International Politics Redux
Kings and Pawns - How the Arab Spring Failed to Topple Middle Eastern Monarchs

The Arab monarchies have weathered the revolutions of the Arab Spring surprisingly well for supposedly autocratic regimes.  As corrupt and parochial governments are toppled and replaced in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria (which is just a matter of time), not a single monarchy within the Arab world has been overthrown.

These countries’ governments are ostensibly republican in nature, but all this really means is that a charismatic strongman and his family’s tribal affiliations dominate the society. In all of these places, the regime in power is also backed by the military and is opposed by Islamists and fundamentalists of all stripes.  This is why the well mobilized and extremely motivated Islamist parties are shaping events in Arab monarchies in profound ways that would have been unthinkable just two or three years ago.  In Egypt for example, not only do Islamists dominate the post-authoritarian political system’s legislature, but a member of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood has even ascended to the presidency. To be fair, however, the president’s powers are still in doubt since the constitution has yet to be written and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still controls the military, retains executive power, wields significant influence over the judiciary, and receives billions of dollars per year in American foreign assistance.

So how have the kingdoms, sheikhdoms and emirates of the Arab world managed to survive?  Oil helps.  The monarchs of the Arabian Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – are all rich in energy and have been able to mollify their populations with bribes and handouts, or “subsidies”.  The Bahraini royal family even absconded by inviting Saudi and Emirati armed forces to help with the military crackdown on their own population.  But King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Mohammed VI of Morocco are not so fortunate in energy resources, yet they too have survived this long.  Perhaps they are well insulated by some manufactured legitimacy of the ruling monarchy among the country’s people that took place over the course of decades of constancy.  Cosmetic changes have been made in both these countries to their respective political systems, governing legislatures, and bureaucracies, and somehow these changes have been enough to keep protestors from ousting those regimes like they did in neighbouring North African countries and the in southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Arab Monarchies are far from invincible, though.  They have been decimated before, just not during the revolutionary turmoil that has shaken the region since late 2010.  The Arab Kingdom of Syria existed for four short months in 1920 and was abruptly terminated by the French as they assumed control of the Lebanese and Syrian territories under League of Nations mandates following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.  King Faisal of Syria was hastily installed by the British as ruler of Iraq as a consolation prize, a country which he managed to administer as a family business until the late 1950s.  The Muhammad Ali dynasty reigned over Egypt and Sudan for almost 150 years, ending in King Farouk’s demise after the Free Officers Coup of 1952.  The Mutawakkalite Kingdom of Yemen existed in some form or another in what is now Yemen for much of the early and mid-twentieth century, but finally dissolved in the struggle between North and South Yemen, a brutal civil war that lasted from the 1960s until the late 1980s.

In Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Yemen, from the 1920s through the 1960s, royalist forces were deposed in military coups and replaced by authoritarian despots.  Now many of these same staunchly secular, republican-inspired governments are facing widespread popular disenchantment with their rule.  For some reason, these countries’ governments remain permanently insecure, while the monarchies of Jordan, Morocco and the Arabian Gulf continue to build their own legitimacy and support networks, coalescing most concretely in the economic and political union that is the Gulf Cooperation Council.  The enigma with this latest round of revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East is that these kingdoms are seemingly immune to the same populist pressures afflicting nearby governments which are every bit as repressive.

Whatever the eventual fate of these countries, it is an interesting phenomenon to note that the monarchies of the Arab World have all tenaciously clung to survival amidst the unpredictability of the so-called Arab Spring.  Strategically speaking, these royal families have all fallen to some extent under the influence of the proverbial elephant in the room, the United States.  Monarchism in the Arab geopolitical context has become synonymous with Americanism, so any fall from grace among these quasi-client states’ regimes would inevitably impact America’s role in the Middle East drastically.  From global energy supplies to the War on Terror, these monarchies have cooperated with the world’s sole superpower to ensure stability and security in their part of the world.  Therefore, what happens next to the rulers of these royal realms could have unimaginable ripple effects across the region and indeed, the world.

Arab democracy: Just a revolution away?

Much has been made in the past year about the prospects for democracy in the Arab world after the unexpected revolutions that began in Tunisia spread like wildfire throughout the rest of North Africa and the Middle East.  The US-based NGO Freedom House touted the accomplishments of the Arab Spring in its annual report, Freedom in the World 2012: “In a region that had seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of activist reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing dictators who had spent decades entrenching themselves in power.”  More than one year after it all began, does the democratic hype really live up to the revolutionary reality?

