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Obama's 'Arab Spring'?

Yesterday I noted the spread of seemingly unrelated protests and clashes through a diverse array of Arab states -- Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt. Last night, protests spread to Algeria, partly in response to rising prices on basic food items but more deeply by the same combination of economic desperation, fury over perceived corruption, and a blocked political order. There's some evidence that Algerians have been carefully watching what is happening in Tunisia, on al-Jazeera and on the internet. Are we seeing the beginnings of the Obama administration equivalent of the 2005 "Arab Spring", when the protests in Beirut captured popular attention and driven in part by newly powerful satellite television images inspired popular mobilization across the region that some hoped might finally break through the stagnation of Arab autocracy? Will social media play the role of al-Jazeera this time? Will the outcome be any different?

It's already quite clear that Arab regimes will do whatever is necessary this time around to block popular mobilization. Tunisia's repression has been intense, from mass arrests to overwhelming censorship. Algeria's government has already responded with widespread arrests, including (reportedly) the long-time Islamist firebrand Ali Belhadj. Jordan's security forces maintain a heavy hand, even in the southern tribal areas which have long been, according to cliché, the bedrock of the regime. Kuwait and Tunisia have lashed out at al-Jazeera. Across the region, I expect the authoritarian regimes to continue to clamp down hard, try to censor the media, and blame Islamists or Iran or some other convenient boogeyman. Again, I really don't think that the Obama administration's public rhetoric on democracy is really the key variable here --- these regimes will do what they must when they feel threatened, and understand that Obama is no more likely than was Bush to really challenge the fundamentals of their regime survival in the name of democracy.

As I also noted yesterday, the nature of the mobilization feels different this time too. The protests are more violent, there's more of an intense edge to them, there's less focus on formal institutional politics. That's in large part because of the degree of the authoritarian retrenchment across the region, which has largely sucked the meaning out of elections and has battered civil societies and independent political movements. There seem to be fewer organized movements and more wildcat outbursts --- which is just what you'd expect when formal channels have been shut down and hopes of meaningful political participation thwarted. The spread of Salafi Islamist trends and the weakening of the more disciplined and politically focused Muslim Brotherhood organizations in many of the countries contributes to this sense, as does the legacy of the virulent anti-Shi'ism which spread through the region a few years ago and the general fraying of sectarian edges.

I don't expect these protests to bring down any regimes, but really who knows? It's an unpredictable moment. Many of these regimes are led by aging, fading leaders such as Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali who could pass from the scene in a heartbeat -- literally. Nor do I particularly know what to recommend that the Obama administration do. The traditional calls to "promote democracy" are largely irrelevant to this situation, except in the longer-term. What we are now seeing is the fruit of the failure to promote meaningful reform in the past, but that doesn't mean that doing so now would meet the challenge.

If these protests continue to spread, both inside of countries and across to other Arab countries, then we really could talk about this being Obama's "Arab Spring," only with the extra intensity associated with climate change. Arab regimes will do everything they can to prevent that from happening. Most everybody is carefully watching everyone else to see what's going to happen, with news traveling across borders and within countries through an ever-growing role for social media layered on top of (not replacing) satellite television and existing networks. I'm not hugely optimistic that we will see real change, given the power of these authoritarian regimes and their record of resilience. But still... interesting times.

AFP/Getty Images

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