For Lauren, Sophia, and Alec
ON FEBRUARY 10 , 2011, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped before the TV camera for the third time since the January 25 revolution began. Massive crowds in Tahrir Square quieted. President Barack Obama and his closest advisers turned up the television volume on al-Jazeera English. After weeks of escalating protests, tense clashes in the streets, turmoil in the ruling elite, and fierce international pressure, virtually everyone expected Mubarak to announce his resignation.
Instead, casting himself as "a father to his sons and daughters," he delivered a meandering, condescending address. He assured, paternalistically, that "as a president I find no shame in listening to my country's youth"—but showed no sign of having actually done so. He laid out a time line for a transition of power over seven months, which made clear that he had no intention of immediately stepping down. The hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in central Cairo roared with rage.
Seconds after the speech ended, I received an e-mail from one of President Obama's top advisers on his way to a meeting in the Situation Room: "What do you make of that?" This book is in part my attempt to answer his question, and my own, about the dramatic changes that have unsettled so many assumptions and certainties in the Middle East.
It is commonly said that nobody predicted the upheavals in the Arab world that began in December 2010 and defined the following year.1 But that does not mean that nobody saw them coming. The crumbling foundations of the Arab order were visible to all who cared to look. Political systems that had opened slightly in the mid-2000s were once again closing down, victim to regime manipulation and repression. Economies failed to produce jobs for an exploding population of young people. As the gap between rich and poor grew, so did corruption and escalating resentment of an out-of-touch and arrogant ruling class. Meanwhile, Islamist movements continued to transform public culture even as Arab regimes used the threat of al-Qaeda to justify harsh security crackdowns.
Regional politics was equally stalled. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which remained central to Arab political identity and discourse, had long since gone on life support. Arab states seemed indifferent to its collapse, though, and even cooperated openly with Israel on the enforcement of the blockade of Gaza. In the spring of 2010, the Arabs were unable to even organize a single Arab summit meeting to discuss the problems of Palestine and Lebanon due to the bickering of the competing regimes, as Egyptian and Saudi leaders declined to travel to Doha in support of Qatari initiatives. A debilitating "cold war" between America's autocratic allies and the forces of muqawama (resistance) such as Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah dominated the official agenda of regional international relations, spreading in its wake a nasty Sunni-Shi'a sectarianism that divided many Arab societies. To many Arabs, the behavior of their leaders contributed to the perennial failures of the Arab order. The need for change had grown urgent and painfully obvious to frustrated youth who had long since given up any hope that their leaders might themselves change.
All of these frustrations festered at a time of radical, revolutionary change in the information environment. Perhaps the Arab regimes had always been bickering, incompetent, corrupt. But now, thanks to satellite televisions stations like al-Jazeera and the spreading presence of the Internet, their follies were on full display to a skeptical Arab public. Arab leaders could no longer go about their business in private while crushing any sign of discontent. Their people now had access to information and an ability to express their opinions publicly far beyond anything the region had ever before known. When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid in protest over abusive police on December 17, 2010, the Arab world was ready to respond.
I have been deeply immersed in the evolution of what I call a "new Arab public sphere" for well over a decade. My 2006 book Voices of the New Arab Public had focused on al-Jazeera and the satellite television revolution that had shattered the Arab regimes' ability to control the flow of information or the expression of opinion. Most of my academic writings have focused on the impact of new communications technologies and their effects on political and social action. I had written about Egyptian bloggers and their political activism, as well as how Internet activism was changing the perspectives of young members of the Muslim Brotherhood. I had written about how al-Qaeda and radical Islamists used the new media, including Internet forums, to spread their narratives and their propaganda. I had written about al-Jazeera's talk shows and news coverage, and how they spread both a pan-Arabist identity and a political orientation highly critical of the authoritarian status quo. All of these writings pointed toward the evolution of a new public sphere that would inevitably challenge the pillars of Arab authoritarian domination.
