Sunday, January 30, 2011

Riots in the Arab Street

It started in Tunisia and caught everyone by surprise: pushed beyond endurance by corrupt and incompetent government, people took to the streets and ousted a long-entrenched dictator. The collapse of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia seems to have given people in other countries ideas: protests erupted in Yemen, Jordan and now, momentously, Egypt. Revolution is in the air and there is talk of a 1989-style collapse of dictatorship and springtime of democracy. What are the prospects?

It’s too early to tell, but there’s hope for the type of genuine popular upheaval that leads to real change. Democracy emerging from domestic aspirations and efforts rather than foreign military invasion would be an enormous positive development for Arab societies long subject to authoritarian rule. It’s something the U.S. should welcome, despite the risks of less compliant regimes emerging in the short run. In the long run our interests lie with the extension of genuine popular rule.

Egypt is a much bigger story than Tunisia, a much bigger country and much more strategically important. Regime change in Egypt means hair-raising instability in the short run. The Mubarak regime presides over a cold peace with Israel that is unpopular with the Egyptian people, cooperating with Israel to manage Gaza. A genuinely popular regime in Egypt will complicate or most likely freeze what is left of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (not that it’s exactly thriving now). The peace may get colder, but it doesn’t have to slide toward war. Early international engagement with a legitimate popular government will be crucial.

But a genuinely popular regime in Egypt is not a lock. The army will be the deciding factor, and I don't pretend to know how they are going to tip. There are probably many factions. A best case scenario is probably something like what's happening in Tunisia now, with continued street protests keeping pressure on the new government to get rid of all the holdovers from the old regime, liberalization of civic life and stumbling progress toward elections. A worst case scenario is civil war. We know how that goes from Iraq. The realist in me says Egypt will probably get some form of military dictatorship with some progressive elements and cosmetics insisted on by the West.

Could we see a hostile Islamist regime emerge? Anything is possible, but the protests in Iran after the fraudulent elections of 2009 show that people don’t like authoritarian Islamic regimes any more than they like authoritarian West-endorsed ones. There are no guarantees, but backing popular demands for civil and political freedoms can’t steer us too far wrong.

I don't think there's much the U.S. can do to influence things. Strong support for any faction will label it irredeemably as an American puppet. We need to issue lots of forceful but vague proclamations about supporting democracy and human rights while pulling what strings we can behind the scenes to prevent worst case outcomes. Baradei is probably not a bad horse to back in Egypt. But we can't do it too openly.

The U.S. takes a lot of criticism for backing evil regimes, but it's hard to say what a better policy would be. We turned on an evil regime in Iraq and precipitated a bloodbath. The Saudi regime is medieval and oppressive, less democratic than our declared enemy Iran. So what do we do? Turn on it? Cut off military aid, maybe, but then the Saudis are a firm ally against Iranian expansionism, which is a real threat with Iraq tipping to the Shiites. The Saudis are like the Mafia guys that keep the Italian neighborhoods safe: you know they're thugs but you like being able to go out at night. A revolution in Iran would help, but then there's not much we can do to promote that. Obama was criticized by the right for not supporting the protests in 2009 more forcefully, but then again, what was he supposed to do? Overt American support would taint any party accepting it, particularly in Iran. There's no magic bullet, no easy way to manage all this.

The country that scares me most is Pakistan, which has working, deliverable nukes and deep penetration of the security forces by jihadists, along with increasing intimidation of moderate voices like the governor who was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards this month for speaking out against the draconian and arbitrary blasphemy law. My three-AM cold sweat thought is that Pakistan is Somalia circa 1990, times fifty. In the cold light of day I hope that there’s still a chance of the Pakistani political center coalescing around a figure untainted by corruption and willing to face down the extremists.

The best thing to do is to try to pick out the most genuinely liberal (in the broadest, least political sense of the word) elements in each country and find ways to promote their survival and development. Survival first, of course. The worst case doesn't have to happen. There are enough people in all these countries who are opposed to extremism and just want a functioning state with a modicum of accountability that it should be possible to identify and support a critical mass that could serve as a basis for a workable, coherent polity with continuing liberalization and a shot at eventual democracy.

The external forms of electoral democracy on the western model are not what we should be prioritizing. Real democracy can exist only on the basis of a wide range of things that need to be nurtured first: basic security, the rule of law, a functioning free press, a judicial system with some integrity, etc. Those are the things we need to be promoting, however we can, while reserving the black arts for defensive purposes, i.e. keeping the worst elements out of power. Where the worst elements are already in power, that's where deterrence comes in. Qaddafi gave up his WMD after we went into Iraq. It's a tragedy that Iraqis had to pay the price, but draw your own conclusions. When the State Department fails, it's nice to have the Marines.

Perilous times, but we know whom to root for: the men and women out in the streets in Tunis and Cairo, facing down the riot police and telling the dictators it’s time to let Arab and Muslim populations enjoy the freedoms we take for granted in the West.

Sam Reaves