from Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program and Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

A Politically ’Comatose’ Mideast Awakens

The ouster of autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt has awakened a hunger for change in the Arab world, says CFR’s Thomas W. Lippman, but it’s unlikely to result in a widespread fall of regimes.

February 15, 2011

Interview
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.

The historic overthrow of longtime autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt is unlikely to create a domino effect in countries like Bahrain and Algeria, which have experienced sizable street protests, though it may lead to change in "ungovernable" Yemen, says Middle East expert Thomas W. Lippman. He predicts a "period of anxiety and maneuvering and questioning," which he sees as encouraging in a region that has been politically "comatose" for years. As for Saudi Arabia, he notes the situation there is quite different from Egypt’s, in that King Abdullah is popular and has instituted popular reforms, unlike Egypt’s widely disliked President Hosni Mubarak. Lippman adds that "suddenly there is a giant elephant in the room in every Arab capital, which is the idea that change is possible, that we aren’t destined to go on the way we have for so long. That is a huge development."

Looking at the Middle East in the wake of Tunisia and Egypt, do you see similar possibilities in other countries?

More From Our Experts

News travels fast in the modern era. It is possible that this long period of comatose politics in the Arab world might be coming to an end, not just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, but because the situations in many individual countries were already so strained, if not unsustainable. There’s a long history of tension in Algeria and of government ineptitude and rebellion in Yemen, and certainly clashes between the Sunni rulers and the largely Shiite population in Bahrain, just to take three examples. While the events in Tunisia and Egypt may be a catalyst for trouble, I don’t think the difficulties originated with those dramatic events.

What about Saudi Arabia?

More on:

Democratization

Egypt

Americans tend to view autocratic countries and Arab countries as all alike. In fact, the situation in Saudi Arabia is more different from the situation in Egypt then it is alike. First, King Abdullah is personally popular, unlike Egypt’s ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Second, the Al-Saud family is widely understood to be--and accepted--as legitimate rulers of the kingdom. It’s not as if they came to power in a military coup and imposed their will by putting people in jail. Furthermore, the Saudi regime, unlike the one in Egypt, has more than enough money to spread around. In addition to that, the entire business and religious establishment in Saudi Arabia is intertwined with and dependent upon the ruling family. Add to that the fact that for many years every Saudi child has been taught since their first day in school that the correct form of Islam requires obedience to his ruler, and you have a population that is not restive. Saudi Arabia, unlike Egypt, is making economic progress. There have been some small symbolic reforms under Abdullah, and it seems to me that absent some event that is not now foreseeable, you are unlikely to have the same kind of issues in Saudi Arabia that arose in Tunisia and Egypt.

List some of the reforms.

Some of them are not what I would call legal reforms, but rather social reforms. Abdullah has been much more forthcoming than his predecessors in making some social, political, and professional space for women. He has publicly curtailed the arbitrary power and the capricious behavior of the so-called religious police, the mutaween, who are actually behavior police. He has supported gender integration in the workforce and in his own pet project, the university that is named after him. He has encouraged what they call the national dialogue, which are televised public sessions that bring people together who might not otherwise be talking to each other for quite public and open discussions of the issues in the kingdom.

These don’t amount to any kind of popular democracy; the reforms are top down, and they don’t arise from popular unrest. Nevertheless, it is clear from my many recent visits there that the people feel less oppressed, or less hemmed in, than they used to. There are definitely issues of opportunity and employment for the very young population. The least that can be said is that the government has recognized those issues and is pumping vast amounts of investment into attempts to deal with them. Egypt was stagnant in so many ways. It was depressing to go there. I don’t find that in Saudi Arabia.

More From Our Experts

What are the issues in Yemen?

One is that Yemen has no water, and Yemen faces an agricultural crisis for which there is no visible solution. I might add parenthetically that a hugely disproportional amount of water that they do have is used for the cultivation of qat, a mild narcotic leaf that they like to chew and export all over the region that has no economic productive value at all.

You haven’t seen the jihadist topple any dictatorial regimes. They are dictatorial, as we’ve seen from the Taliban. That is a lesson that will not be lost on the region.

