Whither the Arab Revolts? – A Response to Ali A. Allawi

Dear Ali,

I feel compelled to respond to your beautifully written and well-argued epistle to Syed Farid Alatas. I understand your sense of disappointment and betrayal as a result of how events have unfolded in post-revolt Arab nations, but want to take issue with your notions of revolution that lead you to conclude that popular revolts only produce greater suffering, loss of life, mayhem and strife and that civil disobedience is the one available way forward
You rightfully paint a bleak future for the Middle East and North Africa; that to be clear is not exclusively but to a large extent one of its own making. Indeed, the path of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and civil disobedience would be the way to try and effect change. It’s a path that has repeatedly been defeated in the Middle East and North Africa whether it was with labor strikes in Egypt, the claiming of public space in stadiums or the Brotherhood’s current demonstrations in eastern Cairo,

It takes a great deal to remain pacifist in the face of violence directed against oneself; not impossible, but more often than not unlikely. It’s the equivalent of the conscientious dissenter who is asked what he would do if while walking in a park his girlfriend is attacked and violated. Fact of the matter is that your description of civil disobedience as an educational process is true in an ideal world; the chances that it would survive the harsh realities of the Middle Eastern and North African repressive regimes are slim at best. By the same token, one could argue that war and conflict bond, particularly when once hostile groups stand shoulder-to-shoulder against a common enemy. Sworn enemies did so on Tahrir and other squares, yet the bonding in some cases was skin-deep, in others the jury is still out.

The reality is that even if civil disobedience were a successfully adopted strategy the risks are high that it would involve a regime response that inflicts substantial bloodshed and loss of life. One just needs to look at Syria, Libya and Bahrain where popular revolts started off peacefully and current developments in Egypt. The bottom line is that there is no avoiding payment of a heavy price to redirect the region on to a path towards greater freedom and opportunity for all and founded on public virtues and interest. 

That is gigantic task that will take a decade and probably more but is unavoidable and historically necessary. I in no way mean to be insensitive to or callous about the pain, suffering and loss of life that it will entail. If we live for our children and grandchildren as well as future generations, this is one gift and sacrifice one can and should give them. I say this based on multiple real life experiences of revolutions, revolts, uprisings and wars in which I have lost many who were very dear to me.

I grant you that this is a tall order. I reject however the notion that the absence of a military that can play a constructive role and of a pluralistic, live-and-let-live understanding of democracy are grounds to condemn another Middle Eastern and North African generation to the stultification of autocracy. It is unfortunate but historically inevitable that the need to develop these ingredients is going to involve sacrifice, a waste of precious lives and bitter and bloody struggle. That is however a choice that people have to make for themselves and as history demonstrates at some point do make. As I grow older, my perspective on why I intuitively take certain positions becomes clearer. I trace my ingrained distrust of authority, deep-seated rejection of abuse of power and violations of human rights as well as a deeply ingrained belief in the role of the fourth estate to a family history of persecution cemented by formative years in the anti-authoritarian student movement of the 1960s.

A wave of dissent and defiance

To me, the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa are but the most dramatic elements of a wave of dissent and defiance that is sweeping the globe. That wave is fuelled by a lack of confidence in institutions; a perception of political, economic and social leadership that fails to listen and is held to different standards of accountability for wrong decisions, misguided policies and mis- or improper management; a perception of failure to root out corruption at all levels of political, economic and social leadership, including sports; a perception that economic progress has failed to ensure that infrastructure as well as health and education facilities do not trail the lifting of huge numbers out of poverty resulting in a mismatch of expectation and reality; and a demand for social justice, dignity and inclusiveness.

The Middle East and North Africa cannot divorce or isolate itself from that trend. The popular will to enact change and shoulder the risk of life, livelihood, repression and counter-revolution is one that one must salute and recognize as historically inevitable. It is by definition healthy and unavoidable even if that is only visible with a bird eye’s view.

Indeed, revolutions as you suggest, are never linear. On the contrary, they are movements that go backwards and forwards and devour their children in the process. They bring out the best and the worst. To be sure, they spark resistance, but so does much that one does in life. They may regress into a period of darkness, the very opposite of what they aimed to achieve.

