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Revolutionary Choices

Are the mass protests toppling regimes across the Middle East closer in spirit to 1979 Iran or 1989 Eastern Europe? Paul Berman, Elliott Abrams, Bruce Riedel, Andrew Tabler, and Brian Katulis consider the region’s future.

Tablet Magazine
February 28, 2011
Children climbing on an army tank during a protest last week in Benghazi, Libya.(John Moore/Getty Images)
Children climbing on an army tank during a protest last week in Benghazi, Libya.(John Moore/Getty Images)

Are the historic events we are witnessing in the Middle East closer in spirit to those of Iran in 1979 or Eastern Europe in 1989? That is, will the toppling of autocratic but often pro-Western regimes across the region by a wave of popular protest pave the way for repressive Islamist dictatorships, like the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini that replaced the Shah of Iran, or will it bring about a vibrant new democratic order that will create hope and opportunity for the Arabs? We asked five distinguished contributors with unique perspectives on the region to respond.

‘The Roulette Wheel’
Paul Berman is the author of The Flight of the Intellectuals:

The cries in the street appear right now to be uniformly denouncing corruption and autocracy—a fact that means nothing at all, given that every revolution in the history of the world has been conducted in the name of hatred for corruption and autocracy. Still, no one is shouting, “Islam is the solution!” Nor is anyone calling, so far, for some other imaginative kind of regime different from a conventional democracy. Nor do the principal crowds in the street appear to be the manipulated dupes of a hidden revolutionary organization. The many thrilling cries for democracy and freedom that we hear seem to be, on the contrary, genuinely spontaneous and mass. A conclusion, therefore: We are witnessing an enormous event whose most obvious surface element right now is a resemblance to 1989.

Some other surface elements are less reassuring. The liberal factions and parties and intellectuals of the region appear to be standing on institutionally flimsy foundations. Worse, their liberalism itself appears sometimes to be shaky. And there is the big problem beneath the surface. The Muslim Brotherhood, in its various branches and offshoots, appears to be magnificently disciplined, well-organized, sure of itself, and ideologically sturdy. The Brotherhood, in circumstances like these, merely needs to act with caution and an eye on the ultimate goal, and then it will stand in an excellent position to inherit the various revolutions as time goes by—to inherit the revolutions either in full or, more likely, in some kind of power-sharing arrangement with national armies and other groups.

As for the Brotherhood’s ultimate goal, this, of course, is 1979 exactly—an Islamist dictatorship (which will call itself a “democracy”), naturally with adaptations suited to different countries and circumstances, and whose goal will be regional (and more than regional), not just local. You have only to cock a keen ear to the Brotherhood’s oratory to recognize that, ideologically speaking, the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved not one whit.

This exhilarating moment of ours is therefore also a terrifying moment. And it would be foolish to hazard even the slightest prediction—foolish even to toy with a phrase like “more likely,” though I have just toyed with the phrase. The history of every revolution that has ever taken place tells us that at moments like this the role of hitherto-unknown leaders and of unforeseeable events is going to be vast and that leaders and events will point in every possible direction. Some countries will fare rather well, others will plunge into catastrophe—and the roulette wheel is spinning at this very moment.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush Administration:

The 1989 revolutions benefited from several positive factors, such as prior years of democracy (Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states are a good example) and the model of the European Union. In the Middle East history is not so kind, nor does the Arab League offer much to admire. So, one can be at least dubious about whether vibrant democracies are assured in every case. I worry about a kind of populism developing, as the demands of the people for economic improvement will likely outstretch what new governments can deliver (except perhaps in Libya, with its oil wealth and small population). It would not be surprising to see politicians doing what came so easily in Latin America, appealing to lowest common denominators, inveighing against the rich, and pursuing policies guaranteed to produce more poverty.

Still, there are reasons for optimism. There are models of Muslim democracies in Asia. No one in the Arab world admires the Persian model of velayat-i-faqih, or clerical rule, nor do they admire the dictatorship that has been established in Iran today. In the years since 1989, there is an even stronger global consensus around democracy and human rights. While the Chinese model may be invoked, it seems entirely irrelevant in the Arab cases. One ingredient that must not be left out is the United States, for our voice is still heard in the region, and we can push and pull to get better outcomes than might otherwise occur. Here I am not so optimistic, however: The Barack Obama Administration does not seem ready, willing, or able to do that kind of pushing and pulling successfully.

‘Egypt’s Path’
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, served in the CIA for 30 years. He is the author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad:

An earthquake has shaken Arab politics this winter like never before. Dictators are toppling in the face of home-grown revolutions. The winter of Arab discontent may give rise to a spring of democracy or a reversion to new autocracies. Some fear a repeat of the 1979 Iranian revolution, but there are fundamental differences between Iran then and the Arab revolutions now, especially the most important one in Egypt. Egypt is the centerpiece of the Arab world in terms of demography, culture, and history. The jasmine revolution in Tunis inspired Egyptians; Egyptians are inspiring the rest of the region.