More on:

Democratization

Egypt

[Also,] Yemen used to be two separate countries: The southern half was the only Arab communist country--PDRY [People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen]. There is unrest in the south because they haven’t fully integrated the two parts of the country. They still have not resolved the issues of the rebellious so-called Houthi people on the Saudi border, where the Saudis [have] intervened militarily.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in many ways similar to Mubarak. He’s a military guy in a suit who has been ruling the country for many years, and not to good effect. The writ of the government does not extend much beyond the major cities, and Yemen doesn’t have any money. Yemen has no oil. When we add up all of those things, Yemen has real trouble. And of course it is now the place where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has established itself, and it poses a serious terrorism issue.

Is there a good chance Saleh may step down? He has already said he is going to.

Yes, but the country may well be ungovernable, so it wouldn’t matter who runs it. Does this alarm the Saudis? It certainly does. They are investing huge amounts of money securing their southern border for that reason. Think of Yemen’s relations to Saudi Arabia as analogous to Mexico’s with the United States. There is drug running, illegal immigration, and problems of poverty that create trouble.

In Bahrain, the problem is between the majority of people, who are Shiite, and the ruling government, who are Sunnis?

Yes. Bahrain is of particular importance to the United States because it is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. I haven’t been in Bahrain in some time, but the issue is a longstanding religious issue of Sunni versus Shiite. Bahrain is also one of the small countries of the Gulf that has flirted with the creation of a parliament with real authority, and when you do that, you create certain issues that the Bahraini leadership may be ill-prepared to deal with. You see that in Kuwait as well. When you talk to Saudis about bringing elections to Saudi Arabia, they have a certain set of answers: Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait. Those countries all have elections, and nobody likes the outcome.

Do you see anything in common in the Tunisian and Egyptian upheavals?

Think of Yemen’s relations to Saudi Arabia as analogous to Mexico’s with the United States. There is drug running, illegal immigration, and problems of poverty that create trouble.

These two upheavals have demonstrated the fallacy of the jihadist position that only Islamic rigidity or extremism is the path to liberty. On the contrary, what you’ve seen are two upheavals that were not based on religion. The people were Muslims, but that’s not what this was about. The idea that only through jihad can you achieve the true destiny of the people has now been exposed as the malarkey that it always was. That is a very positive development. You haven’t seen the jihadist topple any dictatorial regimes. They are dictatorial, as we’ve seen from the Taliban. That is a lesson that will not be lost on the region.

The other thing is that there is now a growing set of opinions or commentary to the effect that the Egyptians have not had a revolution, that they haven’t even had a regime change. Mubarak was a front man for the military for thirty years and now they’ve removed the front man, but the military is in charge. We won’t know for some time whether the military really is going to detach itself from power in Egypt.

Looking over the Middle East landscape, you don’t necessarily see any other ruler, except possibly Yemen’s, about to fall?

We are going to go through at least briefly a period of anxiety and maneuvering and questioning. That’s quite encouraging, because the region has been politically dormant for so long. I don’t see any immediate threat to any other government, but of course we didn’t see an immediate threat to the Tunisian regime, did we?

Nor to the Egyptian one.

The Egyptian situation is fascinating, but unresolved. After all, the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, and the Iranian revolution has not yet played itself out. We still don’t know what the outcome will be in Iran. I think we certainly don’t know what the outcome will be in Egypt. What has happened is suddenly there is a giant elephant in the room in every Arab capital, which is the idea that change is possible, that we aren’t destined to go on the way we have for so long. That is a huge development. People can see what happened; things are being talked about that haven’t been talked about in years. Who knows where that is going to lead?

Up
Close

Explore More on CFR

Afghanistan

Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), joins James M. Lindsay to discuss President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy.

Germany

President Trump has targeted Germany over its supposed dependence on Russian natural gas, and the proposed Nord Stream 2 is dividing the EU. What’s in store for Europe’s pipeline politics?

Disasters

The U.S. government responds to scores of disasters each year, coordinating closely with state, local, and foreign partners. However, more frequent and severe storms, fires, and floods are straining resources.