Counter-revolution is par for the course even if those that stage a revolution are seldom prepared for it. To be sure, it is aided in the Middle East and North Africa by the financial and ideological muscle of the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. Counterrevolutionaries find willing allies in remnants of the former regime, whose strength lies less in their numbers than in the fact that the toppling of a leader does not amount to the eradication of his system. With other words, supporters of the former regimes may not need numeric strength, they rely on the power of the institutions they continue to control. In addition revolutionary justice is seldom pretty and never just. Perhaps, all of that is inevitable and part of the price one pays. By the same token however, little if anything changes, without pressure either from the bottom or from the external. The notion that the status quo is preferable to a revolution that can backfire is equivalent to a passivist interpretation of religion in which man has no responsibility but to serve an omnipotent higher power who preordains everything.

Revolutions are also often cleansing processes. It took the Islamic revolution in Iran for many Iranians to realize that Islam may not be solution, which explains why Iran was the only Muslim Middle Eastern state to have featured pro-American demonstrations in the wake of 9/11. It may take the revival of the police state in Egypt to fundamentally alter the dynamics of change in that country. It took the 1991 war in Iraq and the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region to initiate a process of change in Turkish attitudes towards the Kurds, a process that could lead to an ultimately healthy redrawal of borders. 

‘Sturm und Drang’

The fact that history is littered with revolutionaries, participants in revolutions or supporters of revolutions who change their minds is hardly an argument against revolution, usually the only option to attempt change in an autocracy. On the contrary. There was little expression of regret about the overthrow in the walk-up and the wake of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s demise among a broad swath of the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coalition. If anything, many in the anti-Morsi camp held a false belief that an exclusionary approach to politics implemented by the military would put their revolution back on track. The ultimate realization that they miscalculated is likely to produce a new revolutionary force rather than a regret and a desire to return to the status quo ante. That sense of regret may be stronger in Syria as a result of its bloody war but again is more likely to produce a force that will seek to put the broken pieces back together again without simply trying to turn history back.

One reason that revolutions and certainly the current uprisings and longing for change occur is the factor of youth, that ‘sturm und drang’ period in life that is laced with infinitive optimism and endless naiveté and in which nothing seems impossible. In the Middle East and North Africa it is reinforced by a sense of having nothing to lose and an in-your-face repressive apparatus. The 1960s generation in the West is not one that looks back with a sense of regret, perhaps more one that is stunned by its degree of wide open eyedness, innocence and naiveté. It is an innocence that one should not pity; if there is regret it should be regret at that loss of innocence and confidence in one’s ability to enact change. To turn on that willingness to stand up for what is right and against tyranny amounts to indefensible submission and surrender. In the Middle East and North Africa, there is little to indicate a sense of regret among those that populated Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Pearl roundabout in Manama or Change Square in Sana’a in what were genuine uprisings. If anything, there is outrage that the goals of the initial revolt have yet to be achieved and a determination to as yet do so.

To deny the authenticity of the revolts is to ignore a fundamental change in the Middle East and North Africa that no counterrevolution or hijacking of a revolution can erase: the tearing down of the barrier of fear and a mental move from subservience and acceptance of the autocratic father figure who franchises is his neo-patriarchic traits to an unprecedented determination to question and challenge authority and decide for oneself. It constitutes a monumental shift across the political and social spectrum: liberals interrogating and resisting religious precepts, children questioning their parents and young Islamists challenging their ideological elders. The change is ongoing. It’s volatile, messy and often violent. It involves polarization and culture wars. In the words of Egyptian author, activist and writer Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere: “These things take time and they are done through conflict, trouble and confrontation and then they unfold.”  

The revolts in the Middle East and North Africa were sparked by an act that generated moral outrage – the self-immolation of a vegetable and fruit vendor in Tunisia, for example, and the Khaled Said incident in Alexandria much like the killing of Senator Aquino in the 1980s in the Philippines and the torture and murder by security forces of schoolchildren in Syria’s Dera’a. What constitutes moral outrage or moral shock is never predictable and only recognizable in hindsight. However, it only does so when it taps a vein of far broader and deep-seated discontent. With other words, festering discontent inevitably sparks revolt, the only question is when and how.

To be sure, social media serve as an accelerator. But equally important, if not more important, remains 24-hour live news coverage. The failed Green Revolution in Iran may have demonstrated the limits of social media but it also serves as an example of the difference that 24-hour television can make. The importance of the cassette in Ayatollah Khomeini’s defeat of the Shah in 1979 occurred in a world in which 24-hour television was in its baby shoes. The effect of no 24-hour television 30 years later bears witness to the impact of the inability to exploit the full scala of potentially available technology. It hardly amounts to the fizzling away of a networked generation. If anything, Iran was ripe for a new revolt in the run-up to Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the latest presidential election by that networked generation despite the government’s extensive effort to deprive it of unrestricted access.

