Arab Spring Board.

For decades since gaining their independence from foreign rule (either Turkish or European), the Arab states have suffered under brutally oppressive, monumentally corrupt, and astonishingly incompetent governments.  For decades it seemed that the “Arab street” would do nothing but seethe.  In Spring 2011, popular uprisings took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.  Optimists began to talk of an “Arab Spring.”  Realists began to recall the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.  Then large, but disparate coalitions of enemies of the old regime toppled their rulers in France, Germany, the Austrian Empire, and in Italy.  Equally quickly, the revolutionary tide ebbed when the victors could not agree what they wanted to put in place of the old regime.  Five years on, it seems to be widely accepted that the realists were right all along.[1]

That said, a great deal of diversity can be found within this universal model.  Tunisia has been struggling on manfully in an attempt to create some kind of non-autocracy and to revive its feeble economy.[2]  Egypt’s “deep state” tossed overboard Hosni Mubarrak, let the Muslim Brotherhood take office (if not power), and then staged a well-prepared coup.  Libya might have restored the old regime, but American intervention put an end to that chance and the country has virtually disintegrated.  Syria, worst of all, collapsed into a civil war that grinds on.

Kenneth Pollack offers a profound-sounding analysis of Worth’s book: “The Middle East [Worth] sketches…is a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.”  In these conditions, the absence of order, “Chaos bred fear, fear bred violence and violence bred revenge and more anger and more violence.”  That explanation seems to work well for Syria, but it hardly explains anywhere else in the Middle East.

Unrest did not occur everywhere to the degree that it occurred in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.  Much more limited unrest took place in some of the Gulf Arab states, in Jordan, in Morocco, and in Algeria.  Virtually nothing troubled the calm in Saudi Arabia.  The troubles in Iraq were both graver than in Egypt and arose from different traumas.  Yet all Arab governments are more or less oppressive and incompetent.  Why did the “Arab Spring” not take place all throughout the Arab world?  Why did the unrest have different outcomes in different places?

Part of the answer may be that the price of oil in 2011 stood at $100 a barrel, while the price of oil today is about $45 a barrel.  In 2011, Saudi Arabia was rolling in dough.  This wealth allowed the Saudi state to buy off any dissent among its subjects.  Having staved-off unrest at home, Saudi Arabia could also deploy its wealth in support of friends in other Arab countries.  On the one hand, when the United States reduced aid to Egypt after the coup against the democratically-elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia whipped out its check-book to more than make good the loss of American aid.  Links between the two Arab countries seem to continue to tighten.  On the other hand, when opponents of Bashar al-Assad in Syria called for aid, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States sent money and weapons.

The simple “they agreed on what they were against, but disagreed on what they were for” analysis of the Arab Spring misses yet another parallel to 1848.  The multi-national Austrian Empire lashed out against all enemies foreign and domestic.  The Czechs, the Italians, and the Hungarians all felt the force of Austrian arms.  The threat of Austrian intervention also contributed to the defeat of German nationalism.  Will the Saudi victories turn to ashes in ten years’ time, just as did those of Austria between 1859 and 1867?

[1] See Kenneth Pollack’s review of Robert F. Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016), NYT Book Review, 1 May 2016.

[2] Now if Islamists would just stop shooting up the tourist resorts.

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