Foreign Policy

The Arab Spring

The Middle East's breathtaking liberalization really isn't about us.

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In October 2010, best-selling New Yorker essayist Malcolm Gladwell published a piece titled "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," a derisive attack on the notion that social networking websites would ever play a major role in fomenting meaningful nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes. "If you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy," Gladwell argued. "Think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure."

Less than six months later, a series of mostly nonviolent and nonhierarchical protests drove longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak out of office, part of a transnational wave of pro-liberalization protest that is remaking North Africa and the Middle East. One of the most influential Egyptian activists was a young Google executive named Wael Ghonim. The tide arguably turned against Mubarak when he tried to shut down the Internet. "Our revolution," Ghonim told 60 Minutes, "is like Wikipedia, OK?"

Gladwell was not the only deep thinker rendered ridiculous by the remarkable events of early 2011. In mid-January, controversial commentator Stephen M. Walt wrote a confident prediction in a Foreign Policy article titled "Why the Tunisian Revolution Won't Spread." And in March, as the increasingly deranged Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi sent his warplanes to strafe unarmed protesters even while denying that there were any anti-regime demonstrations (let alone whole swaths of the country under rebel control), Mother Jones and other outlets began excavating a trove of embarrassing op-ed pieces published in 2007 by intellectuals who swore that Qaddafi had turned over a new leaf. (Many of the Qaddafi enthusiasts failed to disclose that they were on the payroll of the P.R. firm Monitor Group, which had taken a $3 million annual contract to burnish Libya's image.)

"Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, [Qaddafi] was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies," wrote Jihad vs. McWorld author (and Monitor recipient) Benjamin Barber in a typical specimen of the genre, published in The Washington Post in August 2007. "Libya under [Qaddafi] has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government and, in time, to an indigenous mixed constitution favoring direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally." 

It wasn't just intellectuals, bought off or not, who were caught off guard by the pro-democracy wave. On January 25, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the Egyptian government as "stable." On January 30, Clinton was talking about an "orderly transition" lasting months. On Feb. 11, Mubarak resigned, prompting Clinton's boss Barack Obama to say "Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day."

What lessons can we draw from Americans' seeming inability to predict or even process the thrilling and harrowing events of the Arab Spring? First and foremost: It's really not about us—in every sense of the phrase.

Islamist-fearing skeptics of the 2011 revolutions have often invoked the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Yet the Great Satan has been almost nowhere to be found on the streets of Cairo, Tripoli, or Sana. Whether in an Egypt awash in U.S. foreign aid or a Libya that for decades was under U.S. sanctions, protesters have focused instead on the local guy keeping them down. This is evident not just in the handmade street signs and lack of burning flags but in most of what we know about the intellectual underpinnings of the movement.

In March 2004, a group of civil society leaders from the Middle East and North Africa convened at the fancy new library in Alexandria to sketch out some architecture for the freedom they wanted. The resulting Alexandria Declaration, very reminiscent of Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 and copycat dissident documents across the unfree world, was short on complaints about Yankee imperialism and long on demands for enumerated freedoms that until recently sounded like science fiction in an Arab context.

"When we talk of democratic systems, we mean, without ambiguity, genuine democracy," the declaration states. "Democracy is based on respect of all rights for all the people, including freedom of thought and expression, and the right to organize under the umbrella of effective political institutions, with an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, a government that is subject to both constitutional and public accountability, and political parties of different intellectual and ideological orientations. This genuine democracy requires guaranteed freedom of expression in all its forms, topmost among which is freedom of the press, and audio-visual and electronic media."

You could even detect the balance of power shifting from Uncle Sam to the mythical "Arab street" in the way that embattled authoritarians addressed their own people. Handpicked Mubarak successor Omar Suleiman, a day before the dictator's resignation, pointed his finger not at the Obama administration (or even Twitter!) but at Al Jazeera: "Do not listen to the satellite stations that have no objective but to sew sedition among people and to weaken Egypt and to mar its image," Suleiman admonished protesters. He, too, was gone by the end of the week.

The anti-communist revolutions of 1989 taught us that local, ground-up ownership of revolutions, particularly of the nonviolent variety, correlate strongly with post-totalitarian success. Yet judging by the reaction of many American commentators, the noncentrality of Washington's role has come as a disappointment, even a disgrace. "The passivity of the Obama administration has damaged America's interests and standing around the world," Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol warned. "America should lead," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in the middle of a multi-country tour of the region in late February. McCain, whose proposed doctrine of "rogue state rollback" would have required maybe half a dozen military interventions thus far during Arab Spring, was chagrined that "The No. 1 hero in Tunisia" is not President Obama, but "a guy named Mark Zuckerberg." At a minimum, McCain maintained, we should be enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.