Revolutions are vulnerable

The world looked to the Arab street in the wake of 9/11 for change that would eradicate the feeding ground on which extremism feeds. When the Arab street did not come through, government officials, analysts and journalists wrote the Arab street off. Fact of the matter was, widespread discontent continued to simmer at the surface. One only needed to put one's ear to the ground. If the current Middle Eastern revolt or series of revolts and its embrace of technology teaches us anything, it is that where discontent exists but cannot be expressed openly, it will be expressed elsewhere in what constitutes a truer reflection of reality. It is a reality that rulers and policymakers ignore at their own peril.

Revolutions are vulnerable by definition. They are staged by inchoate coalitions that share little else than a consensus on what they oppose. The goal of toppling the autocrat more often than not looms so large that the issue of what to do the day after figures in the far distance and is one that, wrongly so, is perceived, as a matter to be tackled at a later date. That is a revolution’s Achilles Heel and the opening that well-organized groups and forces exploit to shape the final outcome. It bares the seeds for inevitable setbacks and lays the ground for a second round. That may be the nature of the beast. In an ideal world revolutionaries would draw the lessons from past experience and be able to anticipate. But then they may not have the innocence and the moral rectitude that empowered them in the first place.

The vulnerability of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa is indeed enhanced by as you rightly point out the hollowness of the region’s autocratic regimes that are either legacies of nationalist military coups or the ascent of tribal domination, the lack a pluralistic past that can serve as a reference point, and a convoluted history of experimenting with different ideologies whose legacy is nothing but a bitter after taste. Ironically, Gamal Abdel Nasser who may have been inclined towards a more open society immediately after his military coup in 1952 that toppled King Farouk but was ultimately guided by his ingrained distrust of everyone and anyone except fo a few close associates and encapsuled by security men who had a vested interest in autocracy, may be as you suggest the one figure who evokes any sense of nostalgia.

The answer to your question of whether Middle Eastern and North African autocracies are reformable lies on the streets of the region’s cities. The answer is nowhere clearer than In Damascus and other destroyed Syrian cities engulfed in a bitter and bloody battle against a regime determined to hold on to power at all cost. It also lies in the streets of Sana’a and Tripoli where outside political or military intervention, irrespective of where one stands on foreign intervention, was the decisive factor. The exceptions are perhaps Jordan and Morocco where the jury is still out but the regime has engaged to whatever degree with protesters.

There is no doubt that after decades in power Arab autocracies are entrenched. The very fact that they allow for no uncontrolled public space by definition means that well-structured, well thought through opposition forces outside the system are hard to develop. What happens to groups that are forced underground for extended periods of time is evident in the failure of the Egyptian Brotherhood and contrasted by the very different approach of Ennahada in Tunisia despite all its warts and problems.

Inevitable mayhem and strife

Like everything in life, it is easier to destroy than to build. Revolutions are no exception. The dividing line between autocracies, dictatorships and totalitarian regimes is a fine line at best. Autocracies determined to hold on to power, unwilling to put their ears to the ground and address public concerns and determined to use whatever force to ensure self-preservation are no more reformable than totalitarian states. Myanmar may be the exception but its military as I discuss further below contrasts starkly with those in the Middle East and North African state. Fact of the matter is that the failure of the Brotherhood in Egypt is not only the failure of movement shaped in clandestinity but also of a movement that sought to effect change from within the system.

To put the blame for inevitable mayhem and strife on the fact that people with no vision or cohesion for the future rebel against injustice in an attempt to ride themselves of the yoke of repression and abuse amounts to attacking the weakest link in the chain. The inevitability of mayhem and strife is built into your accurate analysis of Arab autocracy, including the perversion of public institutions to serve the ruling elites. That is no truer than with regimes whose power is based on the favoring of particular communities or social groups as you illustrate with the examples of Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. Indeed it is a formula that ensures strife and sectarianism. The nature of Arab autocracy also makes the emergence less likely of a charismatic leader capable of uniting rather than dividing nations that by your own admission are on the brink of disintegration and in which arbitrary rule rules supreme.

Similarly it is with all likelihood true that some segments of anti-autocratic protest in the Middle East and North Africa were in it for particular interests and may have been reflections of a society whose concepts of public virtue – probity, justice, fairness, moderation, selflessness, and civility – have been eroded by the supremacy of arbitrary power. To assert that this is true for the revolts as such is unfounded and demeaning, a denial of the innocence and idealism that characterizes anti-establishment youth movements and at the very best unfair to those who have raised their voices in favor of public virtue. This is not to deny that the anti-Morsi revolt lacked the notion of pluralism and many in it are starting to realize that and regret the fact that they got into bed with the devil that is seeking to revive the very state they sought to destroy more than two years ago.

