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Accueil > Comptes rendus de revues > Foreign Affairs, “The New Arab Revolt”, May/June 2011

Foreign Affairs, “The New Arab Revolt”, May/June 2011
Article publié le 08/06/2011

In its May/June 2011 issue, Foreign Affairs published a collection of articles gathered under the title “The New Arab Revolt”.

In an article entitled “Demystifying the Arab Spring”, Lisa Anderson, President of the American University in Cairo, sheds the light on the differences between Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and the reasons why those three countries experienced the Arab spring.
Despite the same lack of pro-active governance in all three countries, the challenges in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will require distinct approaches. In Tunisia, the major issue is the social divide ; In Egypt, it is the absence of sound institutions apart from the military ; and Libya will have to repair the damages caused by the civil war.

In Tunisia, the population is highly educated. The economy relies on mass tourism and the middle class is bigger than in any neighboring country. Yet, the absence of freedom of speech, of political opposition and the massive cronyism and corruption organized by former President Ben Ali’s family angered the population and ignited the protests. The young popular movements started very promptly and were thus spontaneous and not well organized Contrary to Egypt and Libya, the military did not play any major role in the uprising. This is due to its limited influence prior to the protests. It had no link with the economic power and was always less prominent than Ben Ali’s security services. The challenge that lies ahead for Tunisia is to create a system that “fosters open political debate” and take the labor movement’s demands into account.

Egypt’s situation differs greatly. The protests were fueled by the incapacity of Hosni Mubarak and his government to deliver basic services such as food, education and employment to the Egyptian population. The public sector is almost non-existent or entrenched in difficulties. The popular movement was disciplined, organized and non-violent. Unlike in Tunisia, the army has always been strong. Since the 1979 peace treaty with Jerusalem, it has cooperated with the Unites-States. It is respected by the people but also tied to economic activity. There is reason for optimism “to build and sustain an open society”.

In Libya, the future does not seem so bright and the flowers of the Arab spring are yet to bloom. The protests have led to a bloody civil war, highlighting the regional and clan-based divisions within the country. After decades of a cruel and corrupt regime, Muammar al-Qaddafi has created suspicion among Libyans who have opted for security networks and clans to provide them with their basic needs. The protests have reflected the society’s organization. They are regional, uncoordinated and violent.

These three countries have experienced simultaneous popular revolts caused by a shared sense of discontent and frustration. They have been mostly led by young movements. Nonetheless, the differences should not be discarded. There is no such thing as a “singular Arab revolt” but a range of popular movements, social contexts and political situations.

In his article “Terrorism After the Revolutions”, Daniel Byman shows how Al Qaeda and other Islamists groups on the one hand and the United States on the other reacted to the civilian unrests in the Arab world. Al Qaeda’s communication did not focus on the events and the United States have interpreted this silence as a victory sign of freedom versus terrorism.

Democracy and freedom has never favored extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda, who can no longer criticize State-organized repression. Nonetheless, the jihadist group will continue to fight any secular regime that may arise. These may not be as close to Washington as the previous ones, especially Mubarak’s Egypt and its full cooperation in the fight against terrorism. The peoples of the Arab world have called for genuine democracies to be implemented but so far, no clear orientation has emerged from the transition period. This situation leaves room for extremist groups to gain traction.

The United States should make a move before the transition period ends : not accepting Islamists in future governments could prove disastrous for counterterrorism but accepting them is a risk since their views on crucial topics, such as the Arab-Israel conflict, are opposite. Washington should make good use of the media in its fight against Al Qaeda and should continue to put pressure on them without allowing them to exploit the American position, as either a supporter of autocratic regimes or a an imperialist nation. A reasonable solution for them would be to make connections with the future security forces and build a cooperation policy with them.

“The Black Swan of Cairo”, an article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute and the author of The Black Swan : The Impact of the Highly Improbable and Mark Blyth, Professor of International Political Economy at Brown University, was published in Foreign Affairs May/June 2011. It draws a parallel between financial crises and the Arab Spring.

The article focuses on high volatility in “constrained systems”, which can have unexpected outcomes. “Those who seek to prevent volatility on the grounds of that any and all bumps in the road must be avoided paradoxically increase the probability that a tail risk will cause a major explosion.” In a man-made environment, there are always a number of risks which have not been foreseen because they are unprecedented. These Black Swans are often blamed for the chaos because there is a misunderstanding of complex systems. It is true for financial crises as well as political ones.

