Variance in Middle Eastern Uprisings

Though it’s certainly premature, I’d like to take a synoptic view on the anti-authoritarian demonstrations that have developed in over a dozen Middle Eastern states–to “see in the parts the whole”.  This is perhaps hopeless, not only because events in each of the countries where the demonstrations have reached critical mass are now in flux, but also because these movements are already taking radically-diverging trajectories.  The Wall Street Journal has daily updates of Middle East contention on its big board of “Middle East Turmoil.”  As simple and terse of a means of conveying the story as it is, I’ve found it about as useful as any online reference tool for these events, because it registers every day a contentious episode in one of these countries achieves general foreign media breakthrough.  This makes it easier to focus on countries where demonstrators are growing and imposing sustained costs on their governments.  As of yesterday (March 3rd), 6 Middle Eastern countries–Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Libya–seem to have sustained protest movements mobilized on a scale that plausibly threaten(ed) the regime.

So, how does it stand with those countries where the protests have become “serious”?  The answer, not surprising considering the variety of Middle Eastern states on dimensions of their geography, social institutions, economic development, political constituencies and foreign alignments, is “All over the place.”  2 have already seen presidents-for-life resign, their preferred successors step down after them in the face of continued protests, and are making measurable progress towards free elections under (currently) benign provisional military governments (Tunisia and Egypt).  2 are currently trying to negotiate an agreement with the demonstrators, though they are not considered reliable partners and sectarian or regional tensions simmer just under the surface (Yemen and Bahrain).  One country has faced significant dissent for a while, but has a relatively-young leader and is now all-but-controlled by a large and ideologically-motivated military force (Iran).  One faced not 1 week of protests before the military split over whether to shoot demonstrators, and has descended into a violent spectacle of a civil war (Libya).


News of ongoing protests and political chaos here is…not necessarily bad news, though the military can’t abide it forever.  Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi resigned on Sunday, following violent clashes on Friday and Saturday between police and protesters demanding that Prime Minister Ghannouchi relinquish his role in the government.  While his long association with Ben Ali made him suspect to the demonstrators, he seemed earnest in his claim that he resigned because he didn’t want blood on his hands.  Having previously announced he would leave public office at the end of the transition period, he said he considered his resignation in service of Tunisia’s revolution.  He was succeeded by a much-older but more-popular Interim Prime Minister.

This is more good news than bad.  The good news is that Tunisia’s protesters aren’t letting up the pressure on Ben Ali’s old guard until their initial, substantive and stable political demands are met; the bad news is that the culpability of those Ben Ali insiders forced to resign from the interim government isn’t always clear–and the protesters are insisting on the resignation of those who have the most of the interim government’s experience of normal politics.  (The Liberal Ironist would like to remind any good Burkeans reading this to become nervous at this point.)  On the other hand, maybe the demonstrators have a point in believing the only way they can reform a government that has always been undemocratic and in the past generation unabashedly corrupt is to never turn their back on it, to never give the autocratic old guard the chance to “gnat bite” calls for party organization and constitutional reform.  For now the demonstrators have shown that they will not yield until their demands for personnel changes and democratic reform in advance of July elections are met.  This gives me some optimism that they will hold together, and that the political acuity (and the stamina) of the angry 20-somethings in the street has been underestimated.


Blogging in The Atlantic, Eric Trager wrote on March 1st that “Egypt’s revolt is not yet a revolution.” The crux of his concern is that the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council has a major stake in a return to a normal state of affairs so that commerce can revive.  (It happens to be a big shareholder in the Egyptian economy.)  The very strategy of anti-regime demonstrations is to inhibit that commerce so that the autocratic government must change.  While the opposition continues to protest to assert political goals that haven’t been met, so the argument goes, the opposition and the military are locked in a very slow-moving game of chicken as the former insists on the prompt accommodation of their political demands and the latter moves to protect its economic interests.

One pertinent observation Trager had raised to express doubts about the revolution in Egypt was rectified just yesterday, when Ahmed Shafiq, the new Egyptian Prime Minister whom had made conciliatory gestures but remained suspect as a Mubarak appointee, resigned.  (According to a Washington Post report, the Supreme Armed Forces Council announced Shafiq’s resignation on its Facebook page.)  The Council had the political prudence to appoint Essam Sharaf, a US-educated former Minister of Transport who resigned in 2006 in protest of the corruption of the Mubarak regime.  He organized an anti-regime demonstration at Cairo University, where he is a professor, before President-for-life Mubarak resigned.

