You Say You Want a Revolution

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The Arab Spring has been hailed as my generation’s tearing down of the Berlin Wall, a seminal moment in world history that represents a paradigm shift in the politics of the Middle East. While it certainly can be considered as such, it is still far too early to determine just what changes the Arab Spring will bring to the region: the revolutions may have deposed rulers in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya and seriously threatened rulers in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, but the new governing regimes have yet to take shape. Thus, it is important to distinguish between the perceived changes that have taken place and the actual, concrete changes that have occurred. Here, I discuss three important changes that have not occurred in the region, despite wishful thinking amidst the revolutionary fervor. Doing so will allow for a more rational approach to influencing events in the region as best as possible.

Democracy being established in the Middle East. The protest movements have set the exciting precedent that the people of the Middle East can make their voices heard. However, though Middle Eastern leaders have fallen and are falling, no protest movement has established a democratic, effective regime in place of the old one. This isn’t to say that it won’t happen. Simply, there is no guarantee that it will happen, and even some worrisome signs that it might not. Elements of the old regimes in Tunisia and Egypt continue to plague post-revolutionary governments, which have enacted emergency laws and continued to suppress critics. In Libya, the elimination of Kaddafi may help to fracture the rebels along tribal and religious lines. Additionally, the pugnacity of Yemen’s Saleh and Syria’s Assad may lead to bloody civil wars.

Arab peoples overthrowing leaders on their own. The relatively peaceful, quick revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. All the other revolutions have been violent, pitting dissenting citizens, mostly unarmed, against the heavy weaponry of the regime. In the case of Bahrain, the government of al-Khalifa, with help from its neighbors, violently suppressed the protest movement, which, while still showing some signs of life, has largely been silent for the last six months. Likewise, in Libya, Kaddafi was on the verge of suppressing the revolt prior to the NATO intervention. It is likely that Benghazi would have met a fate similar to Misrata’s had not the West intervened.

The underlying problems of the Middle East being addressed by revolutionaries. The roots of the revolution, while numerous, revolve around economic stagnation and lack of political rights and freedoms. The Middle East is racked by dwindling resources, massive unemployment despite a large educated populations, and bloated state bureaucracies. However, the revolutions so far have been mostly reactionary—large, spontaneous protest movements with ill-defined goals and poor organization. While they may have eliminated the leaders responsible for the poor economic policies, the impacts of those policies continue. In Egypt, for example, unemployment continues to rise. Revolutionary governments have in some cases introduced economic reforms, but these will take time to influence economic conditions, and the protest movements have shown a worrisome tendency towards impatience. Further exacerbation of economic problems and the lack of political stability could facilitate a general desire for security and stability, which is fertile ground for potential dictators.

Despite all this, the events in the Middle East are certainly encouraging and a step in the right direction. People have shown they won’t stand for oppression and shoddy economic policies, demanding the respect of the rule of law and human rights, an end to corruption, and a desire for democratic government. We hope that the revolution will continue along the democratic and reformist lines that it started out on. Unfortunately, if the revolution has the potential to continue along the original lines, another alternative presents itself: the return of dictators and continued suffering for the Arabs. Real revolutions are rarely brief moments. Rather, they evolve over time. The American Revolution, begun in 1775, did not grant freedom to slaves until almost 100 years later, or full suffrage to women until 1920, some 150 years later. The West needs to take an active stance in pushing the revolutionary Arab governments to move the right direction, and fostering a patient perspective–a topic for further posts.

James Juchau

James studies economics and Arabic at Brigham Young University in the hopes of one day participating in global economic development efforts. He speaks French fluently and has spent time in the Middle East and Europe. He is currently interning with Development Gateway in Washington, DC, and will be doing an Arabic study abroad program in Jordan in the fall.

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