Granted, leaders of the 2011 Egyptian revolution like Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Movement and blogger Wael Abbas as well as popular television satirist Bassem Youssef, no supporters of the Brotherhood by any stretch of the imagination, have been vilified for their criticism of the witch hunt against the Islamist group. Maher sparked outrage when he asked Abbas in a tweet: ““If we assume it’s not a coup, and I tell people it’s not a coup, when they screw us again like they did in 2011, what would I tell people?” Youssef warned that “those on this ‘victory high’ consider themselves to be different; they justify their fascism for the 'good of the country'... We are now repeating the Brotherhood’s same mistakes. It’s as though we have the memory span of a goldfish." Theirs are notions that without doubt will quickly regain credibility and currency. Al-Sisi and his military-backed government are already ensuring that.

Elections: A panacea or a catalyst for strife?

Similarly, the notion that elections in post-revolt environments potentially degenerate into agencies for dissension and strife is paternalistic and raises the question of who decides when a population is mature enough to embark on an electoral process. If the neo-conservatives had anything right, it was the notion that people have the unrestricted right to decide for themselves. That does not by definition mean that they make the right choices but it is their choice and they have to in principle live with it for the term of the electoral mandate unless that mandate is democratically curtailed.

One can question the integrity of elections in which the best organized groups succeed rather than those best suited for the job and in which powerful lobbies wield significant influence. But then no system is perfect and I can only think of alternative systems that are even less perfect than a pluralistic democracy. Anything less than free and fair elections deprives people of the inherent right to choose for themselves no matter how imperfect their choice is. This is not a star-eyed expression of faith in the will of the people being expressed in elections. On the contrary, I uphold the principle of elections for lack of better options despite my lack of faith in the herd’s ability to make informed, well thought through choices of its own.

One can also argue that overthrowing dictatorships is like lifting the top of a long-boiling pot that explodes the moment it gets oxygen. The experience of that explosion is not a uniquely Middle Eastern or North African one as was evident in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the Balkans following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Elections may well be part of that explosion given that they often produce divisive and fragmented results. It would be wrong however to condemn populations to continued repression because the autocracy through its policies has raised the cost of change.

Iranians may well have regretted as you note their vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but his election did not occur in a vacuum. He was voted into office on the back of his anti-corruption campaign during his tenure as mayor of Tehran and against the will of the clergy. His election victory was a response to the dashed expectations and the failure of his predecessor, the reformist Mohammed Khatami. By the same token, Rouhani’s rise constitutes a response to the weirdness and stepped up repression of the Ahmadinejad era.

It would be equally wrong to assert that troubled democratic processes should only be embarked on when societies have regained notions of public interest and public virtue and have the kind of visionary leader who can guide them. Such a leader often emerges only from the chaos that ensues after the fall of an autocracy. To argue that democracy and elections runs the risk of damaging social relations amounts to an ostrich putting its head in the sand to deny the existence of a problem and allow it to fester like an open wound. The more it festers, the more difficult it is to heal it. Similarly, achieving unity is an illusion; achieving civility and a notion of pluralism is a lengthy and painful but unavoidable and necessary process. It is a process that like revolutions need not be linear and more likely than not is a zig zagging line that crawls forwards even if at times it may be difficult to see that. Elections are part of that process for good or for bad. So is confrontation between groups that need to time to learn the rules of co-existence.

Redrawing national borders

To take this one step further, the revolts and the decade if not more of dissent and defiance that we have just entered could well threaten and redraw existing national borders in the region. Think of the Kurds for example. Think of what might emerge from the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Think of the possible disintegration of Syria and Iraq. The international community’s instinctive notion is to oppose the redrawing of borders. Yet, that may not be an unhealthy development even if as Bosnia and Kosovo it may take a generation to bridge sectarian divides that were long existing even if they had been successfully papered over for a period time. The fact that they erupted in the ways that they did is evidence that harmonious co-existence and inter-mingling was hardly rooted in a way that it would be able to resist provocation.

