On March 13, 2013, the Academy hosted a panel discussion on “The Arab Spring: What Next?” Philip S. Khoury (Associate Provost and Ford International Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Malika Zeghal (Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University), Tarek Masoud (Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School), and E. Roger Owen (A. J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History at Harvard University) described components of the Arab Spring, focusing on Tunisia, Egypt, and the eastern part of the Arab world. The panel discussion served as the Academy’s 1995th Stated Meeting. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Philip S. Khoury
Philip S. Khoury is Associate Provost and Ford International Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002.
Because the Arab Spring is still a work in progress, all we can do is explain how it got to where it is today and then try to peer a bit into the future. But there is no science of prediction, at least when it comes to the Middle East. I am a historian, and you know what they say about historians: we have enough trouble predicting the past, let alone the future.
How were so many Arab regimes able to impose their authority over their citizens for four decades? Those autocrats who had oil wealth used it to purchase the social peace. Others adopted neoliberal economic policies to attract Western foreign aid and used this aid in part to bind certain elites to their regimes through various forms of crony capitalism. And the regimes all used the repressive arm of the state to beat back all challengers. In so doing, they systematically denied most of their citizens their basic human rights and dignity, and in the process they helped to create deeply disturbed societies.
Their failure to create significant prosperity for the many, even as they steadily unfastened the social safety nets counted on by the many, contributed to the eruptions that began in December 2010. Mounting demographic pressures and escalating food prices also worked against these regimes. Sixty percent of the Arab world is under the age of 30, and young people suffer the highest rates of unemployment. Some of these same young people went to the streets in Tunis and Cairo and elsewhere.
Still, historians will be debating for years to come the question of why the uprisings did not occur much earlier than just two years ago. That such highly unpopular regimes could successfully impose decades of relative stability over such deeply disturbed societies is a paradox.1
What observations can we make about these uprisings, these revolutions, the likes of which have not been witnessed anywhere since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East-bloc regimes more than two decades ago? First, they were not ignited by the military or by foreign interventions. Nor were they led by revolutionaries with a clear vision or program.2 They were led by young, educated, mainly secular, urban, middle-class elements, who employed a language that spoke of a profound need to assert human dignity. By rising up, they were announcing to their rulers and to the world that they had had enough.
Second, Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood joined the protests late. The Islamists waited to see which way the winds were blowing and then jumped in. They appear to be reaping the benefits of uprisings and revolutions they did not initiate.
Third, while the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were not particularly violent, and both regimes fell quickly thanks to the army’s support of the protestors, the uprisings that came after quickly became very violent and took, or are taking, much longer to resolve, at least with regard to ousting their dictators. I am thinking, of course, of Libya, and we are all watching Syria.
UCLA historian James Gelvin has conveniently grouped the Arab Spring into four categories, or types.3 The first grouping is Tunisia and Egypt. Both had armies that were able to step into crisis situations without fragmenting, and in the process they helped to oust Ben Ali and Mubarak. Once these leaders were removed, both countries saw Islamist parties with quite similar dispositions come to power in basically free elections.
The second grouping is Yemen and Libya. Here, both regimes fragmented. Some of the army, some of the ranking government officials, and some of the tribes stood by the regime, while others from these same elements joined the opposition. Neither had unified armies, and their autocrats had not built up sufficiently strong institutions, preferring to run the state as personal fiefdoms. The overthrow of the Libyan leader Gaddafi, in October 2011, would have taken even longer had it not been for NATO’s air strikes.
The third grouping is Syria and Bahrain. They are family regimes that exploit ties of religious sect and kinship to reinforce their rule. The Alawite minority in Syria, which includes the Assad family, is an esoteric sect associated with Shiite Islam. The Alawites prop up the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the Syrian rebels are mainly Sunni Arabs, who are a majority in that country. The longer the Syrian uprising continues, the more it is becoming a sectarian civil war between Sunni rebels and the Alawite-backed Assad regime.
In Bahrain, Shiites are actually the majority, but they are also less economically advantaged than the Sunni minority, and they have the deepest grievances against the monarchy. The monarchy is an extended family, bound by kinship ties, and it is Sunni. To ensure that the Bahraini monarchy did not fall and possibly trigger a wave of protests across the Gulf region, military forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rushed to the monarchy’s rescue and crushed the dissident movement, at least for a while.
In the fourth grouping of Arab countries, which are all monarchies, protestors pressed for reforms rather than the overthrow of their leaders. These countries are Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman. Why have the Arab monarchies fared considerably better than the Arab republics? For some, vast oil wealth is buying time. But others do not have that kind of wealth, in particular Morocco and Jordan, and Jordan may be particularly vulnerable.
