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Reflections on the Arab uprisings

Egyptian anti-government protesters chant slogans as they stand atop an Egyptian army tank during a protest in Tahrir square in Cairo on Jan. 29, 2011. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
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‘Tis the season to reflect upon the course of the Arab uprisings. Over the last few weeks, I have participated in three major workshops including nearly 50 scholars – and had to miss yet another in favor of a quick trip to Tunisia. It is not difficult to understand this intense urge to take stock, given the sorry state of the region and catastrophic results of virtually every one of the 2011 uprisings. The overblown criticisms of the field of Middle East political science over its failure to predict the uprisings have been thoroughly aired by this point. But what about the field’s performance during the Arab uprisings? Academics have written an unprecedented amount of real-time analysis and commentary over the last few years. What did we miss, misinterpret, exaggerate or rush to premature judgments about along the way?

The first of the workshops focused explicitly on this question. I asked a group of the authors from my edited volume “The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East” to write short memos assessing their contributions critically after having another year to reflect. Those memos have now been published as POMEPS Studies 10 “Reflections on the Arab Uprisings” (free PDF available here). Their auto-critique is full of worthy observations: We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

One point that emerged in the workshop discussions is the extent to which we became too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment. That’s a fine quality in activists, but not so helpful for academic rigor.

Intriguingly, as the workshop’s discussion brought out, this may also apply to today’s widespread and deep depression over the restoration of fierce Arab authoritarianism. Things are indisputably bad right now. But does that mean that the negative trends will inevitably continue? Just as we rushed to prematurely embrace the inevitable success of the 2011 uprisings, perhaps today we are prematurely rushing to accept the inevitable triumph of the autocrats. After all, does the region look stable right now? Is it really so impossible to imagine the failure of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt amidst a growing insurgency, fierce repression of all forms of independent civil society and utterly unresolved economic woes? Are the monarchs of the Persian Gulf really so comfortable as the price of oil slides well below $80 a barrel, sectarian hostility and extremist Islamist trends grow, and regimes haplessly jail dissidents and try to silence Twitter? Perhaps one of the lessons of our irrational exuberance in 2011 should be to avoid exaggerated despair today.

My colleagues speak for themselves in their memos. As for me, there are a number of areas where I’ve been rethinking things over the last year or two. There are some negative developments that did not surprise me, I should add, even though I had hoped they would be avoided. My earlier book, “The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East,” devoted an entire chapter to demonstrating how each previous round of popular mobilization in modern Arab history had ended up with the consolidation of even more heavy-handed authoritarianism. The disastrous results of the decision by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to field a presidential candidate were easily foreseen. So were the catastrophic consequences of external support to the Syrian insurgency, which has produced unbelievable human suffering but few real surprises to anyone versed in the comparative literature on civil wars and insurgencies. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the problems of Yemen’s transition.

But here are a few of the areas where I wrote a lot over the last few years that I’ve come to think do need careful rethinking:

Libya: The Libya intervention is one of the very few military actions in the region that I have ever supported – and the results overwhelmingly suggest that I was wrong. I do not in any way regret my support for that intervention, which saved many thousands of lives and helped to bring an end to a brutal regime. Still, it is impossible to look at Libya’s failed state and civil war, its proxy conflict and regional destabilization, and not conclude that the intervention’s negative effects over the long term outweigh the short-term benefits. Moammar Gaddafi’s fall, combined with the prominence of armed militias, left Libya without a functioning state and little solid ground upon which to build a new political order. The likelihood of such an outcome should have weighed more heavily in my analysis.

The reasons for rethinking the intervention go beyond Libya itself. I had placed a great deal of emphasis on the demonstration effects of an intervention. My hope had been that the intervention would act to restrain other autocrats from unleashing deadly force against protesters and encourage wavering activists to push forward in their demands for change. Unfortunately, this only partially panned out and had unintended negative effects. U.S. cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council states in Libya compelled it to turn a blind eye to the simultaneous crushing of Bahrain’s uprising.

The worst effects were on Syria. The Libya intervention may have imposed a certain level of caution on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading him to search for just the right level of repression to stay beneath the threshold for international action. But that didn’t last for long and his violence quickly escalated. Meanwhile, the Libya intervention almost certainly encouraged Syrian activists and rebels – and their backers in the Gulf and Turkey – in their hopes for a similar international campaign on their own behalf. That unintended moral hazard probably contributed to the escalation of Syria’s civil war. The campaigns are also interdependent in terms of U.S. policy: The failures in Libya very likely contributed to Washington’s (in my view very wise) reluctance to intervene in Syria, especially after the September 2012 Benghazi fiasco.

So what lessons should be learned from the failure of this intervention to produce a stable Libya?

A New Arab Public: For a long time I believed that a mobilized Arab public would never again allow themselves to be manipulated and dominated by autocrats. Whatever the tactical setbacks and inevitable ups and downs of difficult transitions, I thought that the generational transformation would keep trends moving in the direction of more open politics. It was this new Arab public that gave me at least some optimism that the region could avoid repeating the failures of the past.

