Arab Spring: Made in Washington?


Marc Lynch, a.k.a. Abu Aardvark, offers his two cents on a perpetually popular topic:

[H]ow much credit should Bush, or the invasion of Iraq, get for the positive developments in the region the last few months?

I don't really like framing the question in such partisan terms. It seems obvious that the invasion of Iraq matters for regional politics—how could it not? Both the strategic and the normative environment have radically changed, for better or for worse, and everyone—governments and political activists alike—are responding to this new situation. On the other hand, it seems obvious to anyone who has been following the region over the last decade that the demands for change in the region have their roots in local factors, and that the main credit should go to the Arab intellectuals and activists who have been fighting for reforms for years. When I talk to many of these activists, or read what they write in the Arab press or hear what they say on al-Jazeera, what I hear is a combination of frank recognition that some new opportunites have been created with opposition to American foreign policy and a fierce refusal of any appropriation of their struggle by the United States.

One of the most misleading ideas out there has to do with the supposed novelty of Arab demands for democratic reforms. The conventional wisdom that the invasion of Iraq triggered the first public Arab conversations about democracy is just flat wrong. Arabs have been talking about the need for reform and protesting against the status quo since long before the Iraqi war. Al-Jazeera talk shows were full of heated debates about democracy and the need for reform as far back as the late 1990s. During the run-up to the Iraq war, most Arab governments clamped down hard because they were afraid of what might happen if demonstrations got out of hand (the first big anti-Mubarak protest back in 2003 began as a protest against the invasion of Iraq). After the crisis passed they relaxed a bit, and Arab activists renewed their long-stated criticisms of the status quo. Iraq, and Bush, may have helped to open up some political opportunities (and to foreclose others), but credit for the so-called Arab spring should go to the Arab intellectuals and activists who have long been pushing for change for their own reasons.

The rest of the post looks at the specific cases of Lebanon and Egypt.