Perhaps the monarchies have not faced the kind of uprisings that the Arab republics have because they can claim a dynastic or religious legitimacy that the republics cannot similarly claim. I am not prepared to say, however, that some of the oil-rich Gulf countries will not face problems similar to what Bahrain is facing. One should watch Kuwait in particular.
The Arab future will not be decided by those who launched the Arab Spring. This is now clear. The secular, liberal, young people who first rose up and who demonstrated tremendous courage in challenging the legitimacy of their autocratic regimes do not have the organizational strength and influence to contend with the Islamists.
And, let’s face it, the language and creed of the Islamists are very attractive to large numbers in the Arab world. The Islamists spent two generations honing their skills and developing their programs under repressive regimes; so they have had extensive experience in opposition. But the Islamists parties that have won elections since the uprisings have had almost no experience in governing. They may understand social welfare, but their knowledge of modern economics is flimsy at best.
Still, the Islamist parties that have won the highest offices in the land will now do everything they can to retain those offices, whatever the price. They do face challengers, however, one of which is the military. The army may be back in its barracks now, but it has the power to intervene in the event of long-term instability or if it feels that its financial interests are in jeopardy. In Egypt, the military is truly corporate and controls about a third of the formal economy.
Another challenger is what is being called, for want of a better term, the “Arab Street.” Tahrir Squares now exist all over the Arab world, where large protests occur almost daily. These permanent protestors are a mishmash of shifting coalitions, of secular liberals, Islamists, religious minorities, women’s and labor organizations, and others. And while they are hardly unified, they are accusing the Islamic parties now in control of the highest government offices of trying to subvert the democratic processes that have been introduced these past two years.
The Arab Street has become an increasingly loud voice after 40 years of haunting silence–and not only in Tunisia and Egypt. One can see the Street at work in Iraq, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and elsewhere.
The third challenger the Islamic ruling parties face comes from within their own ranks. I refer to the more militant, more purist, less-compromising Islamic elements who are already nipping at their heels. These elements are mainly associated with the Salafis. The internal struggle among Islamists is already playing out in Cairo and Tunis, and we can also see it within the rebel movements fighting to unseat the Assad regime in Syria. The longer the Islamic parties manage to control government, the more likely they will be to consolidate their rule, a new kind of authoritarian rule, at the expense of most challengers.
On Syria: Everyone is watching the Syrian civil war unfold. In two years, in a country of 23 million, more than 70,000 have been killed–that is the equivalent of nearly 1 million Americans. The conflict has already generated more than 2 million internal refugees, and nearly a million more refugees have flooded into neighboring countries, including as many as 400,000 into fragile Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the middle classes and the Christian minorities are fleeing in droves from Syria, and the battle for Damascus is just beginning. Why is Syria so critical? Because events in that country could cause, and are already causing, perturbations in Syria’s immediate neighbors. Meanwhile Iran is witnessing the demise of its closest ally in the Arab world, the Assad regime.
In simple terms, a proxy war is taking place. On one side, we have Iran, along with Russia, supporting the Alawite-backed Assad regime, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar assist the rebels who are trying to topple the regime, and Washington comes down on their side. The longer the civil war continues, the better the chance that the more militant Islamic forces will gain the upper hand in the hotly contested struggles among the Syrian opposition for who will one day replace the Assad regime.
Speculation is growing that Syria could collapse into three or four separate enclaves, but I doubt any could survive economically for long. Israel is watching Syria very closely, in case the regime starts using its chemical weapons. Israel is also tracking Hezbollah’s movements in Lebanon. Hezbollah is the radical Lebanese Shiite party that has gone head-to-head militarily with Israel in the past. The Syrian regime has been the funnel through which Iranian weapons and aid reach Hezbollah in Lebanon, so Hezbollah’s fate is tied to Assad’s.
If the Syrian regime topples, Hezbollah could become quiet, go underground for a while. Or, in an act of desperation, it might try to take over the Lebanese government militarily, which would likely provoke Israel. At the least, Hezbollah will become increasingly involved in the armed skirmishes between pro-Syrian Lebanese factions and the Lebanese aligned with the Syrian rebels. Add the enormous refugee problem to the mix, and Lebanon could possibly begin to unravel as it did during the long civil war of the 1970s and 1980s.