Washington's secondary-at-best role in this revolutionary moment is a harbinger of things to come. As historian Niall Ferguson aptly framed the issue last year in Foreign Policy, "There is a zero-sum game at the heart of the budgetary process: if interest payments consume a rising proportion of tax revenue, military expenditure is the item most likely to be cut because, unlike mandatory entitlements, it is discretionary.…U.S. fiscal policy today is preprogrammed to reduce the resources available for all overseas military operations in the years ahead."

An America that is already broke, with unfunded liabilities in the trillions and entitlement trajectories that the president himself has described as "unsustainable" (without doing a damned bit about it), is an America that will no longer be the protagonist in all the world's dramas. This, I believe, is a welcome and long-overdue development. But it won't be easy, or clean.

Freedom is messy. Attempted revolutions in regions that haven't experienced liberalism are guaranteed to have terrifying moments, even decades. The analogical revolutionary year might be less 1989, more 1848. And 1848 didn't end up well for most revolutionaries. Although it is horrible on a basic human level to watch impotently from afar as a delusional thug mows down his own people, that does not mean the U.S. or the international community can produce the best long- or even short-term outcome for the country. Intervention into a country's internal affairs, as last decade taught us the hard way, can have grave unintended consequences. 

With America as a bystander, on the other hand, protesters and rebels are seizing the means of democratic production. They are taking ownership of their own future. It's time that we let them. 

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.

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56 responses to “The Arab Spring

  1. I think it’s worthwhile to ponder why America was not conceived as a democracy. The main reason is that the citizenry was not educated enough for more directly democratic institutions. Education levels are extremely poor in North Africa and the Middle East and any democratic institutions there are bound to fail, whether they tweet about it or not.

    1. The US was not conceived as a democracy because the founding fathers were smart enough to desire rule of law over tyranny of the majority.

      1. Damn children! This whole home schooling thing is too distracting from commenting!

      2. Where do laws come from, exactly?

        1. Rule of law does not equal rule of laws.

    2. I think it’s worthwhile to ponder why America was not conceived as a democracy. The main reason is that the citizenry was not educated enough for more directly democratic institutions.

      Absurd. The Founders rightly feared the Tyranny of the Majority. Direct democracy is mob rule. Never heard of Socrates?

      This country was not founded as a democracy. It was founded as a Constitutional Republic and with good reason.

  2. “What lessons can we draw from Americans’ seeming inability to predict or even process the thrilling and harrowing events of the Arab Spring?”

    Whatever we spend on ‘intelligence’ is misallocated.

    1. You mean Spring for Hitler.

  3. “If you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy,” Gladwell argued. “Think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure.”

    Establishmentarian statists cannot manage to grasp the concept of an order arising without central planning in any manner other biological evolution. It strikes me as so absolutely blind because such orders are created from chaos daily in markets. And as Matt duly notes, ordered civil resistence has in the past come from disordered/bottom-up groundswell movements such as in the Eastern bloc circa the 1980’s.

    1. They thought the Tea Party was Astro-turf as well – same reasoning.

  4. “What lessons can we draw from Americans’ seeming inability to predict or even process the thrilling and harrowing events of the Arab Spring?”

    The Bush Doctrine has been vindicated? Arab countries can handle freedom and liberty without a strongman after all? Our efforts to help speed up the downfall of fascist dictatorships in the region by removing Saddam was the right call?

    I mean, that’s what I take from it, but your mileage may vary.

    And by “may vary” I doubt anyone here agrees with my assessment at all.

    But hey, I love it when people call me a stupid republitard bible-thumping redneck because I support the idea of spreading liberty and freedom to places that don’t have it.

    Good times.

    1. You think this is a direct result of our taking out Saddam? It just took the rest of them 8 years to get the message? Shit, this may have happened 5 years ago, if they didn’t see the civil war and civilian deaths in Iraq and say to themselves, “Holy shit, that’s democracy? Maybe we really do need these emergency laws…”

      1. You think this is a direct result of our taking out Saddam?

        No, I do not. But I do think the removal of Saddam helped speed up the inevitable.

        It just took the rest of them 8 years to get the message?

        Actually, Lebanon booted out Syria (although they’ve let Hezbollah make a comeback) within months of Saddams removal. Qball gave up his nuke stuff (which thank fucking god for that btw) within days of watching Saddam get removed from the spider hole. You can’t possibly be saying that it had NO influence, are you?

