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The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era

Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren

Through research, interviews, and firsthand experience, the authors analyze the challenges many Arab nations face in building democratic institutions, finding consensus on political Islam and overcoming tribal divides.

Excerpted from Chapter 1: An Arab Malaise (footnotes omitted), from The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era by Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren. Reprinted by arrangement with

Yale University Press. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

An Arab Malaise

Good rulership is equivalent to mildness. If the ruler uses force and is ready to mete out punishment and eager to expose the faults of people and to count their sins, (his subjects) become fearful and depressed and seek to protect themselves against him through lies, ruses and deceit... They often abandon (the ruler) on the battlefield and fail to support his defensive enterprises... The subjects often conspire to kill the ruler. Thus the dynasty decays, and the fence (that protects it) lies in ruins.

-- 14th-century Tunisian philosopher Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah

Not a single Arab country made it onto the 2011 list of top global risks issued by Eurasia Group, a multinational consulting firm that helps clients identify looming instability. Some perennials, such as the Iranian nuclear standoff, were mentioned, but domestic change in the Middle East was simply not on its radar – even though protests had been spreading since late 2010. After all, despite their dysfunctional economies and ossified political systems, Arab rulers had proved remarkably resilient to both domestic pressures and external shocks. They had survived the end of the Cold War and the so-called ‘third wave of democratization’ that swept away dictators from Portugal to Indonesia, from the 1970s onwards.

Arab regimes, if not individual leaders, had made it through a series of wars and three unpopular peace deals with Israel. They had largely crushed violent Islamists. They had adjusted, as mostly Sunni Muslim rulers, to the Shi’ite resurgence ushered in by Iran’s 1979 revolution, and they had survived the sectarian and political tensions wrought by two US-led wars against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Syria, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had all survived the deaths of veteran leaders and managed relatively smooth successions. Syria, the only republic on this list of monarchies and dynasties and the one most vulnerable to a succession crisis, had set a precedent with Bashar al-Assad’s carefully-choreographed takeover in 2000 from his father Hafez, who had ruled for the previous three decades. Mubarak, who had led Egypt for thirty years without naming a vice president, took note as he groomed his son Gamal for the presidency.

Democrats around the Arab world lamented the birth of the first Arab ‘jumlukiya’. Literally translated as ‘republarchy’, the word fused together jumhuriya, Arabic for ‘republic’, and malakiya, Arabic for ‘monarchy’. With the creation of this monstrous hybrid dropped the last fig leaf of legitimacy. There could be no more pretence that national interests came before the interests of the ruling family, and the sect or tribe to which it belonged. In Tunisia, another Arab republic, it was widely suspected that Ben Ali, whose only son was a toddler, was grooming his son-in-law for the top job. There were fears that the first lady, Leila Trabelsi, derided by Tunisians as a latter-day Marie Antoinette, had her own eye on high office.

Rather than invest in the future of their countries, these leaders dedicated much of the wealth and power of the state to ensuring their own survival. Coercion, or the threat of it, was widely used in a region whose governments spend a higher proportion of their state budgets on defence and security than any other. In 2009, an average 4.6 per cent of Arab GDP went on military spending, compared to a global average of less than 2 per cent.

Much Gulf Arab military spending is intended as a deterrent against Iran, a non-Arab Shi’ite power in a region dominated by Sunni rulers, but the aura of an impregnable state, possessed both of the latest weaponry and of support from Western countries, also put off potential opponents from mounting any serious challenge for power. It was not just the amount spent on the armed forces, but also their composition, that discouraged revolt. Some rulers and their families fortified their power bases by filling the military and interior security forces with members of their own tribe or sect, creating a patronage network and ensuring that those who bore arms owed their allegiance to the leadership rather than the state itself. The Saudi Arabian National Guard, for instance, is a separate force that bypasses the defence ministry and draws its soldiers from tribal elements historically loyal to the royal family and dedicated to protecting the king from a family rebellion or a challenge from the regular army. Bahrain, meanwhile, has resorted to recruiting foreigners, who were less likely to balk at shooting or beating protesters and had no stake in local politics.

Tellingly, the army in Tunisia was considerably more professional than most in the region and considered itself to be an institution of the state rather than the private security wing of the ruling family or party. In Tunisia and Egypt, furthermore, tribal ties are weak and both countries are home to majority Sunni populations ruled over by Sunni rulers, who focused on crushing opposition parties or rival elite figures rather than shielding themselves from competing sects or clans.