Meanwhile, the Turks are nervously engaged because they want to make sure the Syrian Kurdish minority on Turkey’s borders does not cause disruptions that spill over into Turkey and arouse its own disenfranchised Kurdish minority. Turkey wants to influence whatever replaces the Assad regime when it collapses.
Finally, the Obama administration, so far, has refused to encourage the delivery of major weapons systems to the Syrian rebels because it worries that they may fall into the hands of those extremist rebel forces most committed to terrorism. In late February we started to provide funding for so-called nonlethal aid, medical supplies, and food, and Washington may well be supporting the training of Syrian rebels in Jordan. Washington would like to persuade the Russians to back a transitional government through the United Nations Security Council but so far there has not been much traction there.
The United States is generally facing a reduction in its ability to influence events and trends in the Arab world. We have lost our allies in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, and we have not really gained new ones in those places, though we are working at it. U.S. policy will continue to focus on finding ways to stabilize the region so as to ensure the flow of oil and to prevent regional warfare between the usual and the not-so-usual suspects.
Washington’s leverage has been diminished, and Mr. Obama apparently has learned from Afghanistan and Iraq that, if we are not careful, Syria could suck us into a situation from which we may not be able to extract ourselves anytime soon. Washington will continue to escalate its diplomatic initiatives, with the aim of trying to ensure that when the Assad regime tumbles it does not tumble into the wrong hands.
Whether our administration will also undertake substantive new initiatives toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is something we will all be watching closely as Mr. Obama prepares to go to Israel later this month. But I would not be too hopeful.
1 Albert Hourani first mentioned this paradox in A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).
2 See Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “The Arab Counterrevolution,” New York Review of Books, September 29, 2011.
3 James Gelvin, “Conclusion: The Arab World at the Intersection of the National and Transnational,” in Mark L. Haas and David W. Lesch, eds., The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2013), 238–255.
Malika Zeghal is Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University.
What has been called the Arab Spring started in Tunisia in December 2010. Massive uprisings led to the fall of that country’s authoritarian president, Ben Ali, in less than a month, to the surprise of Tunisians and the entire world. The uprisings expressed a demand for economic rights and, in particular, the right to access the job market in the context of a grim economic situation.
After the global financial crisis of 2008, unemployment reached its highest levels in the center-west and center-north of the country, the poorest regions of Tunisia. In that sense, the Arab Spring started with a massive movement of protest against deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and worsening regional inequalities, rather than as a movement for democracy.
Since then, the economic conditions that led to the start of the Arab Spring have not improved and have perhaps worsened. Unemployment of graduates today hovers around 33 percent, and inflation is at about 6 percent, making social unrest an everyday staple of post–Ben Ali politics.
On the other hand, even though in the winter of 2010 Tunisian demonstrators did not unite around the desire for democracy, the political institutions and landscape have been greatly transformed since then. Although the state administration did not collapse either during or after the December 2010 uprisings, the void at the helm of the state and the constant pressure of the street led to a political transition, during which political pluralism was established and a Constituent Assembly was democratically elected in a context of unprecedented freedom of speech.
The elections led to a renewal of the governing elites. The Islam- ists of the Renaissance Party obtained about 40 percent of the seats, while the secular center and left were fragmented, and the populist party called Al Aridha came in second. The previous secularist governing elite was replaced by a new generation of Islamists, who, returning from exile, prison, or a long retreat from political life, found themselves suddenly governing the country, but with no prior experience of state governance.
Even though we cannot speak of a true revolution – the main structures of the old regime and society are still in place – two transformative mini-revolutions occurred in Tunisia: first, political pluralism and freedom of expression; second, the replacement of the secularist elites by the Islamist elites.
Islam – particularly, political Islam – has always been an object of anxiety for secularists in the Middle East and for Western analysts and commentators. They often ask whether an Islamist electoral victory will prevent a democratic transition and, more broadly, whether Islamists are truly committed to democracy. While I cannot respond to these questions this evening with the time imparted to me, I can attempt to answer the following question: Who voted for the Islamist party in Tunisia?
Before the Arab Spring, determining the constituency of Islamists in the Middle East was difficult because elections took place in an authoritarian context and results likely did not reflect the state of public opinion. Nonetheless, in 2010, my colleague and friend Tarek Masoud analyzed the Egyptian Muslim Brothers’ 2005 electoral strategy and inferred that they had chosen to focus on an affluent constituency.
