It is nearly 75 years since George Antonius wrote of the first “Arab awakening”, one reflecting an outbreak of nationalist sentiment against European masters. What we are currently witnessing could prove to be a second such awakening; one neither generated by, nor aimed at Israel and the US, but a home-grown phenomenon that targets unresponsive, repressive leaders.
We cannot be sure, however, whether what we are seeing is a genuine democratic revolution. In some countries, protests will fizzle out. In others they could become chaotic, especially if oppositions splinter having achieved the one objective on which they agree: the ousting of the existing regime; Egypt and Tunisia both come to mind here.
Or repression could rule the day, if governments show resolve and are willing (and able) to crack down with impunity. This might prove to be the case in Libya, but even then the cycle of challenge to authority could begin anew. In all cases generalisations should be resisted. Each country is different, while references to a wave of change are simplistic. A range of political outcomes are likely to be reached, taking divergent paths.
We can say a few things with confidence. Genuine monarchies in the region appear to be more acceptable to their citizens than dynastic autocracies, especially in those instances – Egypt, Libya and Yemen – where leaders were, or have been, ruling for decades. This bodes well for Morocco, Jordan and, most importantly, for oil-rich Saudi Arabia. But it is less true for Bahrain, whose ruling family hails from that society's minority.
Pressures will nonetheless still grow on these monarchies to become more constitutional, and less monarchical. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah's personal popularity and reputation as a reformer (by Saudi standards, at least) may matter as much over time as his ability to placate his population with increased subsidies and cash transfers. His potential successors would also be wise to keep this in mind.
Outsiders, even powerful ones like the US are currently limited in what they can accomplish, in part because they are limited in what they can know and understand. They must tread with caution, and be mindful that it is easier to punish friends than enemies, or those from whom they are already estranged. There is more than a little irony in the fact that the international community has so far been much tougher on Egypt and Bahrain than on Syria or Iran. Officials in the US and Europe should instead step up their public calls for significant political reform in these highly controlled unfriendly countries, as well as channel help to legitimate opposition movements.
Reform movements across the region, however, now face a dilemma over strategy. Put simply, it takes two to make a revolution non-violent. Non-violence succeeded in Egypt because the army was not prepared to sacrifice its legitimacy to save Hosni Mubarak. This approach has not succeeded in Iran, and may not, so long as the regime can count on the loyalty of its thugs. Non-violence is a valuable tactic, but to succeed it requires a police and military that avoids repression.
Overall, we must be realistic about what to expect from a small degree of democratisation. Immature or partial democracies are vulnerable to being hijacked by populists or extreme nationalists. A Middle East more influenced by public opinion could well be less willing to work against terrorism, or on behalf of peace with Israel. It is likely to be no more of a partner when it comes to providing oil at reasonable prices.
A fuller form of democracy may be the desired alternative, but it is also the most difficult to bring about. The region's nations lack the traditional prerequisites – including a large and growing middle class, a real (and not oil-inflated) per capita gross domestic product above $3,000, and a developed civil society of truly independent institutions.
What is more, bad situations can get worse as well as better. As Jeane Kirkpatrick pointed out in her seminal 1979 article “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” traditional authoritarian governments are actually less repressive than revolutionary autocracies, and are also “more susceptible of liberalisation”. Anarchy, civil war, harsh police states, sectarianism, and severe Islamic rule are all potential alternatives to the sort of authoritarian regimes that have recently dominated the region. All of these outcomes are possible; none is likely to lead to greater freedom.
It is essential to bear in mind that ousting regimes is the least difficult part of the challenge. Iraq, which after Saddam suffered through years of civil strife and now experiences what can generously be described as dysfunctionality, is a textbook case. Signs of strain are already appearing in Egypt (both between the army and the “street” and within the opposition) over the pace, sequencing and substance of reform. Democratic revolution is a tall order; often we are left with change that is less than revolutionary, and politics that are less than democratic.
The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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