An underlying sense of fear was also perpetuated by intelligence agencies, or mukhabarat, that employed spies at every level of society. This was manifested in different ways in different countries. Egypt or Bahrain did not feel oppressive day-to-day, but Syria was another story. Men in lurid shirts and leather jackets loitered in hotel lobbies, hiding behind newspapers and listening to the conversations that went on. It was casually assumed that phones were tapped and on no account was any political conversation to be undertaken in taxis, whose drivers were widely believed to be informants. One in Damascus openly admitted that he worked for Syrian intelligence, describing how he had been based in Beirut before the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian forces but by 2010 was forced to supplement his paltry civil servant’s salary with taxi fares.

Intelligence agencies operated in a legal grey area, carrying out arrests and operating secret jails where political prisoners, numbering thousands, were abused or tortured. Many of these prisoners were Islamists, but any journalist or academic worth his salt could expect to be in and out of jail on trumped-up charges, or no charges at all.

The Syrian regime had maintained emergency law since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963, Egypt had done so since 1981 and for long stretches before that, while in Algeria emergency law had been in place since 1992. This effectively suspended constitutional protections and gave rulers much wider scope for arbitrary arrests. It meant that a journalist who stepped over the line could suddenly find him- or herself in a military or security court on charges of undermining national security that would normally be reserved for cases of terrorism or espionage. The absence of the rule of law meant that no one knew exactly what was permitted and what was not, forcing critics to play a dangerous game of self-censorship as they tried to make their point without tripping up on one of the many red lines that criss-crossed the public sphere.

But it was not all repression. Authoritarian rulers also built alliances among prominent tribes, families and business elites to bolster their rule. Libya’s Gaddafi rewarded the clans who helped him to recruit fighters in the war against Chad with plum government jobs, or put the scions of loyal families in charge of public sector companies. In Syria, the ruler was Alawite but the established Sunni business families were among the main beneficiaries of Assad’s economic liberalization policies of the 2000s. In Saudi Arabia and among some Sunni monarchies, political bonds were strengthened through marriage, much as they had been among European aristocracies in centuries past.

The economic reforms introduced in Syria, in Tunisia, in Libya and beyond had lifted the pall of oppression that hung over these countries in the 1980s and 1990s. New cafés, restaurants and shops opened up. Foreign high-street brands arrived in upmarket districts. The lot of most Syrians and Libyans had improved a great deal since the 1980s, when imports were effectively banned but local industries could not produce enough goods of sufficient quality to meet demand. Yet such reforms were intended to protect the incumbent rulers by relieving economic discontent and staving off calls for deeper change.

Facing US pressure or domestic demand, some Arab dictatorships and dynasties even introduced more meaningful elections, but they worked to curtail any concrete changes the ballot box might bring. When one party can change the laws to its benefit, can wield the security forces to intimidate its opponents, the judiciary to jail its critics and the state-run media to campaign on its behalf, there is no real choice. Either electorates were not allowed to vote freely or the body that they were voting for lacked any meaningful powers. This system proved effective on at least two fronts. Firstly, it applied a veneer of plurality to systems that were in reality based on a single party that saw itself as the state. Secondly, it divided the opposition. After years underground, some activists felt that, since they could not beat the system, they should try to change it from the inside.

Together with this ran the promotion of a cult of personality. Rulers projected the image that they would be there for eternity and that, if they were not, their son or other relative was waiting in the wings. A giant poster showing Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, his son, the crown prince, and his uncle, the prime minister, hung from the side of a building just a few metres from the Pearl roundabout where protests would be concentrated in early 2011. In Libya, billboards were filled not with ads but with pictures of Gaddafi showing the number of years he had been in power. Faded posters showing the Colonel next to a large number 39 were juxtaposed with newer ones of Gaddafi 40 or 41. Visitors could buy Gaddafi watches, baseball caps and T-shirts from shops in central Tripoli.

