Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Revisiting the Arab Spring

Throughout the Arab Spring, I, for one, have warned against looking at the events roiling the Middle East through the lens of a revolution narrative.

Western intellectuals are often on far more intimate terms with their ideas than they are with reality. When their ideas told them that the Arab Spring was an uprising of oppressed peoples wanting to be free from tyrants, they hopped on the bandwagon.

Reality is always more complicated than story lines. Grasping it requires more work and more serious thought. Getting carried away by events that seem to fulfill your beliefs is one of the greatest dangers that thinking people face.

I am far from qualified to offer a detailed analysis of the Arab Spring, its causes and its consequences.

So I often turn to George Friedman of Stratfor-- the one Friedman who you really should read-- for an appraisal of the reality of the situation.

Friedman opens by stating the “standard analysis.” While you can find this analysis on the New York Times op-ed page, you can also find it in the writings of more conservative thinkers.

In his words: “The standard analysis of the situation was that oppressive regimes had been sitting on a volcano of liberal democratic discontent. The belief was that the Arab Spring was a political uprising by masses demanding liberal democratic reform and that this uprising, supported by Western democracies, would generate sweeping political change across the Arab world.”

How does this narrative stack up against reality? Not very well.

Friedman begins with a cogent observation: “It is important to begin with the fact that, to this point, no regime has fallen in the Arab world. Individuals such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have been replaced,  but the regimes themselves, which represent the manner of governing, have not changed. Some regimes have come under massive attack but have not fallen, as in Libya, Syria and Yemen.”

Ah, yes, some will say, but the revolution is still young. Friedman replies: “More important, what regime changes that might come of the civil wars in Libya and Syria are not going to be clearly victorious, those that are victorious are not going to be clearly democratic and those that are democratic are obviously not going to be liberal. The myth that beneath every Libyan is a French republican yearning to breathe free is dubious in the extreme.”

He continues: “The world is more complicated and more varied than that. As we saw in the Arab Spring, oppressive regimes are not always faced with massed risings, and unrest does not necessarily mean mass support. Nor are the alternatives necessarily more palatable than what went before or the displeasure of the West nearly as fearsome as Westerners like to think. Libya is a case study on the consequences of starting a war with insufficient force. Syria makes a strong case on the limits of soft power. Egypt and Tunisia represent a textbook lesson on the importance of not deluding yourself.”


Anonymous said...

I find it incredible that the very people who should be sensitive to "ethnocentrism" in the real world ...

... are the same people who forget about it at their whim, or are too ignorant of history & cultural anthropology - to respect it.

Whew. And let's try to forget what my favorite Islamic Theologian said about "The Religion of Peace" -- Rich

Robert Pearson said...

"...a textbook lesson on the importance of not deluding yourself.”

That lesson has much wider implications than even the geo-political! So often we delude ourselves about our children and other family members, our politicinas, entertainers...

Self-delusion is part of the human condition, but let us seek to minimize it, anyway.

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