That conviction suffered a near-mortal blow in Egypt, where a shocking number of the youth and public voices who had made the uprisings proved more than willing to enthusiastically support the restoration of military government and violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was not simply the military’s successful coup that was shocking – such a denouement was always a possibility. The shock was the coup’s embrace by many of the popular forces upon whom hopes of irresistible change had been placed. The new Arab media and social media proved to be just as capable of transmitting negative and divisive ideas and images as they had been at spreading revolutionary ones. Egypt’s military coup traveled just as powerfully as had its revolution. The pan-Arab revolutionary unity of early 2011 has long since given way to sectarianism, polarization between Islamists and their enemies, and horror over the relentless images of death and despair in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

The media generally played a highly destructive role in the post-uprisings environment. For a brief, tantalizing moment, independent television stations and newspapers seemed to constitute a genuine Egyptian public sphere. But that quickly collapsed. Unreconstructed state media offered up a relentless stream of propaganda. Many private media outlets were captured by the state or by counter-revolutionary interests and the airwaves filled with the most vile forms of populist incitement. Meanwhile, transnational broadcasting descended into little more than transparent vehicles for state foreign policies, a change most noticeable – and damaging – with the once proud Al Jazeera. And while social media and new Web sites have certainly offered a plethora of opportunities for information to flow and opinions to be voiced, they have largely failed to supplant mainstream media as a source of news for mass publics.

So is it still true that the new Arab public will prevent any return to the old order or will it be assimilated into a new form of populist authoritarianism in the name of anti-Islamism and stability?

Calvinball: I may have failed to fully appreciate the corrosive effects of one of the things that I really got right: Calvinball, i.e., profound uncertainty about the rules of the game. I had argued that the transitions really suffered from the absence of a basic agreement on the rules of politics, which generated intense fear for the future and strategic dilemmas for all actors. The relentless parade of pathological choices made by almost every actor in countries such as Egypt or Libya, I thought, could be explained by this profound uncertainty rather than by their own character flaws or organizational characteristics.

My Calvinball theory was right, and might have gone even further. Elections couldn’t resolve political conflicts in the absence of a constitution outlining the powers and limitations of the bodies being selected, while political parties struggled to plan for elections in the absence of guidance on districts or electoral rules. The absence of a consensus on a constitution also fed fears for the very identity of the state, which lurked behind the dangerous polarization in states such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Finally, the erratic decisions of a politicized judiciary played an especially damaging role in Egypt, where the politicization of the judiciary left no legitimate, trusted neutral arbiter of these legal and constitutional battles.

But I was less successful in figuring out how to overcome these problems. In the heat of Egypt’s uniquely chaotic transition, I thought that simply getting a constitution in place – any constitution – would help to alleviate the debilitating effects of institutional uncertainty. But that proved to be wrong. In the absence of a legitimate process producing a sufficient consensus, the constitution proved to only exacerbate the deep social and political crisis. Tunisia, as in so many other areas, did far better in this regard; indeed, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi recently told me that the constitution had conclusively settled the debate over identity and ideology in Tunisia, allowing for the beginning of normal politics. I’m more convinced than ever that moving beyond Calvinball is essential for any successful transition, but what makes a transitional constitutional design process work – or fail – needs a lot more attention.

So what kind of assurances can actually be made in mid-transition to overcome the effects of Calvinball uncertainty?

Islamists and Transitions: I believed that the Arab uprisings offered a historically unique opportunity to bring Islamist groups into the democratic process, which would normalize politics and isolate and marginalize jihadist trends. For a while, it worked, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties enthusiastically contested elections. Tunisia’s Ennahda not only contested and won the first elections, but by gracefully handing over power following the second election it also (hopefully) finally put an end to the hoary myth that Islamists would only allow “one man, one vote, one time.” But overall the democratic experience of Islamists in these transitions proved devastatingly negative – and jihadists have duly taken advantage.

The problem did not lie in our understanding of Islamist movements, which mostly played to form. It was in their struggles to adapt to a new, uncertain political environment in which victory was actually a possibility and a strategy of self-restraint and slow, patient social transformation no longer seemed appropriate. It also lay in the fears their success generated among everyone else, the inability of political systems to tolerate their ascendance, and the extent to which national and regional forces would go to block them from governing. Islamists proved less adept at governing than they had been in opposition, and the transitions paid the price.

The intensity of the public backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda may be partially explained by the uncertainty described above and by months of relentless media incitement, but that doesn’t make it less real. Explaining how these movements squandered decades of carefully cultivated reputations for integrity in a few short years and why their emergence generated such a virulent response demands more explanation than it has thus far received. So will the long-term effects of Egypt’s military coup on Islamists’ views of democratic participation; who at this point could credibly argue that Islamists should view elections and democratic governance as a viable option? And so does the ability of al-Qaeda and other jihadist movements to survive the initial ideological challenges and to metastasize into new forms such as the Islamic State.

So how should we understand the new world of Islamist politics, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s project and organization in shambles and new jihadist movements on the rise?

Those are only a few of the many issues that scholars are now rethinking as we settle in to this violent, unhappy post-uprisings phase of the region’s history. Download POMEPS Studies 10 “Reflections on The Arab Uprisings” and please tweet your own candidates for reflections and rethinking at me (@abuaardvark).