The Arab Spring: Where do we go from here?
In less than two weeks I have seen two of the world’s top experts on the Middle East speak at the University of Denver: Columbia Professor Richard Bulliet, and Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Vali Nasr. Consequently, my knowledge and understanding of recent events and the history of the region has probably expanded by roughly 3,000%.
The Middle East and its political, religious and social contours is an area I have always felt shamefully under-informed about. Like a stubborn child who never came to a resolution with a distant parent, I imagined I would be on my death bed regretting this fact, since there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the world sometimes to even begin to know where to start with this hugely complex region. Thanks to the Religious Studies Department at DU, and the Center for Middle East Studies at Korbel, however, it turns out I don’t have to think about that. Instead, all I had to do was show up to these talks and be spoon-fed glorious insights from these Middle East experts.
Besides his previously mentioned credentials, Vali Nasr is about to be most well-known as the author of a soon-to-be released and controversial book titled “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat” in which he critiques the Obama administration’s foreign policy. In doing so, he has become the first leading figure from within the Obama administration’s circle of advisors to provide such an analysis. In today’s talk, he gave a diagnosis of the causes of the Arab Spring, a delineation of its effects to date within the region, and a prognosis of the challenges and opportunities it represents: both for those living through it in the Middle East, and for US foreign policy.
Engaging in diagnosis, Nasr stated that three factors have been commonly highlighted as consequential to the unfolding of the Arab Spring, in which mass uprisings culminated in the fall of governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen: “Bad economics”, “authoritarian fatigue”, and the “youth bulge” (not as embarrassing as it sounds, it turns out). Essentially, the region had been suffering for an extended period of time from poorly managed economies as a whole, characterised by low rates of growth and declining standards of living. Concomitantly, its populations had grown tired of authoritarian governance (Nasr didn’t suggest why, but I suppose one does not need to question why people might tire of authoritarian governance…). Add to the mix the fact that 65% of the population of the region as a whole today count as “youth” – often jobless and representing a segment of the populace generally more willing to take risks and challenge authority – and the stage was set for a combustible situation.
But why 2010? Nasr proposed several externally-induced factors which interacted to ignite the Arab tinderbox: Access to smart phones, satellite TV and the Al-Jazeera television network in particular, and the issue of food security. Contrary to some reports that place access to online social networks at the heart of the Middle East’s protest movements, social networking and Twitter were not as critical as simply more advance mobile phone technology, claimed Nasr. Looking back to Iran’s pre-Arab Spring uprisings of 2009 he noted that Iranians participating did not even have access to “data” on their smart phones that would have allowed access to online social networks at this time. On its part, Al Jazeera news facilitated a “firewall jumping effect”, by which images of protest spread throughout the region, inspiring similar protest action cross-nationally.
The place of food security in the puzzle of the Arab Spring seems to highlight a growing challenge for scholars and policymakers, characterised as it was by Nasr as representing a clash of “old” and “new” politics. “New politics” in the form of climate change helped precipitate the food security problem which in turn led to a political challenge: droughts and the squeezing of rural economies and rising food prices heightened immiseration and contributed to a willingness to confront authority. It would seem that the fact that “new political” issues such as climate change remain under-operationalised in political analysis suggests one reason why the Arab Spring took so many by surprise. Yet another example, then, of where the rigid compartmentalisation of issues within particular categories of scholarly work (politics vs. social studies vs. natural sciences…) has been shown to be left wanting as an approach.
Nasr also focused on the role of the “upwardly mobile” middle class in “un-Arab” Tunisia as critical to events. The launch pad of the the Arab Spring, Tunisia, is “un-Arab”, he claims, in the sense that it was globally integrated, had been growing at annual averages of 7-9%, has an 80% literacy rate and a burgeoning middle class. Conversely, its integration and capitalistic character made Tunisia more susceptible than other Arab nations to economic malaise stemming from the global downturn which began with the financial crisis of 2008. Nasr argues Tunisia’s “un-Arabness” was important in the sense that the self-immolation of the now notorious street vendor, upon which mainstream media simplistically heaped primary responsibility for the protests in its initial phases, would have been but a “tree falling in the forest” unheard if it weren’t for the role of an internet savvy and connected middle class in Tunisia. It was they who commented on and reacted to the situation, spun it into a movement, and raised its international profile.
