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No country is immune at this point. A while back I thought the Libyan and Syrian regimes would emerge more or less unscathed because they are so much more ruthlessly repressive than the others, but if Qaddafi isn’t safe, no one is safe. That doesn’t mean Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or Iran’s Ali Khamenei will actually fall, but it does mean they could face the biggest internal challenges they’ve ever seen as mass uprisings are producing results in one country after another.
What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?
Americans should side with the region’s liberals and democrats against entrenched autocrats and radical Islamist revolutionaries alike, but it’s not clear that we can actually do much in most of these places. Obviously we can’t impose a no-fly zone over every police state, nor would that be a good idea if we could. Throwing our moral support behind democratic movements is as much as we’ll be able to manage most of the time.
Some of the Middle East’s dictators are our allies, so that of course complicates things. Bahrain, for instance, hosts the U.S. fifth fleet, and Iran thinks it could replace our fleet with their own in the event of regime-change. The Jordanian government has a real peace treaty with Israel. It’s not in our interests to see those governments fall. We have leverage in both places, though, that we don’t have in Libya, Syria, or Iran. We can and should push friendly dictators toward liberalization and reform, and we absolutely should not tolerate the slaughter of unarmed demonstrators. If our allies insist upon acting like thugs we should cut them loose, and we almost certainly will even if they are otherwise useful. That’s what Barack Obama did with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and that’s what George W. Bush did with Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan after the infamous Andijan massacre in 2005.
We need to be on the side of democrats everywhere, or at the very least not hostile to them, even where they’re in the minority and too weak to prevail. And we should forget about even trying to appease bigoted maniacs like Egypt’s terrorist-supporting cleric Yusuf Qaradawi because he and his ilk are going to hate us no matter what.
Michael J. Totten is an independent foreign correspondent and foreign policy analyst and author of The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War against Israel.
Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?
In listening to what people in the Middle East say, there is not a single root cause but a constellation of related grievances that people shared—involving poverty, endemic corruption, a rotting system, few opportunities for youth, growing anger over the denial of basic freedom, and an overall sense of being robbed of human dignity—and as importantly, the regimes were seen as the causes or sources of them.
Though largely ignored or dismissed in policy circles, there has been ongoing citizen dissent in the Middle East during the previous decade. Mary King, the "mother" of modern nonviolent scholarship, writes, "Tunisia and Egypt’s upheavals were years in the making, as are all national nonviolent revolutions that I’ve studied."
In Egypt, the April 6, 2008, general strike (Facebook Revolution) was organized by youth who formed the April 6 movement. The anti-corruption campaign, Shayfeen.com (meaning "we see you"), spawned the Egyptians Against Corruption movement. As well, the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights had been actively studying civil resistance and engaging in nonviolent actions well before 2011. It's playing an important role in the country's nonviolent uprising, which is experiencing severe repression with the help of Saudi forces, while the Western reaction, including the U.S., has been reserved. In May 2006, a group of young men and women, communicating through text messages, launched the “Orange Movement” against political corruption in Kuwait. Their nonviolent tactics, including leafleting the parliament, enlisted public support and participation, resulted in early parliamentary elections in which legislation to change electoral districts (to prevent corruption) became a major campaign issue and was later adopted.
The chances for success are greater through civil resistance rather than violent struggle. Groundbreaking research by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth found that "from 1900 to 2006, 35 percent to 40 percent of authoritarian regimes that faced major nonviolent uprisings had become democracies five years after the campaign ended, even if the campaigns failed to cause immediate regime change. For the nonviolent campaigns that succeeded, the figure increases to well over 50 percent...Nonviolent resistance is about finding and exploiting points of leverage in one’s own society. Every dictatorship has vulnerabilities, and every society can find them."
Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?
Predictions are a game of sorts. Rather than predict, it's possible to ascertain where the underlying potential exists by recognizing the building blocks of civil resistance, such as: cooperation and new alliances at the grass-roots; ongoing small-scale or even low-risk, larger scale expressions of citizen dissent (both on the ground and digitally); common grievances among citizens; and a shared awareness of everyday concerns that are linked to the regime's impunity, denial of freedoms, corruption, mismanagement, and role in economic and social injustice. One can also look below the surface. Is the dissent spontaneous and limited to high-risk street demonstrations or is there evidence of organization among people and groups? Peter Ackerman, a scholar of nonviolent movements for over 30 years, has distilled three principles for success: nonviolent discipline, unity of people and goals, and strategic planning. I'd add a fourth factor, particularly if a regime is repressive and violent—anticipating crackdowns, creating an array of nonviolent tactics (e.g. dilemma actions and low-risk mass actions that are more difficult to repress), and developing strategies to make repression backfire by using it to delegitimize the oppressors, transform public and international outrage into active support for the movement, and shift the loyalties of those within the regime who don't approve of such harsh measures against peaceful citizens.
There is a danger in superficial copycat actions. While I don't have enough information, this may be the case in the rash of demonstrations taking place from Sudan to Syria. Gene Sharp, the pioneering nonviolent theorist and scholar, commented recently about Burma, which also applies to other countries in the Middle East in which citizens are rising up. He said "they could organize very powerful and brave demonstrations in Rangoon and elsewhere, but they did not plan a grand struggle. If you don't plan, if you don't have a bigger strategy, you're not going to win."