To better understand this question, consider how these revolutions have played out differently in different Arab states. In Bahrain, for instance, popular demands among the majority Shiites for representative government, constitutional democracy and respect for human rights have been stonewalled by the dominant Sunni monarchy, mainly because of external intervention on behalf of its Gulf Arab neighbours and its geopolitical alliance with the United States.  To its credit, the Bahraini government did authorize an independent commission to investigate the causes, killings and injustices of the so-called Pearl Revolution.  Released in late 2011, this report has been surprisingly candid in detailing human rights abuses committed by the regime and making public policy recommendations for the minority monarchy to reform its politically unrepresentative system.  The Bahraini case shows us how the revolutions in some countries have simply failed.

In other places, mass protests have yielded modest reforms on the part of benevolent autocrats – progress, to be sure, but nothing like a genuine revolution.  This reaction is typical of the more progressive monarchies of the region, like Morocco and Jordan, which have shrewdly managed limited reforms and maintained steady levels of popularity, thus ensuring their own survival.  The sheikhs and emirs of the Gulf, as in Kuwait and Oman, have made modest reforms too, just not the political kind.  Together with Saudi Arabia, these oil-rich countries spent at least $150 billion on their citizens in new economic grants and subsidies, effectively bribing their own people into submission – and since September 2011, that sum has only increased.  Here, evolution is a much better descriptor of the changes taking place than revolution.

Then there are the cases of ongoing revolutionary turmoil, the most prominent examples being Yemen and Syria.  After agreeing and to step down and then reneging on that commitment more times than most care to count, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to have finally ended his 33-year rule after he bid farewell to the country and headed to the US for ‘medical treatment.’  Even with national elections scheduled for later in February, Yemen needs at least $15 billion to survive the transition to democracy – an impossible feat for a country wracked by mass poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment, separatism and terrorism.  Similar forces are fueling popular outrage in Syria, with the various opposition groups coalescing around their opposition to four decades of the al-Assad family’s authoritarian rule and increasingly bloody crackdowns.  The stability and legitimacy of these regimes is extremely tenuous, and the political destinies of these countries are extremely fluid as a result at this point in time.

What about the post-revolutionary scenarios?  In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it is now possible to discuss free and fair elections, civilian government as opposed to military control, independent judiciaries, freedom of the press, the rule of law and constitutional principles as never before.  In Tunisia the Salafi Islamist hardliners are beginning to openly challenge the ruling Ennahda Party’s moderate Islamist dedication to these principles.  The Transitional National Council in Libya faces enormous challenges preparing a country with no representative political institutions and no history of democracy for elections this summer while maintaining law and order, battling the remnants of pro-Qaddafi troops, unifying dozens of armed tribal factions, and facing fresh allegations of torture.  Although elections have been held in Egypt, they have handed Islamists with questionable commitments to democratic values over two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and glossed over the civil-military tensions between Egypt’s government and the ruling generals.

To get back to the original question, democracy as we know it in the West is far from assured in any of these revolutionary countries.  Many of them are still undergoing traumatic transitions in which the removal of the old guard has not yet given way to a stable post-authoritarian political order.  In other cases, a dictatorial figurehead has been substituted for an equally oppressive administration, dashing public hopes for democratic governance.  Only in a select few country cases does genuine transformation of the entire system of governance seem to be on the horizon, and even then a hybrid Islamic democracy (Tunisia) or a reformist democratic Islam (Morocco) might better reflect the will of the people.

Who knows if a full-fledged, representative democracy is the inevitable end-result of all these protests, uprisings and revolutions?  As many of these national leaders crackdown on dissent and adapt to survive, it is simply too early to say if entrenched authoritarianism will surrender to the forces of popular self-determination or continue fighting the losing battle for despotism.  The two new Islamist prime ministers of Morocco and Tunisia publicly defended the prospects for Arab democracy at this year’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Only time will tell if other states in the region emulate the Tunisian and Moroccan models of democracy in this second year of the Arab Spring.  Regardless, an astonishing amount of progress has already been made since that first domino fell in the fateful month of January 2011 that it is difficult in these revolutionary times not to be optimistic – at last – about the future of the Middle East.

The Arab Revolutions Considered

2011 could be characterized as the year of the Arab.  The year has yet to end, and several Arab regimes, relics of an age quickly gone by, have been toppled by their own people.  The pattern is by now familiar: popular protest in the streets, the capital city swarmed by the disaffected masses as new flags and populist slogans make their appearances.  Then the crackdown begins, brutality and repression remind the world of how these authoritarian despots ever attained and remained in power in the first place.  Funeral processions for the martyrs follow and even bigger crowds are drawn into the streets as these mourning events coincide with Friday night prayers or religious holidays on the Islamic calendar.  This cycle repeats itself, rallies followed by repression followed by more rallies, until something gives.  Eventually, the old sovereign surrenders power to the collective force of the citizenry or is defeated in long and drawn out bloodbaths between the rebellion and the establishment.  In any case, inevitable regime change is afoot in the Middle East, and it is changing the nature of the region’s politics.

