October 27, 2011

The Arab counter-revolution... finally

For better or worse, the other shoe has finally dropped in the Arab world. It only took a half-century.

So far, the regimes that have fallen at the hands of the new Mideast phenomenon known as "Arab Spring" all originated as part of decolonization that began in the late-1940s and continued through the 1960s. The despots being overthrown this season have largely profited from a legacy of defiance against the West, and new claimants to that title have challenged their rule. So far, no Arab monarchy has fallen or faced a serious existential challenge from the current movement for change.

First, the heads that already rolled: In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was heir to Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, who helped overthrow the European-backed King Farouk; though the same military establishment still controls the levers of power in Egypt, the chain of succession has now been broken. Forty years ago, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi -- who was recently driven from power and was finally killed last week -- toppled the Western-backed King Idris and was embraced by Nasser as the new pan-Arab sensation (after all, what choice did Nasser have?). Tunisia, the first domino in the Arab Spring, was freed from French domination in 1956, without a revolution but in response to Arab nationalist sentiments.

Next, the still-tottering leaders: Syria's Bashar Assad, who faces a widely popular movement against his regime, is the successor to an evolution of military dictatorships that emerged from decades of post-War instability -- usually with some Western meddling. Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, is the closest to stepping down (or collapsing) at this point, and he presides over an on-again, off-again unified regime, which during the Cold War was divided into North Yemen and South Yemen, and remains a product and source of regional instability.

Bahrain has endured some large-scale protests, and even killed as many as 30 demonstrators and arrested hundreds more, but nothing like the thousands gunned down in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The ruling family seems to be holding steady; and Bahrain is distinct among the "Arab Spring" countries -- it never had its nationalist revolution, having freed itself from Iranian and British domination through a gradual series of fits and starts, but always under the Al-Khalifah royal family.

Jordan has responded more calmly to its own democratic movements, but unlike Bahrain, it is not located in Iran's shadow or under its thumb. The same goes for Morocco.

The underlying reasons need to be studied in detail, but the fact remains: While the 1950s and 1960s saw the Arab nationalist overthrow of numerous kings, in 2011, no royal family has faced a serious threat to its rule -- not Jordan or Morocco or Bahrain, not Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf kingdom.

The only regimes that have fallen or come close to falling are those we might consider Arab nationalist and revolutionary regimes. This does not mean that Arab nationalism is dead -- it may just mean that its champions had failed. In the case of Mubarak, his closeness to the West and to Israel certainly earned him no support among the Egyptian people. We will probably learn more in the coming months and years, as the dust settles in each country and new leadership patterns take shape. We may never come to agree on what took so long in the first place.

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