The Middle East revolutions: myths, realities and uncertainties

Protests have swept the Middle East in recent weeks. AAP

The protests that have swept the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt from power, and brought much of the region to a halt as massive crowds take to the streets to demand political change, have been spectacular. They were a surprise but were not unexpected: deep resentment had been brewing in the region for decades, but knowing precisely when the protests would occur or how and where they would ultimately spread was near-impossible. After all, while widely unpopular, the leaders of the region have long proven brutal and durable, too.

Similarly, it is too early to do more than assess some simple impacts and lessons from the protests. What follows is a set of assessments that can be made at present with some confidence – albeit with the caveat that events in the region remain volatile.

Three myths:

1. The protests were great and paradigm-changing revolutions.

Just how astonishing and significant are the protests? Less so than many people might assume.

They have been a great political spectacle, and are important in removing or threatening some leaders. But they have not brought systemic change to Tunisia’s or Egypt’s (or other) political systems. Whatever political reform eventuates from the protests, the political systems and power structures are not likely to be transformed. In Egypt, for example, the army removed Mubarak largely to protect the its own privileged political position, and much as they might allow some political and other changes, the officers will not surrender their advantages and power to a civilian leader. In that sense, the uprising in Egypt was not even a ‘revolution’ in the true sense of the word.

In Libya, the leadership of Mu’amar Qaddafi was thought to be in peril, but as civil war has occurred, Qaddafi’s forces have fought brutally and look increasingly likely to ‘win’ a military victory over the rebels. Whatever comes next – reform, or more likely brutal repression and revenge – it is anything but a successful revolution.

A sobering thought is that most revolutions ultimately fail. Most commonly, a revolution simply fails to achieve its goals. In other cases, there is a change at the top, but then the new system fails to deliver, perhaps because systemically things did not changed as much as expected or assumed. Such are the prospects here, too.

2. The protests are a victory for Islamists.

No.

In the short- and medium-term, at least, Islamists have gained almost nothing from the protests. They did not orchestrate events, nor did they capture popular imagination once the protests were underway. The protests have overwhelmingly been secular movements, mobilized disproportionately by and with young people, using technology and crossing social and gender lines. This is very different to how many Islamists expect political change to come.

The more extreme groups – al-Qa’ida and like-minded minorities – have either been silent throughout the protests or inept in failing to reflect the popular mood, capture people’s grievances, or sell their ideologies at a time when people are looking for change.

Longer-term there is a risk that extensive political reform might offer a path into power for Islamists: the argument goes, for example, that if parliamentary politics in Egypt were fully liberalized, perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood would gain a majority of seats. Perhaps. But the military would still be powerful behind the scenes, as would a president (not likely to be a Brother), and neither would want to cede much real power to the Brotherhood. Further, the Brotherhood is quite factionalized and must compete against both more moderate and more extreme splinter groups: it is less coherent than it seems, and while it could grab a sizeable minority of support, it is less clear that a majority of Egyptians would vote it into power.

3. George W. Bush was right: people in the Middle East yearn for freedom.

Washington is a divided polity at present, and both the Bush and Obama presidencies have polarized Americans along party lines. As part of this quarrelsome politics, both sides are seeking a type of high ground. The Right wants to rewrite the George W. Bush presidency, which ended in such a sense of failure after the disaster in Iraq and the lingering inability to pacify and develop Afghanistan. Hence some have sought to argue that Bush’s democracy agenda was correct all along: he knew that everyone yearns for freedom and democracy, the argument goes, and he articulated a vision – and tried to deliver it in Iraq but also elsewhere – despite the cynical cultural-relativism of his opponents, who assumed he was just oversimplifying a complex issue and region.

In fact, Bush was only right in the sense that most people are looking for a safer, more comfortable life, and most would prefer to live under a government that treats them well and is transparent. That does not mean that all people yearn for a Jeffersonian democracy; many in fact fear that electoral politics would create instability or uncertainty. Bush was wrong about much: about assuming that good governance and democracy are necessarily the same thing; in pushing an oversimplified ideology; and in invading Iraq on the basis of flimsy claims against Saddam.

Democrats are guilty of mythologizing, too, when they claim that Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech somehow set current events in motion. While Obama is seen in the Middle East in a better light than Bush, it is ridiculous to claim that a speech almost two years ago, delivered while Obama was a guest of Mubarak’s, has created the current wave of protests.

Corruption, inequity, the burdens of market reforms, the cost of living, and stifling political climates are the sources of the protests.

Three realities:

4. The hard work of political reform begins now…if it begins at all.

If there is to be real political reform of any sort, it will be much more contested and debated than people imagine. In the case of Egypt, for example, should reform give greater power to non-Muslims such as the Copts, some 10% of the population? Should blasphemy be legal? And the most common dilemma: should groups that would change the democratic system, such as radical Islamists, be allowed to participate in the system? Answers to such questions are never easy, and under Mubarak these questions were often (perhaps rightly) ignored or sidestepped. But that can no longer be done if genuine, deep reform and greater freedom are to be decided upon.

This is another reason why little may change – getting agreement on contentious questions like these would be near-impossible. Introducing them at all may be folly.

5. There are lessons in the events for dictators, not just democrats…some leaders will emerge smarter and thus stronger.

Just as ben Ali and Mubarak offer examples of how not to respond to popular uprisings, they provide lessons to other leaders in how to respond to them – and defeat them.

