Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Arab Spring midterm

Guest post by Ali Ezzatyar 

Ali Ezzatyar is a journalist and American attorney practising in Paris, France.

(Ed. note: This is Ali's fifth guest post at The Reaction. Last month, he wrote on Obama's foreign policy and the secular uprisings in the Middle East. In February, he wrote on dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt and on the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. In January 2010, he co-wrote a post on Iran with Bryan Tollin. -- MJWS)


It's test-time. The durability of an unpopular dictator, Arab or otherwise, has been called into question since January. Fair enough. But each bud of the Arab Spring has taught us another thing or two.

Tunisia taught us that an aura of inevitability bolstered by rhetoric from abroad could do little to help against galvanized, anti-governmental will. Egypt confirmed that Tunisia was not a fluke, with the additional lesson that years of foreign support and patronage can do little to hold a dictator and his system in place. On the flip side, Algeria is showing us how years of civil war can make a population complacent to revolution. They all demonstrate how the information age has changed politics forever. So if precedental value is important, how do we interpret Libya and Syria?

First, tribal and sectarian allegiances are obstinate, even in the face of destiny.

In February, it looked inevitable that Qaddafi would be the third dictator deposed in so many months. As the so-called Libyan rebels swallowed up government territory on their way to Tripoli, few could have predicted the stalemate that has set in today. The reality is that Qaddafi's counter-punch was engineered through a consolidation of tribal loyalties in and around Tripoli, not a regrouping of government arms. With the rebels faltering, many of Libya's tribal leaders (who have long had a "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" relationship with Qaddafi) rallied around the colonel. They have now succeeded in keeping him in power. Similarly, what we are seeing in Syria is the hardening of the core of Alavi patrons that make up the regime, with the Assad family as their figurehead. The Alavi minority, since coming to power in the mid 1960s, has been the primary power broker in that country. It stands to lose significantly more than any one group in Tunisia or Egypt ever could.

Second, an absence of meaningful diplomatic ties to world's most powerful countries actually hardens regimes and their power.

One could as easily conclude that pariah-status endangers dictators, alienating their populations and driving them to resentment. In Egypt and Tunisia, however, it was the relationships the dictatorial regimes had with democratic countries that allowed the world to exercise influence when it counted. Libya and Syria are regimes that are accountable to almost no one, whose dictators (and respective entourages) are not welcome anywhere. There is nobody to apply pressure or give incentives; the regime is left to fend for its life in the wake of rebellion. What's more, populations in isolated countries probably resent the rest of the world almost as much as they do their own regimes, which has implications for intervention of any kind.

Still, if the world had reacted to help the rebels when even the most loyal to Qaddafi would have bet against him, things could be different there today. Similarly, in countries like Syria (and Iran for that matter), there is probably much less today to the argument that isolation, with tools like sanctions and fiery rhetoric, makes for productive long-term foreign policy. A more rigorous diplomatic project in these places could have set the stage for regime change. Alas, what's done is done.

Partially on account of these lessons, one would imagine that if the regime does fall in Syria, its implications would have a particular thrust. It is the most entrenched, perhaps the most brutal, and almost certainly the most domestically popular of the large Arab dictatorships. Regime change there would usher in a certain inevitability that would echo from Riyadh to Rabat; it could mean the death knell of the Arab dictator as we know it.

Sure, this is conjecture for now. But, hey, this is just the midterm.

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