Eritrea is hardly the model one would want to emulate. But its independence was long rejected out of fear that it would spark the break-up of artificially drawn borders across Africa. The opposite is true. Moreover, in a globalized world in which corporate diplomacy is at least as important as traditional diplomacy, sovereignty has become a relative term. Absolute sovereignty is a thing of the past. As a result, the influence of foreign powers is a given irrespective of whether states are autocratic or democratic. Proxy wars in a region like the Middle East and North Africa are par for the course. By the same token, Europe may have entered a post-military, post-violent era in its approach of dispute and conflict, but I need not note what it took to convert the world’s bloodiest continent into one that thinks instinctively in terms of peaceful resolution. To blame the spiraling sectarianism in the Middle East and North Africa exclusively on outside powers is to argue that nations have no say in their destiny and that conflict is not rooted in ideologies and interests indigenous to the region. That is a notion that belongs on the heap of popular conspiracy theories. That is not to say that outside powers have no interests in the unfolding events and more often than not are playing with fire as a result of short-term interests that are more the interest of a party or group in government rather than a truly national interest.

Transition takes time

All of this raises the question of the role of outside powers. To be clear, the battle for the future and soul of the region is a domestic and regional battle. This does not diminish the fact that the US and Britain encouraged the rise of autocracy. Take Egypt for example where, Nasser, and more importantly the security forces he had created were establishing in cooperation with the United States and Britain. This is what would effectively be a model for Arab autocracy for decades to come: a state controlled by the police and the security forces rather than the military with multiple variations ranging from the military being totally cut out of the power structure to cases where it shared power.

Construing the success so far of the Saudi-led Gulf counterrevolution as single most important thing that will defeat popular revolts suggests by implication that they themselves are immune and have been able to isolate their sub-region from what happens in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bahrain with all its specificities proves the point. Discontent is bubbling in the kingdom and elsewhere in the Gulf. It will express itself, how and when is the question. It is well possible that the war in Syria and the reversal of the revolution in Egypt will cause many in the region to pause. The notion however that those developments are the death knell of the quest for change is ahistorical.

Similarly, Turkish Islamists with all their warts are living examples that Islamists are capable of getting to a point where they are able to govern and achieve significant results. They are also examples of the fact that it takes extended periods of time for Islamists to make their own transition. It took political Islam in Turkey some four decades to get from the intransigence of Adnan Menderes who was executed by the military in 1960 via Necmettin Erbakan who was forced out of office in the late 1990s to Recep Tayyip Erdogan who despite the recent protests against him is by and large a success story witness economic growth, Turkey’s regional status irrespective of the recent setbacks in Egypt and Syria notwithstanding and yes, the bridging of the gap between his country’s secular and conservative communities.

Perhaps, the dialectic of revolution and counterrevolution is like the child that has to touch a stove and burn himself before he understands the need for caution in playing with fire. On Marx’s principle of things have to get worse before they improve, events in Egypt may ultimately be the catalyst for a more pluralistic, live-and-let live approach to politics. Egypt is at an impasse in which the military and the Brotherhood have boxed themselves into corners in which they have few options for a solution that would allow all sides to save face. The counter-revolution may be the necessary midwife for an approach that will ultimately pave the way for a less tumultuous, volatile and exclusionary transition towards a more open, transparent and accountable society. That will come as significant elements of the amorphous anti-Morsi coalition inevitably realize that they have jumped from the fat into the frying pan.

The suggestion that the issue of women’s rights illustrates the fact that civic groups opposed to Islamization of their post-revolt societies are primarily motivated by a desire to preserve a cherished lifestyle while autocrats at least when it came to women sought to enact social change is at best a partial truth. For one, one can count the number of autocrats who truly sought to empower women on the fingers of one hand: Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mohammed VI of Morocco, and Abdullah II of Jordan. It is certainly not a claim that Gulf rulers could make, perhaps with the exception of Qatar. Qaddafi’s female bodyguard whom the military command saluted as they marched past the tribune on Green Square on Revolution Day was certainly revolutionary. It countered traditional perceptions of a woman’s role as does the military training for women in the UAE. It was however part of the colonel’s theatrics rather than part of a real policy designed to enhance women’s rights.

Southeast Asia’s lessons

It is in the context of the above that the comparison between the Middle East and Southeast Asia becomes relevant, particularly if one includes the latter’s experience in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond rather than restricted the comparisons to the wars of the 1960s and 1970s in Indochina. Beyond the fact that this eliminates the generational gap, it also introduces communality: popular uprisings as in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar. In fact, by expanding the period of comparison, one creates the possibility to learn from what have been successful albeit painful and wrenching experiences and in the case of Thailand and Myanmar are still ongoing. Perhaps, the most striking lessons are the implications for the role of the military and the need to move beyond a political culture of zero-sum game approaches to politics. These lessons are relevant for both forces in the Middle East and North Africa with vested interests in the status quo as well as those seeking change.

