

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 violence in Syria, which has gone on for so long and taken so many forms of inhumanity, shapes everything it touches. Like other protracted civil wars, Syria's sectarian and political violence has created and entrenched divisions that didn't previously have the same salience. No matter how many noble plans for transitional justice and post-Assad reconciliation are crafted, it is difficult to imagine that Syrians will move past this cruelty and horror any time soon. And the sectarian imagery travels far beyond Syria's borders, heightening Sunni-Shia hostility and suspicion across the entire region in profoundly dangerous ways.

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. It is now a failed state, where Gulf states are all too eager to pour funding into a jihad in support of a Sunni population fighting an "apostate" regime.

The rise of jihadist groups in Syria is not due to Western non-intervention -- in fact, the presence of Western troops in an Arab country has typically been more of an attraction than a deterrent for such movements. They have simply been attracted by the best vehicle since Iraq for salafi-jihadist global mobilization.

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. Jordanians who might otherwise have joined in a growing protest movement may have held back when contemplating the horrors in Syria. Such a lesson is probably not unwelcome in the palaces of the Gulf, or other Arab countries that have thus far avoided uprisings.

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. 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.

There was never such consensus in Syria, though. Assad had many defenders among the "resistance" axis, many of whom dismissed the popular uprising in Syria as a Western or Islamist conspiracy. Anyone who has engaged the Syria policy debate online will be painfully familiar with the intensity of those divisions and arguments. Those divisions have only intensified as the conflict has worsened. In the most recent Pew survey, for instance, most Arabs expressed disdain for Assad -- but large majorities opposed Western arming of Syrian rebels in every country polled except Jordan.

The focus on international military intervention that hangs over the Syria debate also differed sharply from the other revolts. Tunisian and Egyptian protesters were not calling for the United States to intervene on their behalf -- but almost from the start, some parts of the Syrian opposition abroad sought to emulate the Libyan model and attract Western military intervention. The centrality of the question of military intervention shaped both opposition and regime strategies. It also helped to turn Syria into a battlefield for great-power politics, with Western diplomacy frustrated by Russia's cynical obstruction at the Security Council and refusal to pressure Assad for meaningful political change.

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. Syria's alignment with Iran and the preexisting hostility toward Assad in the Gulf and elsewhere raised the outcome's strategic stakes.

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 also radically changed the media narrative in both the Arab world and the West. During the early days of the so-called Arab Spring, the international media rushed to cover half a dozen rapidly moving storylines -- Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen -- while anxiously checking in on almost every other Arab country to see if it might be joining the wave. These days, the international media's coverage of the region is almost completely dominated by Syria, broken only by episodic coverage of Egypt during moments of crisis.

Coverage from inside Syria is dominated by war correspondents, for obvious reasons, while much of the outside coverage relies dangerously on video footage and information found on the Internet provided by activist networks. In Egypt, an army of freelance journalists could rush to check claims about clashes or protests, but that luxury isn't available to the media covering Syria's endless claims and counter-claims.

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. With a highly self-conscious identity as the "voice of the Arab street," it dominated the Arab media -- particularly during times of crisis -- by covering everything from the wars in Iraq, the West Bank, and Lebanon to democratic reform struggles as part of a common Arab narrative.

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. As a result, the Arab media is increasingly fragmented, with regional and national media alike divided along sectarian and political lines and much less of a unifying, common media space. Social media doesn't really replace that shared broadcast public sphere -- instead, it encourages the formation of polarized bubbles as the like-minded seek each other out and reinforce their prejudices.

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.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

The Middle East's Kings of Cowardice

Why are the Gulf's leaders so afraid of a few jokes?

Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef rocketed to global celebrity last month after being charged for insulting President Mohamed Morsy. The escalation against Youssef was rooted in the intense polarization of local Egyptian politics and the prickly, insecure nature of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

The move badly backfired on the Egyptian government: It inspired widespread global contempt for Morsy, global fame and celebrity for Youssef, a minor diplomatic crisis, and much-feared mockery by Jon Stewart. Youssef was even selected as one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in the wake of the incident. But while Youssef's prosecution drew massive media attention, a wave of increasingly disproportionate crackdowns for "insulting" leaders across the Gulf might actually be more significant.

For an area that most people still believe remains unaffected by the Arab uprisings, the Gulf has been awfully tough on public critics of late. Kuwait plunged into days of intense protests and political turmoil this week after leading opposition figure Musallam al-Barrak was sentenced to five years in prison for publicly challenging the emir to avoid autocratic rule. The attempt to arrest Barrak -- which itself turned into something of a farce when he eluded the police for days -- was only the latest in an escalating campaign of Kuwaiti repression.

