The Arab World’s ’Unprecedented’ Protests
from Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program and Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

The Arab World’s ’Unprecedented’ Protests

The level of public anger against homegrown problems in Egypt and other Arab countries is something new, and it pushes the Obama administration back in the direction of the Bush-era "freedom agenda," says CFR’s Robert Danin.

January 28, 2011 9:42 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Over the past month, the Arab world has seen the ousting of Tunisia’s president and widespread protests across Egypt, Yemen, and other Arab countries. All have been largely spearheaded by the countries’ youth and fueled by social media and television, but supported broadly by the middle class. These protests are "unprecedented" says Robert Danin, a CFR expert on the Middle East. Danin says while demonstrations in the past have been against the United States, Britain, and Israel, the current protests are "being fueled by, and inspired by, what is happening elsewhere in the region." He believes that even if President Hosni Mubarak survives in Egypt, the chances are slim that he will be reelected in the fall or that his son Gamal will be allowed to succeed him. Caught off-guard, the Obama administration is trying to adapt to these events by urging reforms, but the priority of the administration--reaching an Israeli-Palestinian accord--seems even more remote given a recent leak of Palestinian negotiating documents.

If you were in the State Department and the secretary of State asked: "What’s going on in the Arab world?" how would you respond?

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I would say that we’re seeing something new and unprecedented. We’ve seen demonstrations in the Middle East throughout the twentieth century--that part is not new. What we’re seeing that is new is that demonstrations are taking place in response to local conditions and problems that are then being fueled by, and inspired by, what is happening elsewhere in the region. They’re not demonstrating against the United States as they have so often in the past.

Are you talking about Egypt specifically?

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No, I’m talking about Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Tunisia. We’re seeing a lot of demonstrations taking place in a lot of different parts of the Middle East about different things. They’re not all demonstrating about the same thing.

In the past, we had demonstrations throughout the Arab world in support of [former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser, against the United States, against Israel, against British imperialism. But what we’re seeing today are demonstrations about things that are happening inside the region, in response to their own governments.

What is also fascinating is that it is being facilitated by new technologies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, allowing people to communicate amongst themselves in real time and in a very widespread way. The governments in the region are struggling to control it and to react to it. In Tunisia, they were unable to. In Egypt they’ve shut down Twitter intermittently, they shut down Facebook intermittently, they’ve tried to take control of the means of communication.

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In the past, when there were threats to the regime, the tanks would surround the television station and the radio station. Today that’s not the case. If a regime feels threatened, it’s going after this new technology.

A few years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was talking about the need for democracy in a speech in Cairo, but at that time the focus in the Arab world was on attacking the United States. Now everyone seems to want democracy. What has caused this change in mindset?

What we’re seeing today are demonstrations about things that are happening inside the region, in response to their own governments. What is also new and fascinating is that it is being facilitated by new technologies.

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Rice’s speech was a landmark for American foreign policy. What she said was that stability at the expense of democracy had achieved neither. She was saying that things cannot remain static. The status quo is illusory. President Obama came into power and he also went to Cairo and he also gave an important speech and he did use the "democracy" word. But subsequently, the administration seemed to back away from that and more recently did not pursue what the Bush administration called the "freedom agenda."

What’s interesting now is that you’re seeing a shift by the United States back toward what, in essence, Rice had been putting forward. What Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week to the Egyptian government was that you have an opportunity--you can change. You have an opportunity to implement political economic and social reforms to respond to the needs of the people. But she was saying you have to do it now. Implied in that was if you don’t do it, you’re putting yourself at real risk.

What will happen in Egypt? The possibility of an overthrow is remote given that the army seems to back the presidency fully, which in Tunisia the army did not. Will Mubarak try to stay in office at this next election, or name his son Gamal to succeed him? Will Mohamed ElBaradei emerge as a likely successor?

The regime probably will succeed in maintaining control. But the fact that people are even asking the question is remarkable. It’s already affected the trajectory of Egyptian politics. The likelihood is now gone that Mubarak will be able to have his son Gamal emerge as the next candidate. His ability to even stay on beyond the elections has been radically diminished.

Remember, in the Arab world there is still a very strong yearning for order and an abhorrence of chaos. That is what the regimes always bank on and always sell. We provide you stability, we provide order, we keep things in line. As long as the protests are peaceful, this is very dangerous for the regime because people do not feel threatened by them; they feel empowered by them. When the protests turn violent, violence can play into the regime’s hand--people don’t want the violence to continue. But at the same time, the violence enrages people against the regime.

Mubarak is playing with fire. He’s got to manage this situation well. What the U.S. administration is calling on him to do is to get out in front of this, to lay out some reforms very quickly, lay out an electoral process that will bring legitimate change.

Yemen is another place where the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been in power for more than thirty years. And they’ve had street demonstrations of some thousands of people.

