By Marc Lynch
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 11/01/2011
It's very clear that most Arab regimes are on edge over the possibility of the spread of the protests in Tunisia and Algeria. Arab columnists and TV shows have been excitedly debating the real causes of the protests and what they might mean, while in country after country warnings are being sounded of a repeat of the "Tunisia scenario." It's not at all clear whether these protests actually will spread yet, as regimes on high alert will not be taken by surprise and local conditions vary dramatically. The protests have already sparked a region-wide debate about the prospects for political change and the costs of political repression and economic stagnation. The discussion of the "Tunisia scenario" is everywhere. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood warned today that the impending price rises planned by the new government will lead to an unprecedented explosion along the North African model -- which is the lead story in Lebanon's al-Akhbar. In Egypt, Trade and Industry Minister Rashid Mohammed Rashid ruled out a "Tunisia scenario" in his country over the economy, though many columnists and political activists disagree. Leading Saudi columnist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed today seems worried, rather than excited, that protesters may have broken the psychological barrier against demonstrating and raises the specter of a "domino theory" by which even currently calm Arab states may soon be threatened. The debate is being carried by social media and by satellite television, despite the outsized efforts by most of the regimes to silence whatever media falls under their control. From Kuwait and Tunisia's moves to ban al-Jazeera to traditional repression of local journalists to the escalating crackdown against Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, Arab regimes are trying to keep control of the narrative. But it doesn't seem to be working. Even status quo media outlets are being forced to discuss the events and to entertain unsettling questions.
It still is not at all obvious that these protests will sustain themselves, lead to revolutions, or even force major changes in the policies of their regimes. But they have already seared themselves into Arab political discourse. Defenders of the regimes generally try to define the events as food and price riots, or else as externally fomented terrorism. Few independent columnists or activists agree with the idea that these are simply food and price riots, or external terrorism. They point to the underlying political problems which have enabled the economic mismanagement and corruption and lack of opportunity. How the events are framed will have real significance for the response.
In the meantime, I'd like to throw out two interesting questions about the developing events.
First, as I raised last week, as best I can tell the protests still lack any clear political direction or leadership -- primarily because the regimes have so thoroughly decimated the integrity of their political institutions that few citizens see any way to voice their grievances through formal political channels. Few political parties seem to be playing any significant role, even Islamists. Do the protests need to be channeled into an organized political or social movement in order to press clear political demands? If they did continue to escalate in the face of regime repression, without any clear leadership, what kind of change might they produce? The great hope here is that Arab regimes might respond as they did in the late 1980s, where economic protests in countries such as Jordan led to unprecedented democratic openings. But many of the regimes point instead to Algeria in the early 1990s, where such an opening led to Islamist advances, a military coup, and years of horrific bloodshed. Which will it be?
Second, it is striking how little role there has been for international actors such as the United States and the European Union in these protests. Where they have been involved at all, the United States and the EU have been cautious and reactive. While many will see this as a criticism, I'm not so sure. Americans tend to exaggerate the importance of U.S. rhetoric on Arab popular movements and governments. The Bush administration's "freedom and democracy" rhetoric from 2004 to 2006 may have had some marginal impact, but the real driver of contentious politics in those years came from internal factors: the protest momentum and networks shaped by demonstrations in support of the Palestinians (from 2000-2002) and against the Iraq war (2003); the novelty of al-Jazeera satellite TV and internet-based new media; the timing of political openings, from the series of elections scheduled for Egypt to the Hariri assassination.
That the rising wave of protest today comes in the near-complete absence of United States or international support presents an intriguing variable. Tunisians and Algerians didn't need an Obama speech to begin their protests, even if they anxiously watch Washington now for signs of support. I'd guess that the best way for the outside to have an impact now is by restraining violent repression by their allied autocratic regimes -- though, if they feel that their survival is threatened they won't likely listen.