I also played an active role in the Arab public sphere through my own blog, "Abu Aardvark."2 While written in English (like many of the more influential Arab political blogs), Abu Aardvark was deeply immersed in Arab political debates and discourse. I tried to translate the debates in Arabic for a Western audience, while engaging personally in the contentious debates that consumed Arab discourse. When political discourse moved onto Twitter, so did I (you can find me at @abuaardvark). In the spring of 2010, I helped to launch the Middle East Channel on ForeignPolicy.com, where I solicited and personally edited hundreds of essays by leading academic experts as well as commentators from the region. My dual personalities had never felt more intertwined than on January 25, 2011, as I watched the Egyptian revolution unfold in real time on Twitter, while sitting on a stage moderating an academic panel discussion about the Tunisian revolution.
Through my own blogging and research, I got to know many of the leading Arab Internet activists personally, both through online engagement and during my travels to the region. I followed in real time over the course of a decade the struggles, travails, and successes of the new public. I saw them fail to force immediate political change, but argued repeatedly that they were nonetheless driving a generational revolution in expectations and attitudes. I struggled with the moral hazard inherent in encouraging their political activism while leaving them at the tender mercies of state security. And I struggled every day with the vast chasm that separated their views of America and the Middle East from what I heard every day in Washington.
I also became deeply involved in debates about American foreign policy. In the years following 9/11, I urged the Bush administration to take Arab opinion seriously and to engage more effectively with the emerging Arab public sphere through a reinvigorated public diplomacy. I challenged the neoconservatives aligned with the Bush administration to reconcile their avowed support for Arab democratization with their adoption of policies and rhetoric that infuriated exactly the people they claimed to want to empower. In the fall of 2008, I warned a congressional audience (and later, in private, the CENTCOM strategic review team tasked by General David Petraeus for the incoming Obama administration to review the foundations of America's strategic presence in the Middle East) that the crumbling Egyptian state and steadily closing political space would be unsustainable (a version of which I published on the blog).3 My involvement with these policy debates sharpened my sense of urgency in translating academic expertise into real impact on these issues about which I cared so deeply.
I moved to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2007 to join the new Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University, and signed on as a Middle East policy adviser to the then long-shot presidential campaign of Barack Obama. I worked as one of the small core group of policy advisers to the campaign on Iraq and the Middle East until election day. I opted not to go into government service after the election, but remained close to many administration officials. When the Arab uprisings began, I found myself consulting frequently and intensely with administration officials from across the agencies. I attended dozens of off-the-record working groups and expert engagement sessions, spoke privately with administration officials at all levels, and debated Egypt policy with President Obama himself.
From these multiple vantage points, I can say from deep experience that many of us in the community of scholars warned of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian rule. The canard that liberals or Middle East experts did not believe in Arab democracy could not be farther from the truth—if anything, these communities were too quick to identify with popular movements and too instinctively suspicious of the intentions of ruling elites. But I would not pretend to be anything other than stunned by the enormity or speed of the Arab uprising that finally came. I had anticipated a slower, generational transformation. It was the difference between seeing structural changes happening below the surface and watching the chaotic reality of politics.
The Tunisian uprising and its aftermath demonstrates the radical reality of contingency and randomness in politics. The course of events in each country could easily have gone differently at crucial moments: a panicked soldier in Tahrir Square could have opened fire and started a stampede; the Bahraini crown prince might have struck a reform deal before the Saudis lost patience and rolled in their troops; Syrian president Bashar al-Assad might have decided not to try to crush protests in Deraa. But beneath the random turbulence and human agency, there were deeper forces at work. The uprising would have been impossible without factors like generational change, new technologies, American leadership, and the regional military balance of power, all working together.
This book seeks to make sense of what happened and to offer a guide to what is to come. What we have seen in the first year of the uprisings, I argue, are only the very earliest manifestations of a deeper transformation. And understanding the implications of those changes will require us to move beyond stale ideological debates and outdated theories in order to grapple with the new realities of an empowered but far from triumphant Arab public.
THE ARAB UPRISINGS
Why does every nation on Earth move to change their conditions except for us? Why do we always submit to the batons of the rulers and their repression? Didn't the Palestinians resist with stones and knives? Didn't Marcos and Suharto and Milosevic and Barri fall? Did the Georgian people wait for the Americans to liberate them from their corrupt President? How long will Arabs wait for foreign saviors?