Alongside this crude propaganda that appeared to belong to another era, Arab rulers demonstrated a knack for ‘upgrading authoritarianism’ to survive the challenges posed not only by globalization but also by new media and the growing international emphasis on human rights. One of several tactics they employed was to curtail, co-opt, compete with and thereby undermine efforts to build a strong civil society through the creation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Arab NGOs first started to proliferate in the 1980s, largely in response to openings from above. Authoritarian rulers apparently thought that tolerating small and powerless groups would burnish their democratic credentials abroad while incurring little cost at home. But local NGOs that focused on issues from human rights to corruption eventually became a thorn in their sides. Rather than attract bad press by banning all groups, they harassed and repeatedly detained offending members. They introduced laws that required NGOs to register, which then allowed the state to legally reject troublesome critics, limit their sources of funding, or restrict the scope of their activities. While weakening independent groups, Arab governments also set about sponsoring semi-official NGOs that received privileged access to donors, conferences and officials. These could not act independently and were muted in their criticism while competing for funds and publicity with the weaker and smaller independent groups.

Many of these government NGOs, or GONGOs, were led by the glamorous wives of Arab kings and presidents, and were dismissed by grassroots activists as ‘First Ladies’ Clubs’. Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president, was the sponsor of seven NGOs focused on issues such as youth, women’s rights and rural development. All operated under the umbrella of the Syria Trust for Development, which she also chaired, and which advertised itself as a non-profit and non-government organization through which the state would partner with local NGOs to foster development. Yet it was notoriously difficult for any rights-based NGOs to operate legally in Syria, which is home to 1,500 civil society groups compared to 5,000 in its much smaller but much freer neighbour Lebanon.

Gushing Western media coverage also made it easier to present a sanitized view of developments in the Arab world. Asma al-Assad was glamorous, charming, British-born, and the subject of a fawning Vogue story which described the democratic principles governing her family’s life, and was published the same month that Mubarak was overthrown. Jordan’s Queen Rania, another beautiful first lady, boasted a string of accolades from Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year to a place on Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list, thanks to her work for charity and for NGOs that sought to empower women. These first ladies were popular abroad, but their unveiled, slick and empowered images bore little resemblance to the lives of ordinary women and made no mention of the undemocratic ways of their husbands.

If one generalization could be made about countries as different as Yemen and Tunisia, it is that their rulers were survivors, adept at repressing or co-opting their enemies and adapting to changes, from the end of the Cold War to the rise of social media. They had simply been around so long that they exuded an air of stability that masked the growing discontent among their people.

The Arab Exception

The club of Arab dictators had proven so resilient that a whole body of academic literature and journalistic commentary had developed to explain why emerging countries were industrializing, growing, creating jobs and shifting towards more representative government, while the Middle East fell ever further behind. Pundits spoke of the ‘Arab exception’, unfavourably comparing Arab countries first to Asia’s ‘tiger economies’, then to the BRICs, the rising powers of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

There were several permutations to the ‘Arab exception’ argument, ranging from the suggestion that these societies were simply not ‘ready’ for democracy because their patriarchal nature predisposed them to authoritarian rule, to the opinion that Islam, as a religion, was intrinsically incompatible with democracy. Another explanation was that the United States had propped up authoritarian rulers in countries including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia because a confluence of geopolitical interests in the region – its desire to defend Israel, to ensure a steady supply of affordable oil, to hold back Iranian influence following the 1979 revolution, and to curtail any Islamist threat – trumped any ideological desire to spread democracy.

The US commitment to protecting Israel’s security has, indeed, led it to work closely with leaders in Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, all of whom signed peace deals with the Jewish state, and to apply pressure to those who had not. When Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat broke ranks and signed a unilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the deal was sealed with the promise of $1.3 billion a year in US aid and unwavering support from Washington. The Camp David peace accord won back Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which had been captured by the Jewish state in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but cost Sadat his life in 1981, when he was assassinated by an Islamist militant.

So unpopular was the agreement both at home and among other Arab states, that Sadat’s funeral was attended by three former US presidents, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but only one Arab leader. Once host to the Arab League, Egypt had been thrown out and its leader was as unpopular among his own people as he was in the region. Sadat’s economic liberalization, or infitah, policies also cemented Egypt’s shift from the Soviet into the Western sphere and, though they provoked bread riots in 1977, the reforms were lauded by the United States.

US financial, military and political support continued under Sadat’s successor. Mubarak worked with the United States and Israel to enforce a blockade of Gaza that began in 2007, with the aim of isolating Hamas, despite television images of widespread civilian suffering and protests on the streets of Cairo. Even as thousands of Egyptian protesters braved tear gas and rubber bullets to demand Mubarak’s resignation in 2011, US officials appeared reluctant to admit that his record on human rights and democracy was, to put it mildly, an embarrassment.

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