Scholar Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario argues that the powers that be in Southeast Asian nations who offer only limited opportunities for public redress understand the benefits of a credible electoral façade and the need for public spaces that function as release valves. For their part, activists have learnt to cleverly maneuver within tightly controlled spaces by exploiting electoral contests without directly challenging entrenched authority. Malaysians have succeeded to get their messages across, created dents, raised questions, and expanded spaces for public discourse. Filipinos, Thais and Indonesians who have succeeded in regime change through relatively peaceful means, redirected the course of political life and a qualitative shift in social life has occurred.

Thai voters returned to power the party of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra through the landslide victory of his sister Yingluck --- a victory for his red-shirted supporters that in the past involved bloody clashes with the military. For the moment, her unequivocal electoral victory ended years of strife between red and yellow shirts and put the country back on a path of relative stability and economic growth. In Myanmar, the generals have retreated, and a new civilian government promises to deliver reforms, signaling a new political direction for the country that would emulate market-based democracies. In Indonesia, broad-based social movements have helped restore democratic practice.

That is not to say that that there have not been backlashes in Southeast Asia witness the bloody repression of Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar and the rise of fiercely xenophobic and racist Buddhism infused with racism. By the same token, however, Malaysia responded to sharp criticism of the police by repealing two sweeping security laws and lifting restrictions on the media even though a new restrictive assembly law and clashes between police and demonstrators point in the opposite direction. 

In all of these countries in Southeast Asia, grievances were channeled via organized efforts of social movements. In all of these countries thus far, political strife has not resulted in civil wars. This is perhaps the singular feature that distinguishes protest action in Southeast Asia from the Middle East.
Most Southeast Asian countries have engaged in party politics despite the imperfections in the development of political parties in this region. Some countries like Malaysia, Cambodia and Singapore have experienced the dominance of one party that has been in power for decades. Yet, opposition politics are making inroads into the power structure witness developments in Malaysia and the election of Aung San Su Kyi to a parliament in which her party, the National League for Democracy, commands a respectable following.

The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia as do post-revolt Arab states continue to struggle with the formation of political parties that reflect broader programs for governance rather than the personality of their front-runner candidates. Political evolution, though slow and tedious, heralds the institutionalization of a political process that in turn signals a forward march in the creation of a more modernized political culture. For all the citizens of these countries in contrast to those of the Middle East and North Africa, hopes are high that the deepening of these processes will consolidate democracy and therefore become irreversible.

For all Southeast Asian countries, an active electoral culture is in place, and citizens do take their electoral rights seriously. They insist on the legitimacy of their leaders through fair and honest elections. This should be construed as a sign of political health, and a staunch adherence to a social contract between government and their subjects.

Finally, social movements have been a part of the institutional life of Southeast Asian countries. Social movements in all these countries opt for an electoral process, thus working within institutional means that are offered by a regime which, in and of itself, desires to play by the rules of the “legitimacy game.” However unpopular, regimes seek recourse to legitimatizing procedures, even incurring the risk of potential loss. Thus far, all rulers seek a popular mandate, never mind that they might engage in the occasional electoral manipulation to ensure longevity. Notwithstanding fraudulent practices in electoral politics in Southeast Asia, the quest for political legitimacy should be construed as a hopeful development in the evolution of politics in these countries.

Political culture vs. moral

This is a far cry from the Middle East and North Africa. It is however a simplification to assert that protesters were deprived of their quest for liberal western-style democracy because of the cauldron of seething tensions and resentments fuelled if not produced by decades of suffocating repressive rule. Underlying the contrast between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa is a fundamental different vision of and approach to politics. It is a question of political culture rather than of moral. It may indeed be true that popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa occur in a world whose decrepit, kleptomaniac autocracies have robbed it of its moral bearings. That indeed would go a long way to explain the differences with Southeast Asia. However construing that as one reason that revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa go off the rails does injustice to the protesters. History evidenced by the experience of Southeast Asia demonstrates that it takes at least a decade for a revolution with all its warts and counterrevolutionary setbacks to play out and produce a political culture that nurtures a degree of pluralism.

The crisis in Egypt provoked by Morsi’s intransigent and stubborn personality may well have been avoided if his opponents had truly had an understanding of pluralism. There is no doubt that Morsi like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hampered by a limited understanding of the legitimacy of the ballot box. Electoral victory indeed constitutes the basis for legitimacy. But so does recognition by one’s opponents of that legitimacy. It is that legitimacy that was withdrawn with the June 30 anti-Morsi’s demonstrations. Rather than offering or forcing a solution that would have restored the legitimacy of the ballot box, the anti-Morsi forces and the military opted for one that inevitably is leading to the resurrection of the police state.

