The Reckoning

The Arab Spring, One Year On: Winners and Losers (Part I)

Egyptian protesters shout slogans against the military regime at Tahrir Square in central Cairo on December 21, 2011. This one’s “Too Close to Call.” 

Photograph by Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images.

A year ago, the unrest that came to be known as the Arab Spring had yet to be sprung. The anniversary most point to in retrospect – the self-immolation of a jobless Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, to protest his treatment at the hands of a dictator’s police, took place on December 17, 2010. Within a month, the unrest that began with Bouazizi’s suicide ultimately toppled that dictator.

A year later, the people of Tunisia stand almost alone as outright winners in the wave of protest that began in their jasmine-scented land and spread across the Middle East, into Asia and Europe, and, depending on how you stretch the point, even to Wall Street. (The Guardian’s timeline, which suffers from a bit of the “style over substance” problem, nonetheless provides a good blow-by-blow).

With the holidays and the real anniversaries just ahead, now seems as good a point as any to weigh the winners and losers in all this in terms of international politics. My ratings range from Outright Winner, represented by Tunisia’s good news story, to Biggest Losers, with Iran and Al Qaida vying for that dubious honor. In order to keep this relatively digestible (bloggy, Slatey, however you’d like to phrase it), I’m splitting this into two post: one today, one tomorrow. So .. today, the Outright Winners and the Winners with Caveats. Tomorrow, those Too Close to Call, the Losers on Balance, and The Biggest Losers.


Tunisia: The Jasmine Revolution did the world a favor by making a nonsense of three ridiculous ideas regularly cited by western experts for decades – that Arabs don’t really want democracy, that the Arabs will never move against their strongmen, and that democracy in the Arab would invariably brings the “devil you don’t know” to power. Additionally, by overthrowing a dictatorship with people power rather than violence, Tunisians shamed the violent men who had claimed to speak for the Arabs for decades, from Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as those who thrived on all of those fallacies (Israel’s far right, Arab military dictators, al Qaida). The emergence of a true Arab civil society, a democratically elected government and rational Islamist movement that saw the importance of embracing tolerance created a small earthquake. The earthquake’s reverberations continue with more mixed results, but for Tunisia, this is a win-win story.


Turkey: The Turks have, somewhat deftly, avoided lasting damage from their initial unwillingness to bless NATO’s Libya intervention, and the even more shameful foot-dragging on Syria, whose leader, Bashar al-Assad, had been counted as one of Turkey’s closest allies. As the ongoing flap with Israel shows, when the current Turkish government performs an about face, it does so by cutting its loses, feeling no need to explain the contradictions of its former policy. This is refreshing, and suggests the Turks see themselves as a true “great power.” In each case, Turkish policy turned for the better, and their reputation (and influence) will rise as result.

Democracy: Until the outcomes in Egypt and Libya clarify a bit, it would be tempting fate to declare an outright victory for democracy in the region. Clearly, Arabs (like people everywhere) want democracy; but, like most people, they want a functioning economy and transparent government even more. Those things are compatible, but not necessarily a package. But my money is on democracy in the long run, with many twists and turns along the way.

Monarchy: Monarchy is, by definition, cynical. Before the Arab Spring, the aging, increasingly opulent and out-of-touch rulers of kingdoms around the region appeared to be on their last leg (or at least their last generation). But two different reactions to the Arab Spring have changed this.

The first, typified by Morocco’s King Mohammad VI and Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, was to embrace domestic reform and applaud the fall of secular dictators (who, after all, don’t draw their legitimacy from anything but brute force). Jordan fits this pattern to an extent, though Jordan’s king is deeply disliked and the balancing act between his Bedouin supporters and the more populous Palestinian “East Bankers” may not be sustainable.

The second, led by the Saudis, was to circle the wagons, clamping down on dissent and insisting that the Arab Spring only showed the foolishness of governments not based on divine consent. The Saudi-led intervention on behalf of the monarchy in Bahrain – ostensibly to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold there – probably had the opposite effect and certainly undermined the idea that the Gulf Cooperation Council is a club of equals. On balance, though, the monarchs played their cynical parlor games well, avoiding disasters and using their war chests to buy off domestic opponents. For now, they look like winners.

NATO: Having made a hash of its mission in Iraq – in spite of many instances of individual bravery and sacrifice – the Atlantic Alliance looked like it would repeat the experience in Libya as even major members like Turkey, Spain and Germany initially opposed the mission. But the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi went surprisingly well and showed (as with the early days in Afghanistan, or the Kosovo mission) that the west can influence events on the ground without actually being on the ground. Credit where it is due: European NATO members strained their capabilities to the breaking point to make it happen and still have a long way to go if they’re going to carry their relative weigh in the alliance. But that’s quibbling. The alliance deftly managed to stay far enough from the Libyan political factions to avoid responsibility for policing the aftermath. Good job, generally, for an alliance that really needed a win. Meanwhile, while the world never agreed on how to spell Qaddafi’s name, few of us regret his passing.

Qatar: Sending aircraft (with the UAE) to join the Libya mission, and more importantly, by resisting Saudi demands to shut down al Jazeera coverage of the Bahrain unrest, Qatar showed it will continue to punch above its weight. Unrest in the emirate, meanwhile, is nonexistent – but not (as in Saudi) due to police state tactics. Instead, the Qatari royals mix liberal views, pragmatic diplomacy and enormous state subsidies to create a kind of gilded cage for their subjects. In relative terms, it’s not a bad place for its citizens (though its hired help are another story).  – And, this mix has once again expanded Qatar’s global influence.

France: Generally mistrusted by Arab and Israeli alike in the region, France spearheaded the Libya operation and shouldered about as much of the military burden as it could given its diminished military strength. This was a riskier move than generally acknowledged – France has significant economic interests in the region then beholden to precisely the kind of military regimes Paris pushed for NATO to align itself against. The success of the mission also bolstered NATO, helped the U.S.-French relationship, emboldened the Arab League, and set a precedent for the more restrained use of military force that could be important in the future. C’est si bon.

Tomorrow: Too Close to Call, Losers on Balance, and The Biggest Losers.

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