In Tunisia, the elections of October 2011, which were free and fair, according to Tunisian and international observers, allow us to describe more clearly the Islamist constituency and to reflect on the political and religious cleavages in Tunisia. The general electoral results of October 2011 show several things of importance (see Figure 1).
|Figure 1 Tunisia: The Islamist Vote (Nahda Party) in the October 23, 2011 Election|
First, the Islamists are present almost everywhere and are particularly strong in urban areas: in the populated urban peripheries and, to a lesser extent, in the urban centers of the country, the capital, the coast, and the urban centers of the south.
Merging the electoral results with social-demographic indicators shows that the Islamist vote correlates with literacy and secondary education, as well as with indicators of average living standards for Tunisia. This means that the vote for the Islamists comes from the middle and upper middle class and the educated. On the whole, no correlation is visible between unemployment and the vote for the Islamist party.
The Islamist party obtained the lowest fraction of the vote in Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the revolution, the district in which protests originated with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010. This region at the center of the country is one of Tunisia’s poorest districts, with one of the highest unemployment and illiteracy rates. This speaks to a crucial line of political cleavage that is often ignored.
Analysts of Tunisia often focus on the divide separating the Islamists from the secularists at the risk of ignoring an important class cleavage. The Islamist/secularist divide is an ideological one that, in Tunisia, is overwhelming the political debate. But it is also obstructing a more important divide that separates the ruling elite–by which I mean the Islamists and the secularists, who, in fact, resemble one another very much–from the poorest regions of Tunisia in the center-west, where illiteracy and unemployment are high, where turnout at the elections was low, and where the Islamist party and the center-left parties are weakest.
The next battle in Tunisia will not be about the role of Islam in the state or about the commitment of political actors to democracy, although these questions remain at the center of the Tunisian public debate. The Tunisian political class – at least so far – seems to be committed to a democratic transition. The problem is elsewhere.
As shown by the sad story of a young street vendor from Jendouba in northwest Tunisia who on March 12 set himself on fire in the capital Tunis, in a gesture reminiscent of the spark that started the Tunisian revolution, the next battle is about the future of economic development and of the regions whose people live in poverty and illiteracy. The political future of Tunisia hinges on the outcome of this battle.
Tarek Masoud is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
I have been asked to describe what happened and where things are likely to go in Egypt. This is a hard assignment, not just because of the breadth of the topic but because the one thing political scientists have proven empirically is that we have no predictive power whatsoever.
Views of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, particularly in Egypt, veer between one of two extremes. On the one hand, we have a kind of sunny optimism, and on the other hand we have an unremitting, remorseless pessimism. The optimism appeared early in the writings on the revolution, when the crowds first gathered in Tunisia in December 2010 and then in Egypt in January 2011.
When the gathering crowds actually led to the flight of long-standing dictators, it was impossible not to be optimistic, maybe even euphoric, about the changes that were under way, especially since the crowds that unseated those dictators did not appear to be made up of the bearded Islamists we had long been told, usually by Mubarak and Ben Ali, would be the ones who would inherit the post-authoritarian order. Instead, the protests seemed to be led by photogenic, Western-educated, Western-oriented young people who appeared to desire what the West desired for them: freedom, liberty, democracy, economic development.
The giddy spirit of that period is captured in a statement President Obama made during the height of the protest that unseated Mubarak. When the president was asked by somebody on his staff what he hoped for in Egypt, he reportedly said, “What I want is for the kids on the street to win and for the Google guy to become president.” The “Google guy” is Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who also maintained a webpage that was one of the organizing centers of the protest.
Given what happened next, the president’s statement seems remarkably naive. As we know, the photogenic liberals, including the Google guy, were unceremoniously rushed off the stage, to be replaced by two groups that were very distant from the kind of media darlings that had captured Western attention: Mubarak’s military and the Islamists.
This was not surprising. The revolutionaries’ Twitter and Facebook technologies
proved no match for the much older and much more tested technologies of gun and
mosque. In reality, the military and the Islam-
ists, between them, negotiated and set the course of the transition.
Rapid elections, held from November 2011 to January 2012, were one of the key elements of that transition. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won about 47 percent of the seats. Coming in second was al-Nour, a Salafist party that appeared out of nowhere, having never engaged in political activity before. Six months later, in a closely fought, two-round election, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, eked out a victory over a bemedaled general named Ahmed Shafik.
In December 2012 the Brotherhood and its allies were able to enact a constitution that the secular opposition leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, described as violating freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the independence of the judiciary. Among the hallmarks of Egypt’s new constitution are the removal of long-standing guarantees of equality for women and an enhanced role for the country’s religious authorities in the legislative process.