A dearth of reformist military officers

The process of change in Southeast Asian countries was led by retired military officers who were active duty commanders at the time of autocratic rule but belonged to a reformist wing of the armed forces. Ironically in some cases such as the Philippines the existence of a reformist military group was the unintended outcome of Marcos’ distrust of the armed forces and his effort to nurture a military force on which he could depend. The efforts of autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa to neutralize a potential threat did everything but produce a reformist element in the region’s military.

If anything, the relationship between the military and Middle Eastern and North African rulers irrespective of whether they are republicans or monarchs or whether or not they had a military background is one of a forced marriage rooted in mutual distrust. To shield themselves from potential threats by the military, Middle Eastern and North African rulers opted for one of several models: totally sidelining the military; buying it off with a stake in national security and lucrative economic opportunities; focusing on key units commanded by members of the ruler’s family; creating parallel military organizations; staffing the lower and medium ranks with expatriates; or most recently creating a separate mercenary force. The resulting structure of the military provides models for responses to popular uprisings in the Middle East region and helps put recent developments in perspective.

The Egyptian military as is evident in the country’s most recent events exploits its popular support and self-understanding as the arbiter of what is right for the country to preserve its perks and privileges achieved under former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. The deal was straightforward: the military remained loyal to the president in exchange for retaining control of national as opposed to homeland security and allowing it to build an independent relationship with its US counterparts that enabled it to create a military industrial complex as well as a commercial empire in other sectors.

The Egyptian military’s deal contrasts starkly with Tunisia, where former autocratic President Zine El Abdeine Ben Ali, in one of his first moves after coming to power, decimated the military and ensured that unlike the Egyptian armed forces it had no stake in the system he built. As a result, the Tunisian armed forces had no reason to obstruct real change; indeed if anything, it was likely to benefit from reform that leads to a democratic system, in which it would have a legitimate role under civilian supervision.

In Syria, Libya and Yemen, autocratic rulers employed brutal force in their attempts to crush revolts because rather than sidelining the military, they had ensured that key units were commanded by members of the ruler’s family and/or sect. This gave those well-trained and well-armed units a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and effectively neutralized the impact of defections. Defections, certainly in the case of Libya and Syria did not significantly alter the balance of power. Yemen is perhaps the exception that confirms the rule with the attack in 2011 by a dissident military unit on the compound of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh in which he and many of his senior officials were injured. That assault, launched only after forces loyal to the president attacked the unit’s headquarters, constituted a watershed in the ultimate removal of Saleh after 30 years in office.

A fourth model is that of Bahrain where military and security forces crushed a popular revolt. The fact that much of the rank and file consists of foreigners, mostly Pakistanis, explains the regime’s ability to employ brutal violence against the mainly Shia protesters in the island-nation of only 1.2 million people. Similarly, he UAE has invested over US$500 million in the creation of a mercenary force, designed to quell civil unrest in the country as well as in the region.

Finally, there is the Saudi and Iranian model with a variant in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that has been tested only to a limited degree. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have built competing military forces; in Iran’s case the controversial Revolutionary Guards Corps and in Saudi Arabia the National Guard now commanded by King Abdullah’s son,  that operate independent of the armed forces. 

The most recent developments in Egypt puts the question of the role of the military as well as Western efforts over the last decade to strengthen democratic initiatives from which the armed forces were exempted in a whole different perspective. Egypt’s new military leadership promoted by Morsi in his attempt to replace Mubarak-era commanders has brought to the fore men whose vision goes far beyond a depoliticized armed force determined to protect its interests under the guise of its role as the protector of the nation. These commanders share many of the Brotherhoods Islamist instincts and are more critical of US policy in the Middle East and North Africa.

All of this means that the structure of Middle Eastern military forces as well as the absence of reformists with a pluralist vision of their countries’ future within the military potentially suggests that the Arab revolts are likely to be met with repeated violence and bloodshed and potentially civil war in countries with competing military forces. That by definition ensures that the process of change in the reason is and will be what it is: messy, ugly, and bloody, involving an adherence to Lenin’s principle of two steps forward, one step backward.

This is a reality that neither you nor I like. It is however one we cannot ignore.