Consider what has happened up until now.  Barring Bouazizi, Ben Ali arguably began this chain reaction by refusing to militarily crush the protests in Tunisia and fleeing to Saudi Arabia instead.  This directly inspired the Egyptians to march on Cairo’s Tahrir Sqaure in Egypt and pressure Mubarak to step down, in effect ceding power to the highly regarded military establishment.  The following outbreaks of revolution were no so peaceful.  Libya descended into civil war almost as soon as protests spread from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to other coastal cities, threatening Qaddafi’s hold on the capital city of Tripoli.  Activists in Yemen and Syria publicly organized anti-regime protests for the first time in decades, prompting both Saleh and Assad to wage open warfare on their own people, deploying heavy machinery in residential areas and massacring unarmed protesters.  Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority rose up against the Khalifa ruling family, but little change resulted because fellow Sunni monarchs in the Arabian Gulf actively suppressed this uprising.  Nobody could have predicted change like this just one year ago.

As of December 2011, three Arab despots have been removed from power: Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi.  Two more are fighting for their very survival: Saleh in Yemen and Assad in Syria, with little hope for either of them in the early months of 2012.  Arab monarchies have felt the same populist pressures, but have succeeded so far in avoiding the fate of their secular autocratic neighbours.  The massive oil wealth of the Gulf Arabs prolongs their popularity and subsidizes their survival.  Others, like Jordan and Morocco, have amended their constitutions or replaced the sitting parliaments in an effort to appease the protesters, cosmetic changes which seem to have worked for the time being.  But what are the long-term implications of such rapid and massive structural changes?

Three worrying trends are immediately apparent: democracy, inequality and instability.  The rationale for intervention from Western countries in Arab revolutions (from Libya lately to Syria soon) has been twofold, humanitarianism and democratization.  First protect the civilian population from the dictator’s massacres, then remove the dictator and install democratic government.  The problem is that democracy is not automatic: in Tunisian and Moroccan elections, for example, the first and fairest of the Arab uprisings, Islamist parties have garnered the most votes and have led coalitions in both countries to form national governments.  Even the transitional governments in Egypt and Libya have encountered practical difficulties in rewriting constitutions and organizing elections, which means that democracy might not be the end result in these situations, regardless of how ideal it may be.

Unequal and unstable conditions are also unlikely to disappear any time soon.  Poor performance along basic social measures like inequality, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, malnutrition, infrastructure, and life expectancy, while improving somewhat, still threaten to derail any progress achieved by toppling dictators in the Arab world.  Dissatisfaction with one’s quality of life can just as easily be directed against newborn democracies as it was against the former dictators and despots.  Instability breeds inequality, however, since the foreign infusions of capital and investment needed to remedy this state of affairs will not materialize if potential investors lack any security.  Strategic oil and gas conduits must also remain open for the energy-hungry world to support these kinds of structural changes in this part of the world.  In addition to stabilizing national governments, this means also avoiding international wars, also an unlikely scenario in such an unpredictable region.

Another more global concern is the international community’s growing tendency to violate supposedly inviolable legal and normative precedents when it suits powerful interests to do so.  For example, the original pretext for the NATO-led intervention in Libya only secured support from the Arab League and United Nations because it aimed to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from slaughtering thousands of Libyan civilians.  It became obvious almost immediately that the unstated goal of this operation was to remove Qaddafi from power and enable regime change, as Western heads of state and foreign ministers repeatedly claimed.  This is a violation of international legal jurisdiction.  In a related case, the United Nations included an arms embargo in the push to authorize humanitarian intervention in Libya, but France overtly (in addition to the covert actions of other NATO countries) parachuted munitions into rebel strongholds in the Libyan mountain ranges.  This clearly violates arms proliferation norms.  Finally, in the case of the Syrian uprising which has only taken up arms recently, Syrian military defectors and other rebel leaders have taken refuge and received military protection across the border in Turkey.  From this base of operations, they have repeatedly launched cross-border raids and incursions into Syria, attacking military buildings and groups affiliated with the government in clear violation of the norms of national sovereignty and territorial inviolability.  As morally justifiable as these actions may seem against one of the world’s biggest violators of human rights, they cannot be defined as legal.

The wave of unrest sweeping across the Arab world is far from over.  Up until now, the long-term strategic consequences of such a momentous event have been overlooked and understudied.  As the Arab world voices its demands, a window for democratic change in the Middle East presents itself.  Whether that window is opened and democracy indeed replaces despotism remains to be seen, but it remains the civic duty and ethical obligation of every democratic society to do what it can to encourage reform and catalyze progress.  It is difficult to say how a more representative and politically engaged Middle East will differ from yesterday’s, but at the very least it will be a more hopeful one.

