Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Arab History

One year ago yesterday, I noticed a news item about protests in southern Tunisia. Although I had intended to take a blogging break until after the new year, I sensed in these protests a new social movement of some significance, and so put up a post, and continued following the story the next two days (1, 2, 3). I definitely did not expect them to succeed in toppling the regime, and even when they did I was skeptical that they would lead to similar movements elsewhere. They did, however, and the result was what many have called the "Arab Spring," a year of popular activism which toppled old regimes and led to a rebirth of hope across the Arab world.

As a historian, I recognize the hubris in the title of this post, since we can only speculate what the immediate consequences of these uprisings might be, much less what will stand out about them after decades or a century. At most, we can say that these events will continue to be contested in political rhetoric, secondary education classrooms, and public history displays, as politicians and various social forces strive to shape their legacy and place themselves within it. Nonetheless, it seems worthwhile to offer some thoughts about aspects of these ongoing events that, to me at least, seem early candidates for consideration.

One of these aspects may lie in their origins. Leaving aside Kuwait, where popular protests have been having an impact for years, we can look at a group of countries where monarchies with colonial ties were, in the name of national independence, replaced by regimes based in the military or other security services. This also usually led to different social classes gaining power and influence in society, as the old urban notable and landowning families saw themselves targeted as a rival power center. Something like this also happened in Iraq in 1958, although the 2003 Anglo-American invasion meant that the successor regime of the 1958 "revolution" was gone before the year started. The exception which proves the rule is Syria, which had not had a king since 1920, but where the governing National Bloc was still based on the power of the old notables and landowners. As others have noted, the states which did not have these upheavals, which means those that remain monarchies today, as well as Lebanon and Algeria, have also seen little "Arab Spring" action. This is enough of a pattern that it could point toward some interesting socio-political roots of what we've seen in the past year and are seeing now.

Those regimes which had the least social basis fell most swiftly. Tunisia's wealthy elite wasn't going to take up arms to defend Ben Ali, and Egypt's military chose to manage the transition rather than prop up Mubarak. Other countries have seen tribal or sectarian groups who stood to lose a benefactor fight on behalf of the old system, as happened with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq. A key issue going forward will be the ability of new government forms to have a broad constituency among the populace, ideally through elections providing for a rotation of power.

This, however, is tied to another issue. One framework we have seen the past year is that "the nation," meaning the people, is rising up against internal oppressors so as to establish a new government on its own behalf. One question now is how the "nations" will be defined, or what identities will be on people's minds as they act politically. In Iraq, probably moreso than under Saddam Hussein, loyalty to a community of Sunnis, Shi'ites, or Kurds competes with that to Iraq as a whole. Those "Arab Spring" countries with religious differences will face the question of deciding if those differences preclude national unity. This issue might be most explosive in Syria, but for the moment, it is also a subject for discussion in Egypt, where salafis see Christians not as equal citizens, but as a subject population under Muslim rule.

2011 also shows signs of introducing new norms into Arab political life, as the Arab League is now willing to at least pretend to be upset by rulers oppressing their people, especially if those people are Sunni Arabs. In addition, peaceful mass protests have become for many the preferred form of political action, even affecting Hamas rhetoric. This still doesn't work if the government shoots back too much, but then it never has. This development, along with the death of Osama bin Laden, may have completely eliminated the already marginal al-Qaeda-like voices from the Arab political landscape, and could become a thorn in regimes' sides for decades to come.

I have mostly ignored Bahrain in this because it really doesn't fit the pattern, but I don't think interferes with it, either. Although its activists joined in the "Arab Spring" wave, their models are more Kuwait and Iraq than Tunisia and Egypt, and unfortunately, it is a country where mass protests appear to have been successfully contained, though they continue in rural areas. Bahrain shows the effects of the troubling sectarian political framework emanating from Iraq which may prove the region's biggest challenge in the 21st century.

All this is not to proclaim the "Arab Spring" over, especially in the cases of Syria and Bahrain. As I said, it is simply a pause for reflection on the past year, thinking about where it might have come from and what challenges and opportunities might lie ahead, as the Arab world enters what will clearly be a new phase of its political history.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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