        Shit, this may have happened 5 years ago, if they didn’t see the civil war and civilian deaths in Iraq and say to themselves, “Holy shit, that’s democracy? Maybe we really do need these emergency laws…”

        That’s just fucking stupid.

        1. They may have said to themselves “Holy shit, we better set up our own democracy before the Americans try to do it for us!”

      2. It just took the rest of them 8 years to get the message?

        Let me state right off the bat that I don’t entirely buy into Tman’s thesis, although I do believe that we have to consider the Iraqi experience as a contributing factor, even if not a decisive one. But as it pertains to why it took 8 years, it really didn’t. These movements had been fomenting since shortly after the toppling of Saddam and the nascent formation of an Iraqi gov’t. Lebanon and Palestine both had democratic movements a couple of years after the initial invasion of Iraq (although one didn’t materialize, and the other resulted in strengthening the hand of Islamists, albeit by democratic processes). Furthermore, a place like Iran has seen student movements/uprisings in each of the past three years, albeit with no success.

        Is this to say that Iraq was the central driving force in that? I don’t view it that way, as it looks like Tman does. I think expansion in technology has facilitated the revolutions and was a necessary precondition, and maybe the yearning for representation was apparent before but unable to materialize due to the tyrants’ control over media predating the internet. But Iraq didn’t happen in a vacuum, and I think its perfectly reasonable to consider that as a factor that has led to the current democratic movements (although the degree to which it is a factor is open to a wider debate).

        But let me say that I unequivocally think that the cost we bore for whatever factor Iraq played in this regional transformation was not worth it from a cost/benefit analysis and was none of our damn business to start.

        1. Is this to say that Iraq was the central driving force in that? I don’t view it that way, as it looks like Tman does.

          That’s not my position, by the way. I don’t believe it’s THE central driving force, but as you said it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

          I unequivocally think that the cost we bore for whatever factor Iraq played in this regional transformation was not worth it from a cost/benefit analysis and was none of our damn business to start.

          Now that you’ve said that I’m sure the Reason doods will let you play in the next pick-up game. Me, I completely disagree that it wasn’t worth it considering what I know from the Kurds as well as places like http://www.husseinandterror.com . That’s why I never get invited to any of these fancy cocktail parties, but that’s ok I’d prolly just puke all over the place anyways.

          1. 4,404 American military personnel KIA.

            31,827 American military personnel WIA.

            Depending on whose figures you believe, anywhere from 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians to 600,000+. And yes, if they died from civil disorder we caused, they’re just as dead as if we pulled the fucking trigger.

            Over 700 billion dollars, per the CBO. http://cbo.gov/ftpdocs/117xx/d…..Update.pdf

            Now keep telling us that it’s all been worth it.

            1. Most of those civilians killed each other. We’re not responsible for their barbarism. You can keep your ‘victor’s guilt’ all for yourself.

              Further, the number of dead US soldiers is puny.

              1. Further, the number of dead US soldiers is puny.

                I’m only going to tell this to you once, because you’re not worth telling twice: For your own benefit, I really recommend you not sharing that opinion with anyone who’s served over there.

                Think about what you’ve written and try to comprehend how much you sound like an ignorant asshole. I don’t expect any better of the obvious trolls, but you’ve just come off even dumber than Chony/Juanita/GREGO! could ever hope to.

                1. Watch out! GrayGhost is internet tough guy. Better not make him angry.

              2. Hey Dick Cytotoxic Chenney!
                GO FUCK YOURSELF!

            2. I will be the first one to admit that spilling American soldiers blood for ANY reason is one that should have a justifiable foundation. Considering the fact that the AUMF in Iraq to remove Saddam did exactly that, and detailed specifically the reasons why we were removing Saddam seem pretty justifiable from my standpoint.

              I myself did not serve in Iraq. I know many who did. Some agree with the actions, some don’t. But what all of them (that I spoke to) agreed with was that sooner or later US Military blood was going to be spilled in connection to Saddam’s murderous regime, and it was a matter of when not if. The clear and unmistakable path that a large number of Islamic terrorists took from Afghanistan in to Iraq (and in to Saddam’s waiting arms) after our removal of the Taliban supports this theory.

              You can make the completely unsupported claim that “600,000” Iraqi’s died because of our actions, and yet still not even come close to the running tally that Hussein’s regime was responsible for.

              Every SINGLE Iraqi Kurd I know (and I know a lot of them here in Iraq) fully supported the actions to remove Saddam. Most of them complained that it took too long. Many of them joined the US Military so that they could help.