The Iranian revolution was dominated from the start by Ayatollah Khomeni and a coterie of like-minded mullahs, especially Ayatollah Beheshti. They controlled the message and the marches. Secular, liberal, and leftist voices tried to gain traction but were always secondary players to Khomeni, who also had a revolutionary idea, the concept of a Shia supreme leader for a new Iran, that left no space for dissent. In the CIA’s task force monitoring the revolution we concluded in the fall of 1978 that Khomeni was the revolution. His triumphal return from Paris in early 1979 set the stage for the coup de grace and the collapse of the army.

No such charismatic figure has emerged in Egypt. So far the revolution has not had a single leader or dominant party. The Sunni clerical establishment in Egypt has not sought such a role, nor has the Muslim Brotherhood to date sought to monopolize the process of change. This could of course change. Revolutions tend to produce Bonapartes, leaders who grab the mantle of power and take charge. But so far that is not the case in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, or Libya. In Egypt the process of change has now been channeled into a dialogue between the broad-based opposition and the army.

The Egyptian army is another big difference. In Iran the military collapsed as did SAVAK, the secret police. In Egypt the army is still a power broker and widely respected. It will have a cautionary voice in determining Egypt’s future.

Egypt and the other Arab revolutions need not be a repeat of 1979, nor are they likely to look like Eastern Europe in 1989. They will each forge their own unique new political orders. As it has for centuries, Egypt’s path will be the one that sets the standard.

‘Foreign Policy Models’
Andrew J. Tabler is a Next Generation fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute:

Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are closer to the spirit of 1989 than to the Iranian revolution in 1979. Protesters have poured into the streets because of the way they were governed, not because of their countries’ foreign policies. As globalization and the Internet have penetrated Arab countries dominated by authoritarian regimes, this has opened up new spaces where people can talk about their aspirations and organize to achieve them. It has also undermined the fear-factor deterrent that regimes use to keep people down.

To help ensure that the uprisings of 2011 do not turn out like 1979, where one authoritarian regime is replaced by another, the United States needs to work with our allies on the ground to help these countries build more liberal systems that respect human rights, rule of law, and ensure that one party or group cannot dominate the political system. This will be hard work, and it will be difficult for the United States to affect specific outcomes that serve our interests. But we don’t have a choice—the old “realist” or “stability” foreign policy models built during the Cold War, when we separated our relations with countries from their domestic politics, is no longer sufficient. On a country-specific basis, we need to bring human rights, rule of law, and democracy issues into the mix if we truly want to bring stability to our allies in the region. A greater emphasis on these issues could, if directed properly, undermine U.S. adversaries throughout the region.

A particular challenge will be Washington’s approach to Syria, which the United States is currently trying to bring to the negotiating table with Israel. To facilitate those talks, Washington has kept human rights pretty low on the list of issues with Damascus. Recently, the regime sentenced a blogger to five years in prison for allegedly working with the CIA—a charge the U.S. government vehemently denies. The best way to show Damascus that human rights matters to Washington is to move it up the list of issues and explain that the United States has every interest in facilitating peace between Israel and Syria, not just Israel and the Assad regime.

‘Too Soon to Tell’
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress:

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future,” said Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was part of the Manhattan Project. Popular-uprising shock waves emanating from the pent-up frustrations about a broken political and economic order continue to reverberate throughout the Middle East, and it is far too early to predict how events will evolve in any particular country, let alone come up with a reasonable forecast for what the region might look like in a few years.

The Middle East is at the start of what is likely to be a long and probably messy period of transition—and it could take the rest of this decade before any clarity truly emerges. As fast-moving as the day-to-day events are, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that some fundamentals remain the same in most countries in the region—the military regime that ruled Egypt since 1952 still rules today, and the region’s problems of widespread poverty, cronyism, and corruption will likely remain for years to come, even if serious democratic political reform moves forward in some countries. At this early stage, the question of whether serious political reform toward democracy is in the cards remains quite uncertain, even in places like Egypt and Tunisia, where leaders were ousted.

In 2004, I argued that the power elites in Middle East countries included economic elites who benefited from a corrupt and opaque status quo that authoritarian governments helped preserve using their internal security services. Slicing through the old order that has controlled the security, politics, and economies of these countries and restructuring the distribution of power will take more than street protests—and the process will take a long time.

What the uprisings have done thus far is remind regular people in the region that their actions can lead to some change. I have argued that in the global arena these days, power (defined as the ability to get things done and achieve certain goals by applying resources) is more “open source” than in the past—there are fewer barriers to entry, and elite institutions have less of an ability to maintain their monopoly.

That’s the case in the Middle East now—and what we’re seeing under way is the beginning of a protracted negotiation over how power is distributed within these societies. Some of these negotiations will take place peacefully in debates over constitutional reforms, as we see in Egypt; some of these power negotiations will devolve into vicious and deadly battles in the streets, as we see in Libya.

And while it’s tempting for any Middle East observer to apply to the region the frameworks for analysis that dominate the policy discussions in America—whether about the uprisings’ impact on Islamism, Iran’s role in the region, or peace with Israel—the more realistic yet unsatisfying answer is that it is too soon to tell. Many countries in the Middle East are going to see their focus turn sharply inward as they deal with the crushing demographic, economic, and social problems that sparked most of these protests. How this leads to a reordering within each country or more broadly in the region it is far too soon to tell.

From the editors at Tablet Magazine