Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Arab Revolt Futures

Now that the rules governing Mideast politics have changed and assumptions are suddenly challenged, if not discarded altogether, wise policy-makers will be considering what factors will emerge as the key drivers of future Arab behavior. This post begins a new series analyzing how the Arab Revolt of 2011 is likely to develop and laying out the method to facilitate adjustments should events overtake this analysis.

Many factors contribute to, or “drive,” behavior. Among the drivers of the Arab Revolt of 2011 that will influence how it develops are:

Factors that might in principle be considered likely to have an impact but which currently do not seem critical include the attitude of Iran, al Qua’ida, and Israel.

  • Al Qua'ida

This is particularly worth mentioning for Western audiences that may be overly fearful of the first two and biased in favor of the last. All three actors represent extreme positions that are being marginalized by the extraordinary restraint of the protesters and the relative restraint of most of the Arab armed forces, with the exception of Libya, where the military is rapidly fracturing. Military intervention by Israel or continued military attacks on the population by Gaddafi could open the door for al Qua’ida, as did the post-invasion chaos in Iraq in 2003, but for now extremists seem marginalized.

Even the attitude of the West loses importance as long as it remains cautious, since the reformers are not focused on demanding anything from the West. For example, US bases in Iraq or U.S. military aid to formerly repressive and still suspect Arab military forces may eventually become a point of attention, but at present they are not, in part because protester criticism is focused on misbehavior of the politicians rather than the military forces.

The three most important drivers influencing how the Arab Revolt of 2011 will turn out appear at the moment to be the Unity of Reformers, Reform Demands, and the Western Attitude. This could change with, e.g., the emergence of a charismatic leader like Nasser or a traumatizing attack by extremists. The Arab Futures graph illustrates the political landscape generated by the eight ideal scenarios that result from considering all three axes.

The two domestic axes in the above Arab Futures graphic stand together as a logical analytical unit: given Washington’s public stance so far (along with the restraint being shown by other external actors who might upset the apple cart such as Iran, Turkey, and Israel), it seems reasonable to focus on domestic Arab politics. The Domestic Drivers graph illustrates the political landscape, given the assumption that Washington continues to play a relatively low-keyed, non-interventionist role. Why, then, include the Western Attitudes axis in the first place? The reason is straightforward: the historic central role of the West and the continuing potential significance of any abrupt shift in Western policy; although Arabs appear very much in charge of their fate at the moment, the potential for Western interference and the sensitivity of the situation as long as power is delicately balanced between regime and protesters are too great to ignore.

Focusing first on domestic drivers, the argument here is that the result of the revolt will flow from the combination of the unity of the reformers and the nature of their program, i.e., that dictatorial regimes have already lost the initiative to the degree that the outcome has already passed out of their hands so that the reformers can, solely by their own actions, now win no matter what the regimes try to do.

More precisely, they can win, provided that they make positive-sum demands and remain unified. (That, of course, is an assertion worthy of analysis, and a different driver could be substituted for or added to the ones used in this exercise to focus on the question of how a unified protest proposing a popular agenda in the context of Western neutrality might still lose.) A reform policy perceived to be positive-sum arguably has the best chance of maintaining the unity demonstrated so far and thus of keeping the initiative in the hands of the reformers. In contrast, to the degree that major segments of the population perceive that they will be called upon to sacrifice for the good of others, opposition can be expected to intensify. The defining of such a program is clearly closely related to unity, but defining Reformer Unity as a separate driver is justified by the all-too-likely danger that such issues as personal ambitions or policy hair-splitting might fracture the reformist ranks. Thus, the argument here is that reformers must above all avoid internal fractures and offer the population a policy perceived as positive-sum for, considering the financial and military superiority of the regimes, a very large majority of the population.