Arab leaders have never been known for their sense of humor, but this is ridiculous. In troubled Bahrain, the cabinet this week backed strict new laws punishing defamation of the monarchy and its symbols. Qatar sentenced poet Mohammed al-Ajami to life in prison late last year for "insulting the emir," later reducing the sentence to 15 years. Saudi Arabia imprisoned leading human rights activists Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed in part for their alleged insults to the leadership, while the Saudi grand mufti recently denounced Twitter as a "gathering place for every clown and corrupter." Last year, Oman arrested dozens of activists for insulting the sultan, pardoning most of them last month.

Why are Gulf monarchs suddenly so sensitive? Why can't they just brush the dirt off their shoulders? Here's one reason: In their response to the Arab uprisings, these rulers have invested heavily in the notion that monarchy enjoys a unique legitimacy compared to other types of regimes. The reasons given for this supposedly unique stability vary: Some point to established consultative institutions, some to the historical foundations of the system, some to the ability of monarchs to stay above the political fray, some to religious legitimacy. But at the core of the idea of monarchical exception is the claim to a widely accepted legitimacy that blunts demands for political change.

It is difficult to reconcile such claims to unique popular devotion with escalating, direct public criticism of the personalities and institutions of the monarchy. The mockery and exposure of Saudi royal family shenanigans on Twitter peels away the veil of deference. Parliamentary interrogation of Kuwaiti ministers from the royal family, like the direct criticism of the emir on Twitter and at rallies, establishes a precedent of popular challenge to the ruling family that could take other, more threatening forms.

Mocking an Arab leader used to be a dangerous game, and the suffocating dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s put a high premium on squelching any hint of public disrespect. University of Chicago political scientist Lisa Wedeen's influential book on Hafez al-Assad's Syria, Ambiguities of Domination, revolves around the significance of enforced public obeisance: For Wedeen, the public protestations of love for Assad -- declaring him the country's greatest dentist, for instance -- were palpably absurd on their face, and represented a key face of a deep authoritarianism. Something as minor as not hanging the portrait of Jordan's King Hussein in a taxicab could be seen as an act of defiance, while hanging it signaled to every passenger an acceptance -- however grudging -- of the status quo.

Under the old rules of Arab regimes, it wasn't just that dissidents who dared to mock would be punished horribly, tortured and vilified -- though they generally would. It's that the overwhelming majority of people became habituated to accepting this stifling public order, whether out of fear of pervasive regime informants, concern for their own safety, or genuine internalization of the prevailing norms. The policing of public culture lay at the heart of the perception that these regimes possessed an overwhelming, unalterable power.

But that culture of public conformity has utterly disappeared. The current wave of lawsuits is a desperate, rear-guard action with zero chance of actually purging the new public sphere of dissent. This new culture has been forged by new media -- from al-Jazeera to independent newspapers to broadly used social media -- and by a new generation of Arab citizens with new expectations and competencies. It was easy to see well before the uprisings of January 2011, but was obviously galvanized by the regional wave of uprisings and public contention.

This new public sphere matters in fundamental ways -- regardless of whether particular regimes rise or fall. It might not on its own bring about revolutions or democracy, but it has completely normalized a public culture of mockery and disrespect. Egyptians simply don't worry about posting jokes about Morsy to their Facebook pages or carrying crude caricatures of the president while marching in Tahrir Square. Syrians who once feared even a hint of public criticism now happily describe him as a "duck" and post jokes about the presidential penis. Arab leaders are just going to have to get used to being ridiculed, teased, mocked, and exposed -- just like every politician in the Western world has long since come to expect.

But that's hard for monarchies, which depend so heavily upon a manufactured sense of majesty. The wave of arrests and harsh sentences demonstrates not just royals' need to protect their fragile egos -- it's a clear sign of their diminishing power and legitimacy. It's telling that the overwhelming majority of cases of "insulting the emir" in Kuwait have been filed since 2006. Genuinely powerful and respected figures are confident in their prestige and comfortable ignoring the rocks thrown at the throne (think Jay-Z). When they need to respond with the full, heavy-handed force of vestigial autocracy, it is the surest sign that they are losing.

In other words, the crackdown across the Gulf suggests that its regimes are probably not nearly as stable as they'd like everyone to believe. If the monarchs of the region were truly stable and legitimate, they would brush aside these insults. Nothing telegraphs weakness and insecurity quite like lawsuits and arrests over perceived disrespect.

Egypt gets all the headlines -- and of course Bassem Youssef should win the right to make fun of Morsy's hat. But Egypt's drama shouldn't distract attention from the significance of the mounting battle in the Gulf over the right to directly criticize one's leaders -- humorously or not. Rulers who imprison poets or bloggers over "insults" should always be mocked both at home and in the international realm. If they want to be respected, they should earn it through democratic inclusion, open engagement, transparency, and accountability.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images