People are reacting to local conditions but are clearly inspired by what they are seeing elsewhere in the region. This is where the pan-Arab media is so powerful. Most people in the Arab world now get their information from television. The most popular network in the Arab world is al-Jazeera, which is a very powerful instrument. And so clearly people in Yemen say, "Hmmm, this is happening elsewhere. Why not here? We’re also angry. We also don’t like the lack of opportunity, the oppression. We’re also fed up." So in that sense, that’s the thread. That brings up an interesting issue that’s also arisen this week, which is what’s been happening in Palestine.

The leak of documents from the Palestinian side on their secret talks with the Israelis?

What is taking place among the Palestinians is a backlash against al-Jazeera by the government, by the Palestinian Authority, by the PLO, over steps that al-Jazeera has taken by releasing what is being called "the Palestinian Papers." What is striking is that this has resonance in both directions. People are, surprisingly, demonstrating in favor of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. [They] are seeing what al-Jazeera is doing as an attack against them by the government of Qatar, which sponsors and hosts al-Jazeera. At the same time, this is fueling other elements, largely led by Hamas, which is saying this regime isn’t legitimate, look at what they were willing to do.

As long as the protests are peaceful, this is very dangerous for the regime because people then do not feel threatened by them; they feel empowered by them.

The point is that al-Jazeera is an actor in what is happening in the region. It is allowing the images to spread from the Atlantic through the Mediterranean into the eastern part of the Middle East in real time. That’s why people in Yemen can see what is happening in Egypt, what’s happening in Algeria, in Tunisia and be inspired by that.

What is going to happen in Lebanon, where Hezbollah concerns about upcoming indictments in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri led to the collapse of the government? Hezbollah pulled out of the government led by Hariri’s son Saad Hariri and supports the new prime minister-designate Najib Miqati, a Sunni billionaire.

In one sense, what’s happening in Lebanon is coincidental with what’s happening elsewhere. Lebanon has been going through unrest and political turmoil since at least the assassination of Hariri back in February 2005. Hezbollah has anticipated that the special tribunal will issue indictments that will be damning of them in the assassination --and they don’t like it. And they are frightened, but they are also strong.

They are starting to flex their muscle, and the first thing they tried to do was to cut a deal with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and try to extract concessions about the tribunal in order for them to stay in his government. He said no, and they were able to essentially swing the pendulum in the cabinet by bringing the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, over to their side. Jumblatt was very forthright, very honest actually about what he did. His father was assassinated by the Syrians; he himself had been pro-Syrian. He then swung against the Syrians in what had been called the Velvet Revolution that brought Saad Hariri back into the government. Jumblatt has now gone back and allied himself with the pro-Syrian forces. And what did he say? He said essentially, "We have the choice of stability at the price of justice, by going with Hezbollah." He’s openly saying there’s a trade-off here. He’s not questioning the special tribunal. He’s just saying that what the tribunal will ultimately do, if we go down this path, is destabilize Lebanon. And he would rather see stability at the price of justice. That is quite striking--and quite tragic.

What happened in recent weeks is that the Saudis were not able to broker a compromise. The Syrians moved in, and you now have this new government that is more oriented towards Syria. The result is that the Sunni population within Lebanon is divided and upset. You have those in Lebanon among the Sunnis themselves who are allied with someone like Miqati, but the larger group is allied with Hariri. They saw their prime minister assassinated on the streets of Beirut by, it seems, either Hezbollah or Syria, and they don’t think this is something that should go unaddressed. They want justice. But as Jumblatt said, justice may actually cause instability. Ideally we would like to see both.

This last period of unrest has completely eclipsed the Palestinian issue. No one is marching in the cause of Palestine in the Arab world today.

President Obama in his State of the Union address talked about Tunisia, but he did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian talks that were the focus of U.S. Middle East policy when this administration started. Are those talks pretty much dead now?

A couple of things are fascinating here. One is that what has happened in the Middle East in this last period of unrest has completely eclipsed the Palestinian issue. No one is marching in the cause of Palestine in the Arab world today. They are demonstrating over what is happening at home. So the analysis that had driven much of U.S. policy--that resolving Israel-Palestine is the key to resolving the Middle East--has been shown to be mistaken. Israel-Palestine is important for many reasons, intrinsically and for geo-strategic reasons.  But the idea that resolving the problem will lead to glory days has been demonstrated to be fallacious. Yet, the result of what has happened in the last week has distracted and extremely complicated the administration’s approach to the Middle East. Everyone had been saying that the administration had a full plate. Well, you know what, a lot more has been heaped on the plate in the Middle East, and none of it has anything to do with Israel and Palestine.  And this comes at a time when there are no direct talks taking place between Israel and the Palestinians, and efforts to get them back to the table have been floundering.


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