              I don’t expect to convince you that it was justified because clearly you don’t think it was, but I will agree to disagree based on my knowledge of those Iraqi’s I have spoken to, as well as the soldiers themselves.

              1. Typo above-

                (and I know a lot of them here in Iraq)

                should read-

                (and I know a lot of them here in Nashville)

          2. Holy shit! Even I didn’t know how much Sadaam’s Iraq was involved in terrorism, even before Desert Storm. It’s too bad 90% of the posters here will suspend their MSM-skepticism when they hear Iraq stuff that fits their preconceived notions.

            That Abul Nidal Organization aid is making me reconsider my opposition to US involvement in Desert Storm. Now I mostly regret America not getting rid of Sadaam right there and then.

  5. http://washingtonexaminer.com/…..xperts-say

    This is very bad news. And I am a rotten unpatriotic American for not being saddened by it. But part of me can’t help but laugh hysterically at all of Obama’s “no blood for oil” supporters.

    1. Oh the headline is

      America may be involved in Libya for many years, experts say

      1. Whoa, nobody could have foreseen that coming.

    2. Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh at them or pity them. It’s sad when you have guys like Kevin Drum openly admitting that they have subsumed their personal identity into the Cult of the Obamessiah.

  6. Caption:

    “Thunder and lightning protect me from God
    I will not be skullfucked by faith
    I am the upside down cross”

    1. You could provide a musical link

  7. I was with you all the way until the “military interventions” of the past decade section. I wonder if anyone realizes how much Iraq was talked about in the Middle East? Yes, a lot of it was bad, but there was this underlying sense that Saddam, a long time dictator was GONE.

    I remember talking to an Iraqi who was not as excited about our invasion saying that the Iraqi’s could have done it themselves. Except, of course, they needed money, guns, training and air support. Not his words, mine.

    However, the “could have done it themselves” attitude was suddenly spreading around the internet, op-eds, etc. Becoming the idea that “hey! We can do it ourselves!”

    to overthrow the dictator, you must first lose your fear of his power being greater than your thirst for freedom.

    There were many people in the ME reading daily reports, not just about the horror of the terror campaigns, but about Iraq’s political struggles. There was a very subversive strain of information, perpetrated by the ME media themselves with no help from us, all under the guise of “those dastardly American invaders bringing death” (and democracy)

    Maybe it was ugly and ham handed, but it worked.

    these revolutions are their own, but there is a quality about them that no one would have seen without those “military interventions of the last decade”.

    1. “to overthrow the dictator, you must first lose your fear of his power being greater than your thirst for freedom”

      That is a perfect nutshell summation of why the Iraq war was “worth” even the high cost. I don’t believe anything would have changed, and certainly not this soon, without an event that changed the consuming fear dynamic in that region. Remember: these people actually live under governments that torture people who speak their minds.

      I, for one, don’t know if I’d have the courage to be the first one to march to the torture chamber, especially if I didn’t think there was any real hope of success. The removal and humiliation of Saddam gave a lot of people that hope.

  8. At the end of the day, new regimes will stay need to do the same two things that their predecessors have always done:

    -Repress their populations
    -Sell oil

  9. Just new thugs in charge in Eygpt now. They upped their military contractor orders from UK/US firms…the taxes will be levied on the masses same as before. Gaddafi was empowered byt he central banking loving West elite just as Saddam was…just as the House os Saad is …just as the Yemen is as they machine gun the protestors there.

    This invasion of Libya is just another nail in the coffin on America taxpayers.

    1. war is peace…bitches…Al Qaeda is good when the TV tells us Al Qaeda is good…Al Qaeda is bad when the TV tells us it is bad…all of it justifies treating Americans like East Germans when we try to move about the country.

      1. Time for you to up the meds.

        1. time to buy more physical silver…controls the anger better than anything.

  10. The United States was meant to be a constitutional confederate (as per the balance of powers between central and state governments) or federal (per the model of American federalism) republic.

    Supreme law trumpts majority rule – the US was founded as majority rule tempered and superseded by rule of law – i.e. you have democratic elements, such as elections (and even then not totally direct), but supreme law is just that – it’s supreme over all else.

    If someone seriously tried to repeal any of the amendments of the Bill of Rights, assuming we’ve all grown so immoral that we wouldn’t pursue violent deposition of the government, it would practically constitute a dissolution of the republic.

    And to be frank, I wish there was no method for amendment post-Bill of Rights. Fucking abomination.

