Arab regimes on edge

It's very clear that most Arab regimes are on edge over the possibility of the spread of the protests in Tunisia and Algeria. Arab columnists and TV shows have been excitedly debating the real causes of the protests and what they might mean, while in country after country warnings are being sounded of a repeat of the "Tunisia scenario." It's not at all clear whether these protests actually will spread yet, as regimes on high alert will not be taken by surprise and local conditions vary dramatically.

The protests have already sparked a region-wide debate about the prospects for political change and the costs of political repression and economic stagnation. The discussion of the "Tunisia scenario" is everywhere. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood warned today that the impending price rises planned by the new government will lead to an unprecedented explosion along the North African model -- which is the lead story in Lebanon's al-Akhbar. In Egypt, Trade and Industry Minister Rashid Mohammed Rashid ruled out a "Tunisia scenario" in his country over the economy, though many columnists and political activists disagree. Leading Saudi columnist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed today seems worried, rather than excited, that protesters may have broken the psychological barrier against demonstrating and raises the specter of a "domino theory" by which even currently calm Arab states may soon be threatened.

The debate is being carried by social media and by satellite television, despite the outsized efforts by most of the regimes to silence whatever media falls under their control. From Kuwait and Tunisia's moves to ban al-Jazeera to traditional repression of local journalists to the escalating crackdown against Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, Arab regimes are trying to keep control of the narrative. But it doesn't seem to be working. Even status quo media outlets are being forced to discuss the events and to entertain unsettling questions.

It still is not at all obvious that these protests will sustain themselves, lead to revolutions, or even force major changes in the policies of their regimes. But they have already seared themselves into Arab political discourse. Defenders of the regimes generally try to define the events as food and price riots, or else as externally fomented terrorism. Few independent columnists or activists agree with the idea that these are simply food and price riots, or external terrorism. They point to the underlying political problems which have enabled the economic mismanagement and corruption and lack of opportunity. How the events are framed will have real significance for the response.

In the meantime, I'd like to throw out two interesting questions about the developing events. First, as I raised last week, as best I can tell the protests still lack any clear political direction or leadership -- primarily because the regimes have so thoroughly decimated the integrity of their political institutions that few citizens see any way to voice their grievances through formal political channels. Few political parties seem to be playing any significant role, even Islamists. Do the protests need to be channeled into an organized political or social movement in order to press clear political demands? If they did continue to escalate in the face of regime repression, without any clear leadership, what kind of change might they produce? The great hope here is that Arab regimes might respond as they did in the late 1980s, where economic protests in countries such as Jordan led to unprecedented democratic openings. But many of the regimes point instead to Algeria in the early 1990s, where such an opening led to Islamist advances, a military coup, and years of horrific bloodshed. Which will it be?

Second, it is striking how little role there has been for international actors such as the United States and the European Union in these protests. Where they have been involved at all, the United States and the EU have been cautious and reactive. While many will see this as a criticism, I'm not so sure. Americans tend to exaggerate the importance of U.S. rhetoric on Arab popular movements and governments. The Bush administration's "freedom and democracy" rhetoric from 2004 to 2006 may have had some marginal impact, but the real driver of contentious politics in those years came from internal factors: the protest momentum and networks shaped by demonstrations in support of the Palestinians (from 2000-2002) and against the Iraq war (2003); the novelty of al-Jazeera satellite TV and internet-based new media; the timing of political openings, from the series of elections scheduled for Egypt to the Hariri assassination.

That the rising wave of protest today comes in the near-complete absence of United States or international support presents an intriguing variable. Tunisians and Algerians didn't need an Obama speech to begin their protests, even if they anxiously watch Washington now for signs of support. I'd guess that the best way for the outside to have an impact now is by restraining violent repression by their allied autocratic regimes -- though, if they feel that their survival is threatened they won't likely listen.

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Marc Lynch

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.

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