—TALK SHOW HOST FAISAL AL-QASSEM,
AL-JAZEERA, DECEMBER 23, 20031
THE UPRISINGS that have profoundly shaped the Middle East began in a remote outpost of southern Tunisia on December 17, 2010, with the self-immolation of an unknown young man named Mohammed Bouazizi in protest against abusive and corrupt police. His act could have been yet another well-meant but meaningless protest in an obscure region, accomplishing little. Yet something was different this time.
Within a month of this event and the first, small Tunisian protests, hundreds of thousands of youth protestors had taken to the streets in almost every Arab country. Protestors in different nations chanted the same slogans—"The people want to overthrow the regime!"—and waved the same banners. They fed off each others' momentum and felt the pain of each others' reversals. Within less than a year, three Arab leaders, long in power, had fallen and others faced mortal challenges.
The rapid spread of protests across the entire region transformed what had begun as a fairly typical bout of turmoil on the periphery of the Arab world into a revolutionary moment—a fully-fledged Arab uprising. Even before Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's flight from his country on January 14, 2011, almost everyone with a stake in Arab politics was already focused on who was next. Every government declared that it was not another Tunisia. Every citizen in the Arab world seemed to hope that it was. Over the next few months, protests did indeed break out in most Arab countries—attracting very different responses from regimes and from outside powers, and producing very different outcomes.
Protests spread so quickly and powerfully from the margins of Tunis because they took place within a radically new Arab political space. A new generation of Arabs had come of age watching al-Jazeera, the Qatari satellite television station; connecting with each other through social media; and internalizing a new kind of pan-Arabist identity. They had protested together virtually in real time in support of the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000 and against the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. They had watched together as Lebanese rose up against Syrian occupation in 2005 and then suffered Israeli bombardment in 2006. They had complained publicly about their leaders, stalled economies, and stagnant politics after long decades of keeping quiet—and had noticed the common concerns across the region. Virtually every Arab anywhere in the region could imagine herself in the shoes of these suddenly mobilized Tunisians.
The Arab uprising unfolded as a single, unified narrative of protest with shared heroes and villains, common stakes, and a deeply felt sense of shared destiny. Many of the upheavals after the one in Tunisia became known by the date of their home country's first protest or else of a pivotal moment of escalation or repression, used as a hashtag on Twitter or a promotional spot on al-Jazeera. The rhythm of revolt synchronized across the entire region, with each Friday's "day of rage" seeming to bring the region closer to fundamental transformation. At that moment, anything seemed possible and every Arab population could hope for immediate, peaceful change. The unified Arab world of which generations of pan-Arab ideologues had dreamed had never felt more real.
Then the tight interconnections of regional politics worked in the opposite direction. After the relatively peaceful departure of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, and Ben Ali, the other Arab dictators refused to go peacefully. Brutal attacks on peaceful protestors in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria signaled the beginning of the play's second, darker act. An empowered Arab public could force itself onto the stage, but it could not always survive when suddenly threatened dictators unleashed the full force of their violence. The magical images of a unified people peacefully forcing Mubarak from power gave way to gut-churning videos of unarmed protestors gunned down in the streets.
After intervening to prevent an impending massacre by Libyan president Moammar Qaddafi's forces, American and NATO warplanes were bombing Libya by March. A harsh sectarian crackdown against protestors in Bahrain risked sparking a new regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen's regime teetered between peaceful protest and renewed insurgency with nobody able to find a path out of stalemate. Syria's incredibly courageous protestors were met with horrifying massacres and a paralyzed international community. Saudi Arabia emerged as the center of counterrevolution, spreading wealth and political support to conservative regimes across the region. Meanwhile, even the supposedly triumphant revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia found their own victories incomplete as they struggled with resurgent Islamist movements and opaque interim military regimes. Through it all, traditional rivals Israel and Iran sat nervously on the sidelines, and the United States struggled to balance its hopes for democratic change with fears for its vital interests.
