Revolution watch in the Middle East

In Tunisia, progress toward democracy is taking place remarkably uneventfully.  The Islamist Party, Ennahda, won the elections, but the secular CPR party also did well, and the government has said it will not impost strict Islamic law on the country.  Indeed, they have invited European bikini-clad sun-worshippers to return to Tunisia’s beaches, as the lack of tourists is one of the country’s biggest problems.

Egypt also is missing many of its tourists, but would be lucky if that were its biggest problem.  Egypt is in the throes of a full unfolding of revolution, with major power struggles among elites and recurrent violence.  It is fairly typical in revolutions for the military to stand aside or help the opposition at first, as they share in the the antipathy toward the pre-revolutionary regime.  However, the army (or a part of it) also typically seeks to implement a counter-revolution once they perceive a threat from more radical winners in the revolutionary coalition.  This is exactly what has happened in Egypt, where the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood are locked in a struggle for control of the country.

The Brotherhood, which won the elections for Parliament, promised not to run a candidate for President nor to dominate the constitution-writing process, planning instead to share those powers with other groups.  Yet they have gone back on those promises in response to the military seeking to keep control of events and exempt themselves from parliamentary oversight.  Indeed, the army lately overturned the constitution-writing process, in which a Parliament-appointed body dominated by Brotherhood members would write the draft, in order to secure a Constitution-drafting body that is more diverse.  The Army also launched their own surprise candidate for president, none other than Omar Suleiman, former chief of intelligence and 2nd in command to Mubarak who briefly took over the government after Mubarak’s resignation.  It is hard to imagine a more unpopular choice, or someone who more clearly symbolizes the Mubarak regime, yet the army is so myopic as to think Suleiman could challenge the Brotherhood for popular support!

A new, almost high-comedy element was added to Egyptian politics last week when the Supreme court disqualified 10 declared candidates for the presidency — including the major Brotherhood and Salafi candidates, as well as Suleiman!  This appears to be a genuine triumph of rule of law, as Suleiman was disqualified for irregularities in how he met the requirements for filing, while the Brotherhood and Salalfi candidates, both of whom did long spells in prison under Mubarak, were disqualified because Egyptian law prohibits convicted criminals from running for President.

With these crazy turns, it is now rumored that the Army has decided to postpone the presidential election (as many secularists had hoped) until after the constitution-drafting committee has done its work and the constitutional role of the president is laid out.  That may also give time for the Brotherhood and Salafi candidates to appeal to have their convictions (which were for acts of opposition to the Mubarak regime) overturned, making them eligible to run.

Sadly, Bahrain risks new violence this weekend as the F1 international car race roars into town. (I just checked after writing this and riots began a few hours ago).  No progress has been made on the issues that prompted the mass uprising against the Sunni regime.

Yemen is simmering — but it’s long term prospects look to be the worst in the region.  It is running out of oil and water, has 24 million people, and displays one of the highest rates of population growth in the entire world.  Something has to give in this nation; we just do not know when.

Finally, Syria dominates the headlines and has the worst violence. The Syrian revolution continues but at a lower level as the Assad regime tries hard to keep the lid on. This week, UN monitors arrived.  While they do not appear likely to be any more successful in stifling violence than the earlier emissaries from the Arab League, at least they have the backing of UN security council, with China and Russia going along.  When their mission fails, there will be much stronger pressures on China and Russia to back another UN regional peace measure, which this time may have real teeth to tear at Assad’s grip on power.  Give Kofi Annan credit — he may have known his missions would fail, but the process he has created has brought China and Russia on board.  Once there, they will find it harder to wriggle out of UN requests to aid Syria’s people against their own government.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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4 Responses to Revolution watch in the Middle East

  1. Eric Selbin says:

    From what I know, this seems largely right. Assuming a population more or less moves through stages from revolutionary imagination (check in each case, I think, even Bahrain and almost certainly glimmers elsewhere, perhaps even in Saudi Arabia) to revolutionary sentiments (the sharing of those imaginings more broadly; present again in each case, I think), we then come to revolutionary situations (a trickier assessment, with Chuck firmly in mind) which on occasion (but not often) turn into revolution. I think Syria as a revolutionary situation is spot on. I remain hazy about much of what is going on in Egypt and the more I read and listen the less clear I am. Revolutionary situation seems more likely to me than early-stage revolution—where has power shifted? Where has society shifted? How has the economy changed? What about the culture? I suppose you could make an argument that the political has been expanded and the polity broadened, but power still seems to be in a few hands. Society seems much the same for most, especially if blog posts from large parts of Cairo and Alexandria and even more reports from outside the big cities are to be believed. The economy remains in the same hands as far as I know, with some kleptocrats removed or at least out of the country having tea at Harrods. I suppose there is some reason to think that a cultural shift of sorts may be under way among some people in some places (I’m kinda skeptical) and perhaps more importantly that something has changed, I dunno, psychologically for a whole set of people, which at least creates the potential/possibility for more imagining(s) and hence more and greater change. One can hope.

    I am most optimistic about a positive, if not revolutionary, outcome for the most people in Tunisia. Who would ever imagined them to be the bellwether…unless, alas, they stand alone.

    • Yes, Tunisia looks best now — but Egypt is the bellweather that will drive the region. What has changed? When the courts can disqualify Omar Suleiman (the former chief of Mubarak’s intelligence forces and a leader of the military) from running for President, when the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties control a majority in Parliament, and when a new constitution is about to be written and a President to be elected by true popular vote, we are in a different world than the closed Mubarak gerontocracy/intended hereditary dictatorship. Of course power and economic control has not yet shifted (c’mon Eric, the King was still on the throne in France from 1789 to 1792), but the revolution is barely a year old. I expect more change to follow.

  2. Eric Selbin says:

    So I have to ask: why “revolution watch”? I’m still struggling to see something (anything?) revolutionary in any of this. I suppose if Eastern Europe 1989, et al comport, than Tunisia might be fair game…but Egypt? The army has been in charge since 1952 and is 60 years later and I’m not sure I see revolution elsewhere. Maybe they could be read as revolutionary situations?

    • Fair enough Eric — I think these are “revolution in progress” (Tunisia); “Revolution in early stages with strong counter-revolution” (Egypt); “Revolutionary situation” (Syria) and perhaps an incomplete or aborted revolution in Yemen (Saleh has formally given up power but informally remains in charge) and a failed rebellion in Bahrain. Always better to be precise. In Egypt, though, the army is not in charge to the extent it was up to January 2011; it is desperately maneuvering to preserve its power and is mortally threatened by the legitimation of the Muslim Brotherhood, a legitimacy that was forced upon it by revolutionary actions.

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