Post Arab Spring, challenges exist – both for the region, and for the US. “The Arab Spring was to the Middle East as a whole what the US was to Iraq,” said Nasr: A “seismic shift” which has opened a Pandora’s box, wherein an internal identity crisis is now playing out. While this analogy may involve a somewhat uncomfortable glossing over of the top-down/dubiously-motivated nature of the US-imposed Iraq War, in contrast to the organic, bottom-up nature of the political earthquake that the Arab Spring represents, it is nonetheless pertinent in a limited but important sense: like Iraq, the region now needs to settle an identity crisis, which relates to who gets access to political power and the “spoils of the State”. This crisis primarily revolves around the status of Sunni Arabs versus Shia Arabs in various countries, and ultimately extends to who speaks for the Arab world as a whole. In this regard, Nasr echoed Professor Bulliet of Columbia, who argued that we have entered a critical phase in which it must be determined where political authority lies in the Arab world, having shifted throughout this millenia from the Caliph (supreme religious leader), to Mecca, and now – towards Islamic political parties seeking power through the ballot box.
Nasr characterized the Arab Spring, by its nature, as having left Arabs “empowered but leaderless”. It was an “amorphous” movement and one which different groups have now sought to assume dominion over, but with unassured success, because they (for example, Morsi of Egypt) never represented its charismatic leader. Nonetheless, liberal forces are disorganised, argued Nasr, and political Islam in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood is assuming an advantageous political position in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is in no small part because it has acted in many ways as a “defacto” government in many countries since prior to the movement, providing social services where governments failed and having a grassroots “relationship with society” that liberal forces lacked.
A related consequence of the Spring is the morphing of Al-Qaeda into a political movement. In this regard, Nasr had a slightly different take on the effect of the Arab Spring on Al Qaeda than that of Professor Stephen Zunes, Chair of the University of San Francisco’s Middle East Program and another analyst of the Arab Spring who spoke at Korbel earlier this month. While Zunes suggested that the Arab Spring had somewhat disempowered Al-Qaeda, drawing wind from its sails by demonstrating the power of non violent social movements to achieve political change versus terrorist organisations, Nasr extended this analysis, adding that in response, Al-Qaeda has shifted to take on an increasingly political form. In this regard, Nasr noted that in Syria Al-Qaeda is going by another name, calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra (the al Nusra front).
This outcome, said Nasr, is just one of many that the US did not anticipate. The question now for the US is “how to ride this tiger”. Effectively, the aftermath of the Arab Spring reveals a “big hole in US strategy,” he argues (here echoing Pankaj Mishra, in his recent talk to Korbel). Underlying this is the fact that the US has been accustomed for too long to viewing the Arab world as a unified region, largely dominated by dictators who supported US interests. Within this framework, there was no “Balkan scenario”. Now, however, infighting dominates. As Korbel’s Dean Christopher Hill, the discussant at the event, noted afterwards, the US tends to focus on “politics” above all in considering how to formulate its response to complex situations. In the Middle East, where issues of “faith and identity” come before politics, this subverts a nuanced reaction to the evolving reality in which politics plays a supporting role.
All the while, the “bad economics” which helped bring the Arab Spring to fruition have only gotten worse. What little economic growth there was, what little foreign direct investment, has fallen off precipitously, leaving yet more room for disenfranchisement, discontent and instability. In this regard, Nasr called for more economic and financial engagement from the West, in the form of IMF loans, among other things.
While I know far too little about the Middle East to critique Nasr’s analysis and recommendations, this issue of the IMF’s role I found challenging, particularly given Nasr’s emphasis on joblessness and declining living standards as major challenges facing the region’s governments. As we have seen in Greece, IMF programs come with conditions – austerity (less government spending), cuts in the public sector (more unemployment). They are painful and mostly induce further social dislocation and instability – not to mention protests and even the rise of extremism. Contary to Nasr’s claim that there has be effectively zero engagement on this level with the Middle East, the IMF has in fact been in talks with Egypt over a bailout, which comes with a massive and politically unpopular austerity package.
I put it to Nasr after the talk that IMF engagement may only lead to more instability in the region (at the very least in the short to medium term). He in turn emphasized that something must be done to turn around the “bad economics” of the Middle East, adding that it should not be the IMF acting alone, but instead the IMF in conjunction with aid packages and other economic support from the US and other western economies. I would still question whether IMF structural adjustment is the most productive answer, if loans came in their usual form. But then again, I’m not the Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies…
(And if anyone comments to ask me why I am writing verbose summaries of the content of events I’m attending instead of writing my actual coursework – I’m flagging you as spam! But no, in all seriousness, it’s called the journalism sickness. I’ve recognised it as a problem, and I’m dealing with it…;)
Posted on February 26, 2013, in Josef Korbel School of International Studies and tagged Arab Spring, Dispensable Nation, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Middle East, Richard Bulliet, University of Denver Center for Middle East Studies, Vali Nasr. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.