Protest movement unity in...Saudi Arabia!
It’s unprecedented in Saudi history that we have people sign on their names and in such huge numbers demanding what has always seemed impossible. So far thousands have signed these petitions, people from all factions; well-off people with established careers to the unemployed who have little hope. Unhappiness with the current situation is something that has brought sworn enemies together. It’s becoming more and more difficult to tell apart the demands of conservatives from those of liberals and the demands of the majority from those of minorities. You have to actually go through the petition to pick up on the single point that they diverge on, otherwise there’s a large area of overlap across all the petitions. Across the board, there’s a demand for a constitutional monarchy and accountability and the end of corruption in handling the nation’s wealth.  [Saudiwoman.http://saudiwoman.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/are-we-or-arent-we/]

Domestic Driver Outcomes

The Unity of Reformers and Reformer Ideology drivers, represented as the two axes of the Scenarios From Domestic Drivers graph, divide the political landscape of the Arab revolt into four quadrants (which in reality are, needless to say, not separated by the borders shown in the graph but flow into each other):

A. Counterrevolution – zero-sum reform ideology and reformer disunity;
B. Losing Coalition - zero-sum reform ideology and united reformers;
C. Self-Destruction - positive-sum reform ideology and disunified reformers;
D. Modernization - positive-sum reform ideology and united reformers.

Scenarios From Domestic Drivers

Scenario A, Counterrevolution, represents a reform ideology that is perceived by significant sectors of society as demanding sacrifice rather than offering benefits. Such a perception combined with a fracturing of the reform ranks would be likely immediately to strengthen the still powerful ranks of the security forces and the rich business class that profited from cooperating with them. Timing is important. In no country currently revolting, as of the end of February, have the reformers succeeded in removing these two groups from power. If Scenario A came true under such circumstances, consolidation of the ancien regime would be rapid and probably brutal. The West European Revolution of 1848, that set back European socio-political modernization for a generation, comes to mind as an analogy.

To evaluate the likelihood of this scenario requires knowledge of the reform program, something still only dimly visible, and knowledge of the degree of unity among the reformers, something at this point almost completely invisible. It is possible to say that in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Bahrain, reformers give the public appearance of maintaining an admirable degree of unity and moderation (advocating a program of civil, political, and economic rights with which it is difficult to find any fault), thus maximizing their influence. The devil will surely come in the details, which will no doubt provoke fractures in the reform ranks, so this could be the high point of the reform tide, and yet, to date nowhere has reform victory been, so far, more than superficial. For example, if the arrest of the Egyptian interior minister is a plus, the failure of the state to charge him with crimes against the protesters is a minus, and the rumors that the regime, supposedly a caretaker institution pending elections, is now trying to ban unions, suggest that pro-democracy forces remain far from having seized control. At this point, then, considerable evidence exists that Counterrevolution has an excellent chance of winning in Algeria, where the state security apparatus so far appears strongly united against the demonstrators, a fair chance of winning in Egypt and Bahrain, where the forces of state oppression seem to be maintaining much of their internal structure, but a poor chance in Libya, where the state security apparatus is visibly dissolving.

Scenario B, Losing Coalition, represents the curious situation of a zero-sum reform ideology likely to divide the population but unity among the reformers, a situation that would seem to define the reformers as a minority of the population and to put them very much at the mercy of the elite. Politics is the art of forming a winning coalition; in this scenario, the protesters defeat themselves by forming a losing coalition. Illogical as this scenario may be, historical precedents (e.g., Russia during the months between the fall of the Tsar and the rise of Lenin; Algeria 20 years ago when the protesters split into peaceful reformers and violent terrorists; the split of Saudi Islamic dissidents between the moderate Sahwa and the violent jihadists) suggest that it is quite possible, likely to lead to the defeat of reformers, and likely to have tragic consequences for the people. This scenario can be expected to be a brief transition to Counterrevolution for states such as Egypt that have a strong security apparatus in place or Bahrain, with an external state (Saudi Arabia, in the case of Bahrain) ready to intervene. The risk of descending into a situation analogous to the Algerian or Lebanese civil wars is arguably greater for a weak state or a state in which the security apparatus fractures. In other words, fractures within both the reform coalition and the state structure lead to a great risk of chaos…in a society with a weak commitment to democracy, a term which in this context may be defined as a willingness to share power and resolve conflicts through negotiation.

Scenario C, Self-Destruction, represents perhaps an even more tragic situation, in which the reformers develop a positive-sum ideology and find themselves well on the road to victory, only to fall victim to personality conflicts among the reform leaders or some such petty trap that opens the door, once again, to Counterrevolution. One route to such an outcome for Egypt would be a split between the Muslim Brotherhood and non-religious reformers; to date, all parties in the Egyptian reform movement appear very sensitive to this danger.