Once all of this happened, the tone of writing on Egypt’s revolution shifted from optimism to tremendous pessimism. And many of us began to remember our modernization theory, which posits a link between development and democracy. During our cheerleading of the revolutions we had conveniently forgotten–but now suddenly remembered–the work of people like Seymour Martin Lipset, who told us that democracy requires an educated and literate citizenry.
The illiteracy rate in Egypt is 35 percent. The United States hasn’t had an illiteracy rate that high since about the Civil War. New England hasn’t had an illiteracy rate that high since the beginning of the eighteenth century.
So you could be forgiven for being pessimistic about the possibility that these people can sustain democracy. However, I reject that kind of argument. Still, every time I go to the Middle East to collect data (I run surveys in Egypt), I keep getting data that I don’t want to see.
Some of the data reveal that Egypt’s citizens really do have very illiberal preferences. In a survey I did in November 2011 of 1,600 Egyptians, 67 percent disapproved of the idea of having a female president. Okay, you might say that’s not unusual. Thirty percent, though, believed that women were unsuited for any public position whatsoever. Eighty percent believed that the government should set up a council of religious scholars to vet laws to ensure that they conform to the Sharia, which is essentially what has happened. And 75 percent approved of the idea that religious authorities should be allowed to censor the media.
You might be thinking, Egypt does not have a tremendous constituency for liberalism. However, one does not need to go all the way with the modernization theorists or even believe that democracy requires a liberal citizenry to find reasons for pessimism. (I doubt the Bill of Rights could pass in a referendum in the United States today.) Political scientist Adam Przeworski and his colleagues surveyed cases of democratic breakdown and identified a threshold of wealth above which democracies tend to be durable–which is the level of wealth enjoyed by Argentina on the eve of the 1976 coup that unseated Isabel Perón.
Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and several other Arab countries are poorer today than Argentina was when its democracy failed in 1976. Lebanon, Libya, and the oil-rich states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are much richer, but their wealth comes from oil, which has it own, well-documented democracy-retarding effects. The fundamental intuition here is that the poorer a country is, the greater the percentage of its citizenry who might accept an abrogation of democracy. In the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser abrogated what little democracy Egypt had, the poor supported his coup because, in their view, democracy had not delivered. That we could see such a thing again is not unlikely.
The reasons for pessimism pile on. In November 2012, President Mohamed Morsi seemed poised to undo Egypt’s entire democratic experiment when he arrogated to himself the right to issue decrees that were above any kind of judicial review.
He was forced to step back from that precipice, but many people thought the episode spoke to a fundamental illiberalism and disrespect for constitutional procedure among the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, when the Islamist-drafted constitution was passed, it included a clause that banned from political life all those who had been elected to parliament under the former ruling National Democratic Party’s banner in the last 10 years. Many people interpreted this as an attempt to skew the playing field in the Brotherhood’s favor.
Is there an exit from this situation in which Egypt now finds itself? I think so. Just as I think that the early optimism surrounding the Arab Spring was maybe insufficiently attentive to the challenges of establishing democracy, so, too, do I think that this unremitting pessimism that now hangs over us is blind to the country’s still considerable democratic possibilities. We know that the grim predictions of economic determinants are belied in poor democracies like Indonesia and India, so might Egypt be able to defy those predictions, too?
At the risk of sounding Panglossian, I think Egypt can, and I think the best hope for Egyptian democracy can be found in the tremendous protest and unrest and contention we see in almost every square in Egypt. In early March 2013, the New York Times editorial page chided Morsi and the Egyptian opposition for not achieving consensus to solve the country’s problems. But what Egypt has now is more essential to the well-functioning of democracy than consensus. What it now has is opposition.
Note: Egypt was in a state of unrest as this issue of the Bulletin went to press.
E. Roger Owen
E. Roger Owen is A. J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History at Harvard University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007.
One of the basic differences between the eastern and the western parts of the Arab world is that the western part contains relatively homogenous populations with long histories of state systems and constitutions, whereas the eastern part is much more confused and divided. If we can find a structure here, it comes from two historical developments.
One is a kind of sectarian geography, whereby the eastern part of the Arab world was ruled for a long time by Sunni Muslim dynasties but contained what were often heretical minority communities. These communities took refuge in two mountains, one just west of Beirut and another in northern Iraq. The Middle East is now ruled by dynasties that grew up in these mountain districts and were essentially opposed to the Sunni rulers of the plains, but then infiltrated major parts of the Middle East.
