Middle East uprisings: Should the protesters take a time out?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 4 2011 1:24 PM

Revolution Fatigue

Should the Middle East protesters take a time out?

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Click image to expand.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

"Revolutions," George Bernard Shaw once said, "have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder." That might be a bit of an overstatement, but in recent days, Shaw's spirit seems to have taken hold, replacing the early, upbeat response to the unrest in the Arab world. Almost gone are the sweeping predictions of a new and improved—and democratic—Middle East. Almost gone is the overeager yearning for swift regime change.

As revolutions "have spread to the more tribal/sectarian societies, it becomes difficult to discern where the quest for democracy stops and the desire that 'my tribe take over from your tribe' begins," Thomas Friedman observed a couple of weeks ago. Of course, democracy is still universally desired, but caution and calculation have taken over. Confusion has settled in.

The Tunisian renaissance doesn't make the Bahraini insurgency, supported by Iran and suppressed with the assistance of Saudi Arabia, any more appealing. The unbridled joy in Cairo's Tahrir Square has been replaced by a sober acknowledgment of political realities. "The fact is that most Egyptian people want the current crisis to end, and for security and economic growth to return, so they agreed to amend the old constitution, despite its flaws," wrote the editor of a leading Arab magazine. Egypt's popular revolt is "on the ropes," and "young, liberal protesters who led the revolution in Tahrir Square are being pushed aside by the military-Muslim Brotherhood complex," Bernard Lewis told the Wall Street Journal.

Regime change got a bad rap during the Bush years, regained some status when the Middle East entered this recent period of instability, but now is back to being problematic. If you want regime change, you need to be more specific: change where?

In Libya? Obama's yes-he-has-one, oh-no-he-doesn't Libya strategy aside, the United States, which previously insisted that Muammar Qaddafi "must go," is now focusing on "the mandate" of humanitarian-crisis prevention in Libya.

In Syria? It is was obvious to everyone that the dangers of a very similar humanitarian crisis didn't push Washington toward similar measures, and the chances of a preventive intervention seem slim. Besides, new rulers might be "far more radical and extreme than the Assad" regime, according to a leading Israeli military analyst.

In Bahrain? "The Bahrain situation is exposing long simmering tensions and rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and carries the danger that it will trigger the next regional war," wrote Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center.

In Yemen? Even as the United States "shifts to seek removal" of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, it does so reluctantly. "We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said recently. That's not surprising. The alternative isn't very appealing, as Daniel Byman wrote in Slate: "It is possible that Gen. Ahmar or another figure would replace Saleh as a new dictator. … More likely, however, a consensus candidate will not emerge or, if he does, will at first be even weaker than Saleh was."

Explaining why the early weeks of Egypt's uprising were more exciting (for some) than the slow-moving upheavals in Libya or Yemen requires specific analysis of each country's circumstances, societies, political realities, and culture. But generally speaking, let's just say that the alternatives in all the above-mentioned countries do not seem comforting—none of them would rekindle the giddy enthusiasm for "change" of just a couple of months ago.

And while some form of change has definitely come to the region, its scope and nature and durability are still far from clear. Slate's great animated map of protests in the Middle East tells only half the story—one of unrest crawling across the region. It doesn't quite convey the adjustability, you might even say the survival skills, of some regimes: unrelenting Qaddafi, the defiant Bahraini monarchy, brutal Assad, the canny military leaders in Cairo. It doesn't quite capture the agility and the willingness to confront protesters that some regimes have displayed. Some will survive because they're brutal enough to persist, and the opposition forces aren't strong enough to overcome their brutality; some will survive because the opposition is fragmented and incoherent. In some cases they will endure with the quiet acquiescence of the international community; in others because the alternatives seem even worse than the status quo.

Consider recent headlines and advances in Middle East affairs. In Egypt, the man at the top was replaced, but a new system hasn't fully emerged. The Iranians have managed to curb initial unrest and are suspiciously happy with the upheaval in other countries. The Bahrainis, assisted by the Saudis, have held the opposition in check. Syria is boiling over, but Assad doesn't seem ready to leave. Even Qaddafi's imminent departure isn't certain. With the exception of Tunisia and Egypt—important exceptions, to be sure, especially the latter—the new Middle East might still look, at least on the outside, surprisingly similar to the old Middle East. The regimes, shaken by recent events, will regroup, recover, reform, and survive.

Disappointments will surely surface as the region simmers down and returns to the normality of regime as usual. But we must not despair, because in most cases, small, gradual changes turn out better than sweeping, earth-shattering revolutions.

Change will eventually come to the Middle East, but it will be a process of many years, even decades, not the exciting, made-for-TV transformation we've gotten used to in recent months. Shaw's spirit might seem cynical, and it is steeped in conservative doubt. But after three months of constantly celebrating unstoppable revolutions, maybe it's time for a healthy dose of skepticism to pollute the mood of the moment. Maybe we need a time out, a chance for the coaches and players to assess what they've gained, what they've lost, and what needs to be done before the decisive period begins.

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