The Media and the Middle East

When Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the provincial Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid on December 28, 2010, to protest his inability as a fruit vendor to obtain a simple license to sell his wares at the local market from the government, nobody could have predicted the chain of events that has since led to revolutions in Tunisia and the wider Arab World.  Only ten days after Bouazizi died from his self-inflicted wounds on January 4, 2011, anti-regime protests forced the Tunisian President of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine ben-Ali, to flee the country with his family and inner circle.  By January 14, 2011, the Tunisian case had set the trend for the rest of the region, with popular pressure forcing the Egyptian President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, to hand power over to the much-respected military and retire to the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on February 11, 2011, only 18 days after massive demonstrations began!  In both of these cases, the Tunisian and Egyptian governments and militaries refused to crack down violently on protestors, and the message that peaceful revolution was possible spread to neighbouring Arab states.  But how did these revolutions succeed in the first place, and how have they managed to inspire populist uprisings elsewhere without any central planning or organization?

Without the modern media in the form of privately-owned newspapers, satellite television stations, smartphone-enabled citizen journalism, Internet-based blogging sites, and social media networks, these modern revolutions would have been impossible.  Take, for example, the fact that Al Jazeera – the Qatari-based satellite TV network with journalists reporting on the ground in practically every Arab state undergoing some type of civil unrest – was temporarily banned from Egyptian households by Mubarak’s supporters, their government-issued accreditation was revoked by the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, and they have had reporters harassed and a cameraman even killed by pro-regime forces in Libya.  While these state-sponsored acts targeted Al Jazeera directly, they represent an attack by the region’s fundamentally unrepresentative and increasingly threatened authoritarian regimes on all democratically-motivated and transnationally-oriented revolutionary movements in the Middle East.  In other words, as the principles of democracy, transparency, accountability, empowerment, and social justice are championed locally by the international media, the traditional autocrats inimical to these modern qualities react with gradually more erratic, barbaric and unacceptable measures.

Ever since the apparent successes of Tunisia and Egypt, similar anti-government revolutionary movements have taken place in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain, each with varying degrees of effectiveness in achieving their goals.  Part of the problem is that state-owned media networks often compete directly with the private and international media to feed the public their version of reality.  When government-run media stations lose control of the dominant narrative, they cut off access to foreign news sources by blocking satellite signals, revoking licences, disconnecting service providers, censoring the Internet, shutting down offices and physically deporting journalistic staff.  Until the very last days of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, local media virtually ignored the millions of people protesting in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  Throughout Muammar Qaddafi’s struggle to militarily defeat the rebellion in Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s repressive crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria, for instance, ordinary citizens consuming local radio, newspaper and television broadcasts are bombarded by government lies, propaganda and misinformation on a daily basis.

Even more interestingly, local media networks controlled by national governments can construct diametrically-opposed realities on stories of international significance.  The regional tug-of-war pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other with Bahrain in the middle demonstrates this effect perfectly.  Bahrain is a majority-Shiite but Sunni-led Gulf state in which the Shiite opposition’s popular demands for better treatment in employment, housing and infrastructure have been received by the al-Khalifa ruling family with heavy-handed crackdowns.  Under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional security alliance, friendly Sunni monarchies responded to the King of Bahrain’s request for assistance by dispatching their militaries to the Bahraini capital of Manama and forcefully pacifying the protesters.  This is where fact and fiction collide: while the Sunni and Saudi-owned al-Arabiya satellite television station reported this event as a cooperative military intervention necessary for territorial integrity and regional stability, the Shiite and Iranian-owned al-Alam (Arabic) station decried it as an imperial military invasion that interfered in Bahrain’s sovereign affairs.  However events unfold in Bahrain, the point is that without truly independent media, governments are still able to create and control the narratives.

For the two North African Arab states which precipitated the so-called Arab Spring, it is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on why the ruling families refrained from turning their powerful security, military and paramilitary forces on their own people in the way that other Arab dictators have done.  Although Egypt and Tunisia represent more homogeneous societies than those in Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, popular discontent remains a constant feature of the region.  What these demonstrators have recognized and capitalized upon is the power of the media to mobilize the message of the revolution and deliver it to the rest of the world instantaneously.  Whereas mere decades ago the government could control the message, massacre its own population and continue on with business as usual, international public opinion pressures these regimes to substantially modify their behaviour.  Not only are these individual Arab revolutions national in nature, they collectively represent a much broader media revolution in international politics.  Power is rapidly diffusing from governments to populations, aided by transnational networks and encouraged by international awareness.  If these changes usher in more democratic and representative governments, the long-suppressed peoples of the Middle East may finally be able to determine their own destinies and participate in creating a more modern world.