In friendship, yours truly,


James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer


  1. It is important to make distinctions during the tumultuous events of the Arab Upheavals, for the reader’s benefit. With this said, each country that witnessed unrest has specific dimensions. I agree with the fact that the Arab Gulf states were not immune from the regional upheavals (I mean a $130B incentive pack alone dispels this fallacy). However, it is also necessary to give each country the proper research in order to avoid pitfalls like over simplification that generally plague mass media.
    While I do recognize the benefits of maintaining certain narrative consistency, there are issues of accuracy to deal with. In Bahrain, economic discrimination has often been cited (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/15/us-bahrain-protesters-idUSTRE71E3YN20110215) a key grievance for those who took to the streets. Yet, if one closely observes conditions (http://cejiss.org/editors-desk/editor%25E2%2580%2599s-policy-analysis-demographic-warfare) on the ground, the picture doesn’t add up. Discontent is a natural trait of humanity, and to simply state that discontent is ‘bubbling’ within a region is a generic simplification, which warrant further consideration.

    Bahrain’s political crisis was not a spontaneous event like other counties that faced unrest. In fact, it was methodically built up by political evocation of sectarian tensions and its eventual radicalization (http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/6224/06_27.pdf?sequence=1), which holds regional (http://wikileaks.org/cable/2005/01/05MANAMA111.html) implications as well. Additionally, two demonstrations (http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/02/21/bahrain-one-country-two-rallies/), one at the Lulu roundabout and the other at the Fateh mosque, that occurred during the height of Bahrain’s recent political troubles clearly divided society on more or less even grounds, an aspect that was neglected in your brief reporting on Bahrain. This suggests that a ‘popular revolt’ is grand oversimplification. Lastly, the other trap used by media reporting on Bahrain’s case is that the military was involved in riot control activities, as it was made abundantly clear in the BICI report (para 1102) to the contrary.

    Accuracy and accountability are vital criteria for critical analysis, and Mr. Dorsey, while I find your insights on sports and politics in the Middle East quite fascinating and novel; the other areas you comment upon, in my opinion, are not up to the same standards.

    PS: Your theory on football supporters being an indicator of upcoming political unrest was spot on, perhaps focusing on such endeavors will be more beneficial.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I fear that we disagree on Bahrain. If I read your comments correctly, you are implying that sectarianism, which is by definition divisive, was fueled by outside forces, Iran. That is indeed the government's narrative. Even if that were the case, which is not my view, there had to be something to fuel; with other words an un-addressed issue. Moreover, government responses have escalated rather than deflated the issue and certainly failed to address it.

  3. I want to start by saying that the political crisis in Bahrain is one that cannot be compared to the other political upheavals across the Middle East. To start with, in Bahrain the protests started at the heart of Manama (Lulu Roundabout), where a large business community resides next to the financial center. While many protestors categorize themselves as peaceful, there were instances of indicate violent behavior from protestors prior to events of 2011. In 2010, radical groups, funded by internal and external sources, attempted to carry out violent and coordinated attacks throughout the Kingdom. When the crisis started beginning 2011, within days protestors located at the roundabout started attacking passers-by and threatening businesses if they did not shut down.
    Protests were not peaceful in Bahrain, where acts of political violence have been occurring for years. Bahraini authorities believe that some of these protestors received training by Hezbollah to attack police and destroy private properties. This video shows a number of so-called peaceful protestors attacking police members earlier last year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwgMW34XUC4.

  4. There are two fundamentally exclusive narratives: that of the government and that of its opponents. There is no doubt that Bahrain was a popular uprising. There were also indeed incidents of violence, some of which preceded the uprising. They serve as evidence of a problem that the government allowed to fester. The problem is domestic. None of this justifies the government's response. Addressing concerns of a majority of the population is the solution, not brutal crackdowns.

  5. Dear Dorsey,

    I responded with distinct points and bodies of literature in which I did not mention nor insinuate Iran at all, while it would be easy to jump to conclusions may I kindly ask you to have another look at the points and URLs I provided before hastily avoiding them and answering self-conceived questions, so perhaps a constructive dialogue could be achieved.

  6. Thanks. I take your point on Iran. That does not change very different perceptions. The protests were the result of deep divisions, not the source. Unfortunately, the debate over what happened and is happening in Bahrain has become so entrenched and polarized that there is no dialogue. The effect is evident as society effectively becomes increasingly segregated. The power balance within the ruling family complicates any effort to achieve a resolution witness the most recent parliamentary recommendations and the framing much like in Egypt and elsewhere of protest in terms of violence and terrorism.


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