What are the Arab uprisings? Clearly the events of 2011 in the Middle East are not yet a story of democratic transitions. Nor are they yet clearly revolutions. Arab Spring—a term that I may have unintentionally coined in a January 6, 2011, article—does not do justice to the nature of the change.2 The uprisings are an exceptionally rapid, intense, and nearly simultaneous explosion of popular protest across an Arab world united by a shared transnational media and bound by a common identity. Those uprisings are playing out very differently across the region and are likely to produce new, very mixed regional politics—some new democracies, some retrenched dictatorships, some reformed monarchies, some collapsed states, and some civil wars. They will likely intensify regional competition, drive new alliances and rivalries, and change the nature of power politics.
I believe that these world-shaking events, from the peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt to the brutal, grinding battles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, are but the first, early manifestations of changes still to come. They are driven in part by a generational change, as a frustrated youth population confronts hopeless economies, rampant corruption, blocked politics, and indifferent, abusive state institutions. Their grievances took form within a genuinely structural change in the very nature of regional politics: the rise of what for over a decade I have referred to as the rise of the "new Arab public sphere."3 This change will fundamentally challenge the power of Arab states and force the demands, interests, and concerns of an engaged public onto every political agenda. That challenge will sometimes be peaceful, but will too often be bloody as regimes jealously cling to their accustomed power.
The fate of particular dictators is therefore the least interesting part of a much bigger story. The Arab uprisings are only the very earliest manifestations of a powerful change in the basic stuff of the region's politics. Regional and foreign powers alike will continue their competition within these more turbulent arenas, intervening where it suits their interests and turning a blind eye when it does not. New rules and norms will emerge to govern regional interactions. Perhaps, if things go well, it will become commonly accepted that rulers who massacre their own people will lose their legitimacy; perhaps, if they do not, more cynical patterns will take hold in which humanitarian interventions target enemies while the same infractions by friends go unremarked. The Palestinian issue will continue to occupy a central place in Arab identity but, with the fading hopes of a two-state solution, may adopt very different forms. The Arab people have been empowered. From now on, they will play an ever greater role in regional politics. And everyone with a stake in the region's future will be forced to adapt.
The transformation that led to the Arab uprising starts with new information and communications technologies, including satellite television, the Internet, and cheap mobile phones. The widespread dissemination and use of such technology has radically reshaped the way information, ideas, and opinions flow through Arab society. The role of social media and the Internet in the Arab uprisings has often been exaggerated, with too much emphasis on Facebook or Twitter rather than on the underlying political struggles. But this generational, structural change in the nature of political communication represents the most fundamental and significant real effect of these new media.
There were three great effects of this new media environment. First, the free flow of information and the explosion of public discourse and open debate have shattered one of the core pillars of the authoritarian Arab systems that evolved over the 1970s and 1980s: their ability to control the flow of ideas and to enforce public conformity. Second, it has given today's activists and ordinary citizens new skills, expectations, and abilities. They operate within a radically new information environment, expect different things from their states and societies, and are able to act in new ways to demand them. Finally, it has unified the Arab political space, bringing together all regional issues into a common narrative of a shared fate and struggle. This new Arab public sphere is highly critical of most ruling regimes, extremely pan-Arabist in its orientation, and self-consciously celebratory of the power of a long-denied Arab street.
These effects of the new public sphere matter more in the Middle East than in other parts of the world because Arab regimes depended so heavily on their ability to dominate and control the public sphere. Today, it is difficult to recall what a black hole the Arab media was only two decades ago. Arab information ministries tightly and ruthlessly controlled the flow of information and opinion. State television stations offered a monotonous, toxic brew of official pronouncements and glorification of presidents and kings. Editorials were often written directly by intelligence agencies or were rigorously censored so as to uphold the government's talking points. Many Arab state media outlets, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, became so good at managing the media that in 1990, they were able to suppress information about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for days while regimes struggled to formulate a response. Today, such an invasion would be televised, blogged, tweeted, and posted to YouTube within minutes of the troops crossing the border.
