Re-Examining the Arab Spring


On December 17, 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set
himself on fire in a show of public protest. The self-immolation
triggered unrest in Tunisia and ultimately the resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This was followed by unrest in a number of Arab countries that the global press dubbed the “Arab Spring.” 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

It is now more than six months since the beginning of the Arab
Spring, and it is important to take stock of what has happened and what
has not happened. The reasons for the widespread unrest go beyond the
Arab world, although, obviously, the dynamics within that world are
important in and of themselves. However, the belief in an Arab Spring
helped shape European and American policies in the region and the world.
If the assumptions of this past January and February prove insufficient
or even wrong, then there will be regional and global consequences.

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. And in many countries, such as Jordan, the
unrest never amounted to a real threat to the regime. The kind of rapid
and complete collapse that we saw in Eastern Europe in 1989 with the
fall of communism has not happened in the Arab world. 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.

Consider the case of Mubarak, who was forced from office and put on
trial, although the regime — a mode of governing in which the military
remains the main arbiter of the state — remains intact. Egypt is now
governed by a committee of military commanders, all of whom had been
part of Mubarak’s regime. Elections are coming, but the opposition is deeply divided between Islamists and secularists,
and personalities and ideological divisions in turn divide these
factions. The probability of a powerful democratic president emerging
who controls the sprawling ministries in Cairo and the country’s
security and military apparatus is slim, and the Egyptian military junta
is already acting to suppress elements that are too radical and too

The important question is why these regimes have been able to
survive. In a genuine revolution, the regime loses power. The
anti-communist forces overwhelmed the Polish Communist government in
1989 regardless of the divisions within the opposition. The sitting
regimes were not in a position to determine their own futures, let alone
the futures of their countries. There was a transition, but they were
not in control of it. Similarly, in 1979, when the Shah of Iran was
overthrown, his military and security people were not the ones managing
the transition after the shah left the country. They were the ones on
trial. There was unrest in Egypt in January and February 2011, but the
idea that it amounted to a revolution flew in the face of the reality of
Egypt and of what revolutions actually look like.

Shaping the Western Narrative

There were three principles shaping the Western narrative on the Arab
Spring. The first was that these regimes were overwhelmingly unpopular.
The second was that the opposition represented the overwhelming will of
the people. The third was that once the unrest began it was
unstoppable. Add to all that the notion that social media facilitated
the organization of the revolution and the belief that the region was in
the midst of a radical transformation can be easily understood.

It was in Libya that these propositions created the most serious
problems. Tunisia and Egypt were not subject to very much outside
influence. Libya became the focus of a significant Western intervention.
Moammar Gadhafi had ruled Libya for nearly 42 years. He could not have
ruled for that long without substantial support. That didn’t mean he had
majority support (or that he didn’t). It simply meant that the survival
of his regime did not interest only a handful of people, but that a
large network of Libyans benefitted from Gadhafi’s rule and stood to
lose a great deal if he fell. They were prepared to fight for his

The opposition to him was real, but its claim to represent the
overwhelming majority of Libyan people was dubious. Many of the leaders
had been part of the Gadhafi regime, and it is doubtful they were
selected for their government posts because of their personal
popularity. Others were members of tribes that were opposed to the
regime but not particularly friendly to each other. Under the mythology
of the Arab Spring, the eastern coalition represented the united rage of
the Libyan people against Gadhafi’s oppression. Gadhafi was weak and
isolated, wielding an army that was still loyal and could inflict
terrible vengeance on the Libyan people. But if the West would
demonstrate its ability to prevent slaughter in Benghazi, the military
would realize its own isolation and defect to the rebels.

It didn’t happen that way. First, Gadhafi’s regime was more than
simply a handful of people terrorizing the population. It was certainly a
brutal regime, but it hadn’t survived for 42 years on that alone. It
had substantial support in the military and among key tribes. Whether
this was a majority is as unclear as whether the eastern coalition was a
majority. But it was certainly a substantial group with much to fight
for and a great deal to lose if the regime fell. So, contrary to
expectations in the West, the regime has continued to fight and to retain the loyalty of a substantial number of people.
Meanwhile, the eastern alliance has continued to survive under the
protection of NATO but has been unable to form a united government or
topple Gadhafi. Most important, it has always been a dubious assertion
that what would emerge if the rebels did defeat Gadhafi would be a
democratic regime, let alone a liberal democracy, and this has become
increasingly obvious as the war has worn on. Whoever would replace
Gadhafi would not clearly be superior to him, which is saying quite a

A very similar process is taking place in Syria. There, the minority Alawite government of the Assad family,
which has ruled Syria for 41 years, is facing an uprising led by the
majority Sunnis, or at least some segment of them. Again, the assumption
was that the regime was illegitimate and therefore weak and would
crumble in the face of concerted resistance. That assumption proved
wrong. The Assad regime may be running a minority government, but it has
substantial support from a military of mostly Alawite officers leading a
largely Sunni conscript force. The military has benefited tremendously
from the Assad regime — indeed, it brought it to power. The one thing
the Assads were careful to do was to make it beneficial to the military
and security services to remain loyal to the regime. So far, they
largely have. The danger for the regime looking forward is if the
growing strain on the Alawite-dominated army divisions leads to fissures
within the Alawite community and in the army itself, raising the
potential for a military coup.