The second development is that after the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after having ruled this part of the world for 300 years, the French and the British divided the area into something called Iraq, something called Syria, something called Lebanon, something called Jordan, and something called Palestine, each of which has some kind of historical raison d’être but was also, in some sense, a new and artificial enterprise.
We are dealing here with states that have had only a recent history of government, although they do represent a sense of something that one might call “Syrianness” or “Iraqiness.” Syrians, for example, speak Arabic in a different kind of way, they tell different jokes, they have a different kind of cooking, and so on.
Nevertheless, the eastern half of the Arab world is not an area that can be said to have settled down. Some people, including Tom Friedman, have even called for a return to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and a review of the ways in which this part of the Arab world was carved up.
Although the Arab Spring was present in the eastern part of the Arab world, it was met there by a variety of responses. Those states that had sufficient money sought to buy off their populations by providing jobs and welfare–in the way of Saudi Arabia–and that largely worked.
But in two important places – Syria and Bahrain – the governments felt sufficiently threatened by the Arab Spring and its possibilities that they chose to resist. Both countries have entrenched dynasties that are convinced they will disappear if the popular movements are allowed to work their way through the system. So, they are digging in.
In Bahrain we have a longtime, indigenous insurrection among the Shia majority against the Sunni rulers. The ruling family is divided, but the hard-liners decided–stupidly, I think–that the Arab Spring should not be allowed to overflow into Bahrain.
Bahrain, which is a major port for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has become a major embarrassment to the United States. The Bahraini government now faces daily, concerted pressure to settle its internal differences. Policy-makers fear that if the Syrian regime falls, its major ally, Iran, may start to make trouble in Bahrain and other places.
The Syrian government, in its rather myopic way, was surprised by the peaceful popular protests that began to take place every Friday, willing to consider reform but only from a position of strength. Then, as Ramadan approached in 2011, it was faced with the possibility of daily protests, because that is the nature of Ramadan. Everybody goes to prayer in the evening.
So the regime decided to dig in and meet peaceful protests with a violent response. Since then, the confrontation has been extended, with the regime using its powerful arsenal. Syria has an extremely effective air force equipped with Russian planes; it has tanks and missiles. The opposition has extended and developed guerrilla tactics and is waging a hit-and-run campaign against the regular forces.
That is roughly where we are at the moment: the Syrian government is in power in certain parts of the country, having surrendered other parts to a variety of militias, some of them religiously motivated, all of them funded by friends in the Gulf and elsewhere who feel that the Assad regime is an unsatisfactory regime for a Sunni Arab country. But the various groups are hardly connected. No real government-in-exile has close connections to those inside.
So we have money and fighters from various sources, and, as a recent article in the London Review of Books illustrates, starting a battalion is quite easy. All that is needed are tough guys – and everybody in Iraq and Syria is a tough guy – and guns. Thanks to the rulers in Iraq and Syria, who made no effort to disarm their populations, guns, in the form of AK-47s, are everywhere.
So almost anybody can start a militia, send pictures by cell phone to well-meaning people in the Gulf, receive financial support, and send in requests for bigger weapons. But the type and number of such weapons to come in has been limited. The one thing the rebels desperately need is Stingers and surface-to-air missiles to bring down Syrian air force planes and helicopters. Until recently, the United States and the Israelis were particularly concerned with preventing these weapons getting into the hands of anybody in Syria, because they would reduce command of the air.
But the balance is slowly shifting. Some surface-to-air missiles seem to be getting in, in particular a Russian variant of the Stinger. Stingers were used to enormous effect in Afghanistan. They were regarded as so dangerous by the United States that it kept a log of every Stinger that had ever been produced and went around the world trying to get them back into safe hands. Anyone who has the strength to point something into the air can use a Stinger& ndash;it is a heat-seeking weapon – to bring down helicopters and, in some cases, aircraft. They are very dangerous.
The situation now is a stalemate. Washington, London, and probably everybody else assumes that the Assad regime must fall at some stage, but nobody knows exactly when that will be. Instead we hear considerable discussion about what the endgame might be. The discussion has two aims: somehow or other to preserve a Syrian state structure that can be used to govern the country; and to deal with the refugee crisis – that is, to get the refugees back. The endgame is how you move from the present confusion through the fall of the Assad regime to a government that can maintain some kind of structure, some kind of law and order, and permit the refugees – over a million – to return to their homes.
© 2013 by Philip S. Khoury, Malika Zeghal, Tarek Masoud, and E. Roger Owen, respectively