    1. And that is, by the way, the test of supreme law – it must be so basic, so foundational, that it can withstand eternity/time – i.e. very few, expressly stated powers without ever amending supreme law or granting more power to government. Direct election of senators and Prohibition really demonstrates how amazing and wonderful and full of unicorns and cherry syrup and spice and everything nice the amendment process can be.

  11. “The Middle East’s breathtaking liberalization really isn’t about us.”
    What the fuck are you smoking??? These Koran thummping goat fuckers don’t want to be free….they want to be able to kill who they please, how they please.

  12. Decent article is undermined by the extremely premature use of the term ‘liberalization’. Liberals and Islamists in Egypt are already blaming the free market for bad stuff. Young liberals also appear to be ceding the drivers seat to the Islamists in Egypt. I am starting to regret even my tepid support for Egypt’s revolution.

  13. Central bank already set up in Libya…operation commence bloodsucking. All this liberalizationis BS…Yemenis are getting machine gunned byt he US supported government…I guess the no fear shit doesn’t always work. This is just left cover humanitarian propaganda for war and bigger war budgets. GE is happy, Obama is happy, The central bankers are happy and Cheney is happy….the people are fucked.

  14. I have watched with fascination as events have unfolded in the Middle East, not least because of the media’s naive assumption that this demonstrates a movement toward freedom and democracy. To that assumption one can only offer a resounding “nonsense.”

    The despots currently being ousted from power most likely will be replaced by equally despotic regimes. The Middle East has never known democracy and is unlikely to do so at any time in the foreseeable future.

    1. Indeed. It is quite difficult to get people to learn to fend for themselves when their entire history and culture is a patriarchal system. Russia comes to mind – they desperately need a strong man as leader because that’s all they’ve known. ME is similar, and it is backed up by their ridiculous religion (I know, that is redundant) that demands absolute obedience.

    2. There is a huge vacuum of power here and it is easy to want “freedom” and “democracy,” but wanting them and accepting these things as they are,are two different things.

      A nation accustomed to despots may gravitate towards liberty momentarily until they realize they have to rule themselves and they cannot have a homogenized society. Despots homogenize and love em or hate em, they impose rules that will probably be missed so it will be hard to see it through and all it takes is one asshole politician to step into office and satisfy the desire to retain some of the old rules. And the next thing you know, this asshole has been in charge for the better half of a century and they are back on square one.

    3. Democracy is shit anyway…the ideas behind a republic is what made our country great…democracy has amounted to mob rule and the disintegration of the property and civil rights.

  15. recently there was an influx on sharks on some coast of some Arab town. Is Egypt on the coast? Anyway, the people blamed the jews for having a conspiracy to send sharks. This is not the province of a few eccentrics. this is mainstream thinking. The jews did it, or if not, the americans.

    the first rule of democracy and liberalism is you are responsible for yourself. If you think your life is in the hand of conspirators and you can do nothing, well when we become like that liberalism with a capital L is over (leftism is something different entirely). I saw on cspan some panel discussion about civil society in Egypt. People said they needed the west to fund things. The founding fathers were not perfect (slavery) but they knew they could not wait for someone to deliver a boatload of money before they could start organizing businesses and the other institutions that they needed. They had to make the money themselves.

      1. nanda: “Is Egypt on the coast?”

  16. Okay, I am sick of people suggesting that twitter and Facebook had anything to do with this.

    These things are nice communication networks, but it does not fundamenally change the structure of the social network. It is not as if each twittering arab has an equal voice on these networks. We like to imagine them as democratic, but the fact is, certain individuals have more influence than others. And its not as if twitter suddenly highlighted how terrible their leaders are, this is something the people know without the aid of social nets.

    Some voices are more influential than others on these social nets, but that is no different than any other human network, except communication is faster. The Arab Spring was always on the horizon. Social nets may have moved it along a bit, but it did not happen “because of” them, that would be like saying that the American Revolution happened because of horse back messengers.

  17. Malcolm miscalculated his igon values, clearly.

  18. they knew they could not wait for someone to deliver a boatload of money before they could start organizing Converse en france businesses and the other institutions that they needed. They had to make the money themselves.

  19. About non-violent revolutions, here are some key words for some research:

    . Colour revolutions
    . Gene Sharp (From dictatorship to democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation)

  20. This movie has some nike sb skunk dunks for sale of the same flaws I saw in another attempt at a faithful adaptation of a work of fantastic literature long thought unfilmable, Zach Snyder’s 2009 version of Watchmen…That is, it kobe 7 for sale struck me as a series of filmed recreations of scenes from the famous novel

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