In part, these Arab leaders have nowhere to go. The senior leadership
of the military could be tried in The Hague, and the lower ranks are
subject to rebel retribution. There is a rule in war, which is that you
should always give your enemy room to retreat. The Assad supporters,
like the Gadhafi supporters and the supporters of Yemen’s Ali Abdullah
Saleh, have no room to retreat. So they have fought on for months, and
it is not clear they will capitulate anytime soon.

Foreign governments, from the United States to Turkey, have expressed
their exasperation with the Syrians, but none has seriously
contemplated an intervention. There are two reasons for this: First,
following the Libyan intervention, everyone became more wary of assuming
the weakness of Arab regimes, and no one wants a showdown on the ground
with a desperate Syrian military. Second, observers have become
cautious in asserting that widespread unrest constitutes a popular
revolution or that the revolutionaries necessarily want to create a
liberal democracy. The Sunnis in Syria might well want a democracy, but
they might well be interested in creating a Sunni “Islamic” state.
Knowing that it is important to be careful what you wish for, everyone
seems to be issuing stern warnings to Damascus without doing very much.

Syria is an interesting case because it is, perhaps, the only current issue that Iran and Israel agree on. Iran is deeply invested in the Assad regime and wary of increased Sunni power in Syria. Israel is just as deeply
concerned that the Assad regime — a known and manageable devil from the
Israeli point of view — could collapse and be replaced by a Sunni
Islamist regime with close ties to Hamas and what is left of al Qaeda in
the Levant. These are fears, not certainties, but the fears make for
interesting bedfellows.

Geopolitical Significance

Since late 2010, we have seen three kinds of uprisings in the Arab
world. The first are those that merely brushed by the regime. The second
are those that created a change in leaders but not in the way the
country was run. The third are those that turned into civil wars, such
as Libya and Yemen. There is also the interesting case of Bahrain, where
the regime was saved by the intervention of Saudi Arabia, but while the
rising there conformed to the basic model of the Arab Spring — failed
hopes — it lies in a different class, caught between Saudi and Iranian

The three examples do not mean that there is not discontent in the
Arab world or a desire for change. They do not mean that change will not
happen, or that discontent will not assume sufficient force to
overthrow regimes. They also do not mean that whatever emerges will be
liberal democratic states pleasing to Americans and Europeans.

This becomes the geopolitically significant part of the story. Among
Europeans and within the U.S. State Department and the Obama
administration is an ideology of human rights — the idea that one of the
major commitments of Western countries should be supporting the
creation of regimes resembling their own. This assumes all the things
that we have discussed: that there is powerful discontent in oppressive
states, that the discontent is powerful enough to overthrow regimes, and
that what follows would be the sort of regime that the West would be
able to work with.

The issue isn’t whether human rights are important but whether
supporting unrest in repressive states automatically strengthens human
rights. An important example was Iran in 1979, when opposition to the
oppression of the shah’s government was perceived as a movement toward
liberal democracy. What followed might have been democratic but it was
hardly liberal. Indeed, many of the myths of the Arab Spring had their
roots both in the 1979 Iranian Revolution and later in Iran’s 2009 Green Movement,
when a narrow uprising readily crushed by the regime was widely viewed
as massive opposition and widespread support for liberalization.

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.

The pursuit of human rights requires ruthless clarity as to whom you
are supporting and what their chances are. It is important to remember
that it is not Western supporters of human rights who suffer the
consequences of failed risings, civil wars or revolutionary regimes that
are committed to causes other than liberal democracy.

The misreading of the situation can also create unnecessary
geopolitical problems. The fall of the Egyptian regime, unlikely as it
is at this point, would be just as likely to generate an Islamist regime
as a liberal democracy. The survival of the Assad regime could lead to
more slaughter than we have seen and a much firmer base for Iran. No
regimes have fallen since the Arab Spring, but when they do it will be
important to remember 1979 and the conviction that nothing could be
worse than the shah’s Iran, morally or geopolitically. Neither was quite
the case.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people in the Arab world who want
liberal democracy. It simply means that they are not powerful enough to
topple regimes or maintain control of new regimes even if they did
succeed. The Arab Spring is, above all, a primer on wishful thinking in
the face of the real world.

George Friedman is chief executive officer
of Stratfor, the world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. This article has been republished with permission of STRATFOR.



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