Scenario D represents the ideal outcome for reformers, in which the broad appeal of their program and the sagacity of their leaders presents the type of broad, united front that already has proved itself to be, despite the assumptions of almost everyone else, a realistic possibility by the dethroning of Ali and Mubarak and (probably within days) Gadaffi.

As depicted in the Arab Modernity graph, Scenario D represents a revolutionary social step along the path of the modernization of the Arab world. The core components of this step would be signification movement by the respective Arab societies toward the globally elusive goals of civil rights, popular control over government, and economic justice. Given the challenges facing the Muslim neighbors of those Arab societies currently participating in the Arab Revolt, a resultant wave of pan-Arab or pan-Muslim nationalism inspired by the desire to share their good fortune should come as no surprise. This might take the form of pan-Islamic nationalism, a possibility that will be greatly influenced by the policy of the West toward other Muslim states. Another question concerns the degree to which such a pan-Muslim nationalist wave would focus on either spreading modernity to neighboring dictatorships (with North African odd-man-out Algeria being the obvious target) or resisting Western interference (with the obvious target being Palestine).

History suggests that this outcome is improbable, but history also suggests that the achievements already gained (the removal of two dictators, the impressive degree of moderation by protesters under enormous regime pressure, and the rapid spread of the revolt from one dictatorship to another across the region) were improbable. The record so far does not give repressive regimes much reason for hope: a few concessions plus fairly harsh crackdown failed in Egypt and Tunisia to save the dictators and has left the regime in Bahrain on the defensive, with only the Iranian and Algerian regimes maintaining full control. Minor concessions plus gentle handling of protesters is working for the regime in Jordan so far, but Saudi Arabia and Morocco are probably the only other states where such an approach of taking advantage of the prestige of the leader as opposed to the regime might be copied. Extreme repression quickly undercut the seemingly doomed Libyan regime. No dictator has yet come up with the idea of co-opting the revolt by accepting it as a fully legitimate decision of the people, nor is any likely to do so; such is not the way of dictators, Gorbachev’s precedent notwithstanding. Two months into the revolt, the reformers seem on the whole to retain the initiative, and yet, only in Libya does real social revolution appear to be on the horizon. Thus, although Scenario D is, at the moment, the reality, it will take extraordinary skill on the part of the reformers to make that reality anything more than transient.

However, Washington’s somewhat reluctant but now loud recognition of the right of peaceful protest, the refusal of the Tunisian and Egyptian military to massacre protesters, and the rejection of Gaddafi by both some military officers and numerous regime officials all constitute hopeful signs for the reformers. Other signs of the rising probability of the Arab Modernity scenario include the concessions made not only by all the states experiencing protests with the sole exception of Iran but also by Algeria, which has yet to experience any sizable demonstrations; the failure of these minor concessions to undermine the determination of the massive crowds of demonstrators; and the steady spread of the movement from one country to the next. In sum, although the achievements of the protests so far have been superficial (removal of individuals but little that could really be called even regime change, much less social revolution), the dynamics of the process tell a different story.

Stages of Political Change

The process of the Arab Revolt of 2011 so far suggests the following multi-stage process of political change:

Legal/Political Concessions – minimal concessions in all affected countries; major concessions promised in Egypt, under negotiation in Tunisia
Removal of Leader
Regime Change – appears imminent in Libya, being resisted effectively by Egyptian military
Social Revolution – not even on the horizon except in Libya, where being resisted with military force.

The significant stages in this process are regime change and social revolution. Momentous as the protests appear to be, their failure so far to reach either of these two stages in any Arab state suggests how much work remains yet to be done to realize the reform agenda.

Subsequent posts will continue this analysis, addressing the potential impact of Western behavior and the nature of underlying dynamics that might explain how the various scenarios could actually occur.


William deB. Mills said...

Having said that Israel seems not likely to be a key driver of the Arab Revolt of 2011, events immediately overtake me...with a report that Israeli mercenaries are about to support Gaddafi (http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=364418)!

Opponents of Israel should rejoice; what could do more damage to Israel's reputation than this?

William deB. Mills said...

As of March 4, with the replacement of the prime minister, the new prime minister's speech in Tahrir Square, and the specificity of the demands of the reform movement (http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/6738/Egypt/Politics-/Youth-Coalitions-Demands-and-Timetable.aspx), it appears that resistance by the Egyptian military to the reformers really can no longer be termed "effective."