The way out is not repression but a contract signed by all stakeholders. It is freedom with the collateral risk of volatility.

Dina Shehata, a Senior Researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, analyses Mubarak’s reign and its end in her article. After days of mass demonstrations in Egypt, following the ousting of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down. How did Mubarak’s thirty-year rule come to this end ?

Between the 1990s and 2010, the Egyptian government took a series of measures to cut expenditures in order to face the burden of external debt. The consequences were terrible for the population as they impoverished a numerous low-income population and enriched an emerging but still small business elite. The increasingly educated youth was left behind the sphere of political, economic and social power. They started creating web-based groups. At the same time, the lack of truly democratic elections generated anger among opposition groups. They started demonstrating together in Tahrir Square to voice their demands, quickly joined by skilled and intellectual professionals. After a few attempts to reassert his authority, Mubarak was finally forced to step down when the armed forces expressed their support to the demonstrators.

Now, two scenarios can unfold : either fast-track elections are organized, which would favor established groups like the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood or a “three-member presidential council made up of two civilians and a military figure and the formation of a new cabinet composed of technocrats not affiliated with any one party” is set up in order to organize elections and the drafting of a new constitution.

“The Heirs of Nasser”, an article by Michael Scott Doran, an expert in international politics of the Middle East, puts into perspective the current revolutions occurring in the Arab world by comparing them with the turmoil which shook the Arab rulers half a century ago, after the Suez crisis in 1956.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the young and charismatic Egyptian leader, emerged triumphant after nationalizing the Suez Canal against the French and British interests. The conflict expanded beyond the borders of Egypt and generated the first Arab revolution. The threats were external, embodied by imperialist countries and the fight against Israel.

Today’s turmoil represents the second Arab revolution. It is another popular revolt but this time, against its own corrupt rulers, who are aligned with Washington, seen as Britain’s “imperial successor”. Iran, like Egypt then, has created a “resistance bloc” to confront the United States and weaken their power in a region where the latter are engaged in several other conflicts.

The threat does not seem to be imminent for the United States to implement any strategy yet. Washington has defined the Arab-Israeli peace process as a top priority and has shown a willingness to act as a broker and a negotiator. Today’s resistance bloc may not be as strong as Nasser was in the 1950s but Obama must be aware that it can work against American interests.

In an article entitled “The Rise of the Islamists”, Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center and a Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, highlights the next challenge for the U.S. agenda in the Middle-East.

After the Arab revolutions, Islamist groups will surely play a more significant role in their governments both for domestic as well as international policies. So far, their main rallying cry has been the anti-Israel sentiment and the criticism of its allies, particularly the United States. It is likely that a number of new hard-line Islamist organizations will emerge and try to become government partners.

Nonetheless, mainstream groups which all derive from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have proved to be more “flexible” and “pragmatic” than expected when their survival has been at stake. Like Obama’s administration, Islamist groups have supported the recent pro-democratic movements, but the latter have also argued that Washington had been a long-time ally of autocratic regimes in the region.

Washington should start thinking of a new long-term approach and a new dialogue with Islamist groups on a range of international issues in order for them to remain present in the region.

In his article entitled “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011”, Jack A. Goldstone, Virginia E/ and John T. Hazel, Jr., Professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, analyses the weaknesses that enabled the Arab revolutions to succeed.

For revolutions to succeed, a number of events must occur simultaneously : inept leadership, mobilization of all sectors of the population, reaction of international powers and a divide between the elite and the government. This is rarely the case.

The specificity of the countries where revolutions recently happened is that their regime was a “sultanistic dictatorship” with no ideology, led by a family whose only goal is to amass wealth and put their own interest first. They are superficial democracies. Their political, social and economic organization is based on control : controlling the security forces, controlling institutions and companies by placing people close to the power in key positions, and sometimes prolonging an indefinite state of emergency.

Their vulnerabilities are : the elite who can become frustrated, especially in countries with a high level of education and economic growth and a complex transfer of power. The problems become even more pressing when the country becomes richer but poverty is still widespread. It fuels discontent among the unemployed but educated and qualified youth. If the military becomes less prone to being faithful to the power, they are less prone to cracking down on protesters. This is how the recent Arab revolutions have unraveled.

What can we expect for the future ? In order to avoid the rise Islamist groups, counterrevolutions led by military conservatives or an enduring “flawed democracy”, inclusiveness is the key word, with a vocal backing of international powers.

Foreign Affairs, “The New Arab Revolt”, vol. 90, Number 3, May/June 2011

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