As the Arab Spring turns into summer, the region’s autocrats are more entrenched.
After the initial euphoria of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the “Arab spring” morphed into something nearly unrecognizable: Instead of using less force, leaders throughout the region are now using more of it. As the region’s many remaining autocrats entrench themselves, the “Arab Spring” is becoming a series of chronic political – and guerilla — battles.
Autocrats have adopted different “models” of contending with emboldened oppositions. The most popular model, it appears, is unvarnished, total repression. The goal for these embattled leaders is to break the will of protesters and send an unmistakable message that dissent outside of proscribed margins will not be tolerated. This can lead to unprecedented brutality, as in Libya and Syria, where thousands have been killed. Not only that, shocking stories of mass rape, torture, and detention continue to pour out.
Another model is the Morocco-Jordan model of “pre-emptive” reform, where above-the-fray monarchs acknowledge protesters’ demands, pledge to empower elected institutions, and announce high-profile initiatives. This is what political scientists call “defensive democratization.” Autocrats create the illusion of change without actually changing, neutralizing the opposition and avoiding an outright revolution.
As different as they are, these models share a similar goal – survival. Autocrats, after witnessing the perceived fecklessness of Egypt and Tunisia’s presidents, have decided to double down and find ways, however divergent, to maintain their grip on power.
The “Arab spring” – or the “winter of Arab discontent” as others have termed it – is no longer a discrete event with a particular time frame. The conflicts and competition between opposition and regime have turned into pitched battles, defined by the sort of political guerilla warfare where neither can secure a decisive victory. Revolutions, even in the rare event that they succeed, are ongoing. In Egypt, a relative bright spot in the region, activists have been a calling for a “second revolution” or a “re-revolution.” In their heavy-handed tactics (torture, military tribunals) and opaque decision-making process, the current military rulers in Egypt are, apparently, not too dissimilar from what preceded them. On June 28th, hundreds of protesters were injured in clashes with police. Activists attempted to storm the Ministry of Interior, which responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. After Egypt’s revolution, many things had of course changed, but many others, it seems, have stayed the same.
The United States and the European Union find themselves flat-footed – almost incoherent — in the face of this growing complexity. Even when Western powers do the “right thing,” they seem to wait a very long time to do it. They represent the ‘status quo’ in a region where most are rebelling against precisely that.
America in particular is seeing a clash between its values and its interests, at least in the short-run, converge. Consider Bahrain, a close U.S ally and home of its Fifth Fleet. Bahrain has cracked down on its opposition systematically and unapologetically – resulting in some of the highest deaths, per capita, in the region. The Obama administration managed the usual expressions of “concern”, but rarely actual condemnation.
Or consider Syria, where the U.S. seems to envision some kind of future for President Bashar al-Assad. On July 1st, after three months of protests and more than 1,500 killed – nearing or perhaps exceeding Libya in brutality – Secretary of State Hilary Clinton did nothing more than insist “[the Syrian regime] begin a genuine transition to democracy.”
With the “Arab spring” likely to persist for the foreseeable future – and, in some sense, indefinitely – the U.S. and its European allies will have an opportunity, and the time, to re-think their long-term interests, re-align their policies, and play a more confident, constructive role in the region. If, however, America’s past failures under such circumstances are at all predictive, they will probably squander this opportunity too.
By Shadi Hamid
Director of Research, Brookings Doha Center
Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the Brookings Institute