Arab authoritarianism depended on iron control of the public sphere. The regimes ultimately rested on violence and fear, smoothed by patronage, but even the most brutal of them made some effort to legitimize their rule.4 These systems depended on near-total public conformity, with extensive networks of intelligence services and oppressive policing of what Arabs typically call "the red lines" governing politically safe public discourse. As Middle East scholar Lisa Wedeen demonstrates in her brilliant dissection of the Syrian cult of personality surrounding then-president Hafez al-Assad, the operation of state power can be seem most thoroughly in its ability to enforce public compliance with ideas and rhetoric that almost all know to be false. In Wedeen's classic example, educated Syrian professionals would agree to pretend in public that their president was the country's greatest dentist—not because they believed it, but because the regime demonstrated its power by compelling them to say so.5
The new generation instead openly mocked their leaders. Al-Jazeera talk shows in the early 2000s made sport of the 99 percent electoral victories that once symbolized the unchallengeable power of the "presidents for life." Online forums circulated wickedly funny cartoons of the formerly infallible leaders. Before anyone could even remark on the changes, the most fundamental pillar of Arab authoritarianism in its deepest form had simply collapsed. But even as the information environment changed in such fundamental ways, as governing institutions crumbled and publics raged, the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world attempted to maintain their absolute control. After limited political openings in the middle of the 2000s, many Arab regimes became more repressive in the last years of the decade, even as their people grew more impatient and more capable of expressing dissent.
There was something else unique about the Arab world. More so than in any other part of the world, the Arabs were integrated within a shared political space, united by a common identity, a shared narrative, and a coherent set of debates, issues, and concerns. The Arab world had always been more tightly connected than any other region in world politics, linked by a common language and a politically constructed but very real sense of shared fate. In the 1950s, thousands of Arabs had poured into the streets to protest Western imperialism and demand Arab unification at the behest of incendiary Egyptian radio broadcasts. This had faded in the 1970s and 1980s. But in the early 2000s, driven in large part by al-Jazeera and the new media, the Arab space began to reunify. In this emerging reality, all Arabs cared about Palestine or about Iraq—and, indeed, caring about such things was part of what defined them as "Arab." Satellite television and the Internet made those connections more intense and more intimate, faster and more focused than ever before.
This was a generational change. This rising generation of young people had spent their formative years on the Internet, plotting their next protest rather than hiding from politics. Most could not even conceive of the world of the 1970s and 1980s, when authoritarian regimes dominated every aspect of public life and citizens bowed down to personality cults. As one older pundit marveled over the summer, "I feel optimistic when I see the youth speaking on the satellite television programs ... surpassing their elders in their thoughts and analyses, for they are liberated from the censor whose knife was at the throat of their elders."6 The Arab public was transforming into something much more participatory, much less deferential to authority, much less patient, much less susceptible to regime propaganda, and much more able to connect and communicate across distances and to acquire information of all sorts. But their political systems failed to evolve to accommodate their new demands, even as economic hardship and a litany of political failures fueled popular alienation.
The combination of rising public challenge and a unified Arab public sphere rapidly rewired the game of regional politics. Over the first decade of the 2000s, the rhythms of televised and wired protest almost imperceptibly became the normal state of regional affairs. When massive protests marched simultaneously through Cairo, Rabat, and Sanaa in 2000 over the Palestinian-Israeli war and in 2003 over the American invasion of Iraq, al-Jazeera almost single-handedly united these disparate protests into a single coherent narrative of regional rage. Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution," following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, offered the spectacle of a single country's mass protests dominating the political agenda of an entire region. Egypt's Kefaya movement demanding political reform through the middle of the decade became the regional template for wired networks of online and offline youth activists. Meanwhile, the spirit of protest and challenge spread far beyond these highly visible youth activists. In Egypt alone, the last few years of the 2000s saw thousands of labor strikes as well as protests by pillars of society such as judges and lawyers. Tribes marched against the government in Jordan and Kuwait, workplace strikes proliferated through Tunisia and Algeria, and Palestinians experimented with new forms of nonviolent protest against Israeli occupation. This was a wide and deep wave of popular mobilization.