Excerpt: False Dawn

Return to False Dawn.


In late April 1974, a group of young military officers in Portugal launched a coup against Marcello Caetano, their country's aging dictator. Within days, the old regime was gone, and after eighteen months of political turmoil, Portugal was on its way to freedom. Thus began what scholars came to call "the third wave" of global democratization—an extraordinary movement that galvanized the political development of region after region.

In the decades that followed, dozens of countries with all kinds of authoritarian political systems—monarchies, oligarchies, military dictatorships, one-party regimes—shifted into the democratic camp. As most of the world was transformed, however, one area remained frozen in time: the Arab Middle East.

While other countries surged forward (and sometimes backward again), the Arab world stuck to its guns—quite literally, as regimes from North Africa to the Persian Gulf used all the tools at their disposal, including force, to suppress discontent and cling to power. They were so successful, in fact, that eventually their very obduracy became the story, and a generation of scholarship emerged to explain the phenomenon of "authoritarian persistence" in the region. Revolutionary idealism curdled into brutal cynicism; economic development stalled; hopeful republics turned into family kleptocracies. Year after year, decade after decade, a lot happened in the Middle East, but little changed.

Until now.

On December 17, 2010, a policewoman confiscated the unlicensed vegetable cart of a twenty-six-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the small Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. Humiliated by his abuse and exasperated by his inability to get redress, Bouazizi went to a local government building, dousedhimself with gasoline, and lit himself on fire. Setting off a combustible mixture of economic despair, social frustration, and political yearning throughout the region, in the weeks and months afterward the flames consumed not only Bouazizi—who died on January 4, 2011—but the regimes of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and quite likely others to come.

Why did this happen? Why now? What does it mean, and what comes next? Nobody really knows, of course. The smart money, such as it was, didn't think Tunisia was on the verge of an eruption, didn't think the upheaval would spread from Tunisia to Egypt, didn't think the shocks would reverberate around the Middle East. The old regimes themselves were taken aback by the force and speed of the uprisings, and even traditional opposition parties were behind the curve, often remaining hesitant well after newer popular protest movements sprang up and seized the moment—with the help of social media and communications technologies that proved to be a new and powerful political tool.

We at Foreign Affairs and the Council on Foreign Relations have been following the "new Arab revolt" along with everyone else, trying to provide not simply news or opinions but true intellectual context. Looking over the remarkable output we produced in recent months, we decided it was worth gathering and preserving the highlights of it in one place—not so much a first draft of history, but rather a first draft of historiography, of the serious attempt to understand the extraordinary events unfolding before our eyes.

The first section of the book, "The Past as Prologue," sets the stage by describing the Middle East's regional order prior to the upheavals. Fouad Ajami's 1995 article "The Sorrows of Egypt" paints an indelible portrait of the Mubarak regime in all its Brezhnevite torpor, showing just what regional publics would rise up against a decade and a half later. Martin Indyk's 2002 article "Back to the Bazaar" explains the cold-blooded calculation behind Washington's acceptance and even support of such a state of affairs—because the existing regional order did a passable job at serving American interests, at least in the short to medium term. Bernard Lewis's 2005 article "Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East," written during a brief moment a few years ago when it seemed as if the authoritarian order was crumbling, debunks the notion that tyranny is somehow the natural state of affairs in the Arab world—a concept that brings to mind George W. Bush's classic line about "the soft bigotry of low expectations." And Steven A. Cook's 2009 essay on Mubarak's succession, together with his postscript a year later on Mohammed El Baradei's presidential candidacy, shows an Egypt still trapped in political amber with no immediate prospects of release.

The second section, "The Ice Breaks Up," explores the events in the first two critical upheavals. Michele Penner Angrist's piece, written just after Ben Ali's ouster in mid-January 2011, analyzes what happened in Tunisia and why. That is followed by a series of articles on Egypt, from an all-star lineup of regional experts, that look at every aspect of the situation there from the role of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood to the dynamics of constitutional reform and the implications for Cairo's relations with Washington and Jerusalem. The section closes with a detailed analysis of the Egyptian case by Dina Shehata and a provocative comparison of two "black swans," Egypt's turmoil and the recent global financial crisis, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth.

The third section, "The Cracks Spread," details the effects of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings on the region at large. In country after country, the storyline of the spring went from "It can't happen here" to "Can it happen here?" to "It's happening here!" Yet the crisis played out differently in different cases, gaining lasting traction in some but not others. The section includes pieces on Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen, along with some region-wide discussions of food prices, demography, and women's rights. Sometimes we ran articles that made contrasting arguments and predictions—about regime stability in Syria, say—and rather than quietly disappear the ones that look bad in retrospect, we have included them here not only for the sake of intellectual honesty but also to give readers a sense of how events played out, and were perceived, in real time.

The fourth section, "Intervention in Libya," looks at the debate over policy toward one country in particular. Until early March, the Obama administration had watched the unfolding regional crisis as raptly as everybody else. Aside from some last-minute diplomatic interventions to speed Mubarak out the door, Washington played a largely passive and reactive role, allowing local actors substantial autonomy to shape their own destinies. Libya proved to be a special case, however. When the rebellion against Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime faltered and Qaddafi's forces regained momentum, the Obama administration decided to join France and Britain in a military operation to stave off a rebel defeat (and the massacres that some believed would follow). Sanctified by both the United Nations and the Arab League, Operation Odyssey Dawn quickly (and perhaps unintentionally) became a test case for a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention, one that promised limited results for a limited investment. As of this writing in mid-April, the intervention had achieved its initial goal of preventing possible reprisals against helpless civilians in rebel strongholds, but at the price of a military stalemate and de facto partition of Libya. How the operation will end and what history will make of it remains to be seen, but here we include a generous sampling of our coverage of the decision to intervene and the early stages of the conflict.

The fifth section, "What it Means and What Comes Next," steps back and tries to put the spring's chaotic happenings in some sort of perspective. Lisa Anderson explains what the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan cases had in common and where they diverged. Jack Goldstone asks what sort of revolutions these uprisings actually were and what implications the answer has for what the future holds. Michael Doran looks to the demise of the British-sponsored regional order in the 1950s for contemporary lessons and argues that in the months and years ahead Iran might try to play Gamal Abdel Nasser's role and galvanize opposition to Washington and the West. And Shadi Hamid and Daniel Byman assess the impact of the upheavals on Islamist political parties and terrorism, respectively.

A sixth and final section of the book, meanwhile, presents a selection of some important documents relevant to the new Arab revolt, from statements by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speeches from several of the rulers in trouble.

Bismarck once said that the task of the statesman was "to hear God's footsteps marching through history and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past." Divine or not, something has been on the move in the Arab world this spring, and we at Foreign Affairs and the Council on Foreign Relations have been tracking its progress and trying to clutch its garment as it passes. We hope you find these records of our attempts worth reading.