An attentive autocrat has learned that it is crucial to either split protestors or halt their momentum. This was the less-than-subtle tactic in several states, and in many – Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others – it seems to have worked. Some authoritarians might also take away the lesson that some repression and violence is worthwhile, if done properly…it hasn’t worked very well for Qaddafi, of course, but ultimately he will probably prevail militarily. Some leaders, as in Syria and Algeria, were very firm with protestors and stopped them building momentum…other autocrats may be as likely to copy that example as they are to admit that change is necessary.

6. Academics (and observers, intelligence agencies and others) can almost never predict this sort of thing…and that’s not our job anyway.

To assume that academics, intelligence analysts, and other observers ought to be able to predict the future is to confuse analysis with prophecy. If expertise bestowed such a gift, good politicians would be able to foresee election outcomes, funds managers would always make money for their clients, and lawyers would be able to guarantee who would win a case. In fact, those who watch the Middle East for a living are being paid to enhance knowledge about the region and to analyse it, and to explain it, usually in another cultural context (i.e. to explain it to people in Australia or the West who know little of it and often find it confusing and complex). An assessment or analysis may point to future trends or possibilities, but this is not the same as prediction.

Moreover, social movements are among the most unpredictable of political events anyway. Predictions attract the most confidence where an individual, whose worldview, values and approach to decision-making are well known, is central to the process. But to predict when and how masses of various people and social forces will arise, build a critical mass of opposition to their leader, and successfully overthrow him in conjunction with various elites, is manifold more difficult.

Three uncertainties:

7. The specifics of what’s next.

It is likely that the protests will not spread too far: some leaders in the region are popular enough to avoid mass anger, others may not be, but instead have large webs of elites to reinforce their rule, or if things really come to a crunch, have strong and sure military backing. That much is highly likely, but a lot of specifics are harder to estimate.

One example: few observers can be sure which leaders might fall. It remains questionable whether Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh will survive. The protests in Bahrain seemed to have been diffused by a smart royal family at first, but now have re-emerged and could easily turn nasty in the coming days or weeks.

One of the most worrying things about the current Libyan civil war – let’s call it a ‘civil war’, without quibbling over how the term should be defined – is the uncertainty about how Qaddafi will react if he wins the conflict militarily. Will survival and a triumph over his foes be enough for him? He will, after all, be politically weakened and internationally isolated. The worrying possibility is that he will decide to make an example out of the insurgents, whether for the gratification of revenge or to deter others from ever challenging his opposition again. The region has given us some nasty politics in the past. A ‘no-fly zone’ will help avoid the worst of this, but without boots on the ground - which no state wants to provide - it is hard to fully protect human rights from the skies above.

Finally, it is uncertain whether leaders and elites will modify their policies or behaviour. If they do, then this will constitute genuine change, albeit probably limited in scope. But just as easily the protests could reinforce many leaders’ bunker mentality towards society, prompting leaders to solidify their power. The less genuine reform occurs, the more likely another round of protests will come, sooner or later, stoked by even greater popular anger than at present.

8. The future of economic policy in the region.

Related to the uncertainty about what’s next is that a dilemma for interim leaders and later new presidents in Tunisia and Egypt, and for many of the old leaders who retain power, is that politics will pull them in conflicting economic directions.

To rebuild and consolidate their economies and provide the trade, investment and employment that will enhance economic prospects, they will need to further reform and liberalize their economies. They will see large subsidy bills as a costly inefficiency, easy money for new programs available from privatizations, and business-friendly reforms as uncomplicated ways of pleasing domestic and foreign business, gaining US support, and ensuring positive World Bank or IMF reports and lower interest rates on debt.

But such reforms are exactly the sort of thing that could bring protestors back out on the streets. They see such policies as pandering to foreign firms and powers. Many began protesting because they have seen so little benefit from such reforms in the past decade or two. Done poorly, such reforms could make people feel worse off, create more corruption, and easily set off another round of protests instead of addressing the economic grievances that caused the recent ones. Or, fearful of popular anger, leaders may resort of economic populism and welfarism, trading longer-term economic gain for shorter-term political advantage: given the handouts that most leaders have offered in recent weeks to abate the protests, a statist, and populist policy may win the day.

9. What it all means for Australia.

Assessing the impacts of the protests for Australia remains difficult – in part for the reasons noted. Less will change than many might expect, or hope, but our relationship with Egypt in particular, but Tunisia and others too, will still be effected by a change of leadership there and by the economic and social changes that are likely.

To the extent that human rights and stability guide our foreign policy, we may see recent events as ultimately positive.

On the trade and investment front, however – where we are most focussed – much will depend on whether regional governments choose a more populist approach to quelling public anger and concern, and whether this leads to greater trade restrictions and less friendliness towards foreign investment. It is too soon to tell: leaders will have trouble reverting to the strongly state-led economic models of the 1960s and 1970s, but the economic liberalism of the past couple of decades is running out of legitimacy too.

Finally, as noted, Islamists are unlikely to gain greatly out of events. Australia is not likely to see any terrorism impacts from events, at least as they are currently panning out. Israel may face protests of its own, but otherwise the Palestinian cause was not a significant driver of the protests. Australia’s policy towards Israel and the Palestinians – Israel-leaning but masquerading as more balanced – gains little attention in the Middle East, but when it is noticed, does little to help us.