As with the ongoing demonstrations in Tunisia which have steadily led to the desired concessions, the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council’s gradual accommodation of the tenacious but gradually reducing demonstrators remaining at Tahrir Square gives the Liberal Ironist a sense of optimism that we are in fact beholding a revolution in the most-populous Arab state.  This Friday a further demonstration has been called; rather than call it off in light of Shafiq’s surprise resignation, the Egyptian opposition has called for a day of celebration.


The Libyan revolt started like several of the recent Arab protests: A demonstration in a restive city (in this case Benghazi, a fairly-large city on Libya’s east coast that has long-despised Gaddafi’s oppression) calling for the release of a jailed human rights lawyer on Wednesday leads to clashes with security forces on Thursday and Friday.  On Saturday security forces fire on a funeral procession for 84 dissidents killed on the previous day; this enrages people, causing the protests to become a revolt.

This is where things get really, really different.  Unlike in Tunisia (until the mutinous end) or Egypt, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi orders the Libyan Army into Benghazi to fire on the protesters.  Some of these army units instead defect to the protesters on Sunday.  By the next day or so, the cities of Libya’s eastern coast are liberated by the protesters.  Colonel Gaddafi then makes an angry, 100+ minute speech in which he vows to “cleanse Libya house by house” of dissidents.  The protesters begin to consolidate their eastern territories and start to organize into units wielding rifles and driving tanks.  Libya’s demonstrators have become the Rebels, and those army and militia units still at Gaddafi’s side have become Loyalists.  Red vs. Green: We’ve witnessed a civil war explode to life in real time.  Less than a week after protests began, the Italian government concludes that claims that 1,000 Libyans have already been killed in the current political violence credible; this Week-1 death toll is higher than that for all of the other recent Middle Eastern protest episodes up to the date of this writing combined.  And then the civil war starts; the New York Times even has a helpful map of control, updated daily.

A lot of the big talk about this theater is currently occurring outside of Libya; the central conflict is over whether a foreign government or international peacekeeping organization is  going to impose a no-fly zone over the country.  Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom called for the unilateral institution of a no-fly zone over Libya on Monday so that the Gaddafi regime couldn’t continually hammer rebel positions.  His Defense Ministry subsequently insisted that the United Kingdom couldn’t mobilize sufficient air power to impose a no-fly zone over a country as vast as Libya unilaterally; to his credit, Prime Minister Cameron doubled down on Wednesday, asserting that “it is the job of leaders in the Western world in particular to prepare for all eventualities and all the things that might happen, particularly if Colonel Gaddafi unleashes more ‘things’ on his own people.”  Even if other governments expressed reticence about enforcing one, he insisted, the contingency planning and logistical hurdles prior to implementation of a no-fly zone should be cleared now.  It’s nice to see 1 head-of-state show some moral fiber in the face of Gaddafi’s atrocities.  Or is that fibre?

But where is President Obama?  While he has proved his willingness to spend political capital to achieve the aims of social justice at home, he seems profoundly-reticent to do so abroad.  On Tuesday US Senate unanimously passed a resolution endorsing imposition of a no-fly zone by the UN–an extraordinary show of consensus by a polarized legislative chamber essentially designed to grind partisan business to a halt.  Yesterday, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushed back against the idea, referring with frustration to “a lot of loose talk” in favor of a no-fly zone.  He explained that a no-fly zone would have to open with air strikes on Libyan anti-aircraft positions in order to make Libyan airspace safe for regular US air patrols.  He quickly added that enforcement of a no-fly zone over a vast country like Libya would require hundreds of fighter jets–and thus a second aircraft carrier.

Is this significant down-payment for a no-fly zone a good reason for us to stay our hand?

No.  President Obama has been non-committal, offering verbal support for pro-democracy protesters that have beset over a dozen Middle Eastern countries with variable intensity but taking essentially no steps on his own motion to inhibit Gaddafi’s capacity to brutalize them daily in Libya.  If anything we seem to be drifting–through unspecified concerns about cost or supposed foreign blowback–away from imposing a no-fly zone on Libya, without even taking into account the indirect costs this mounting humanitarian crisis will pose.  In the meantime, Colonel Gaddafi has publicly accepted an offer by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to mediate talks between Gaddafi and the Rebels.  This public offer of talks carries a pernicious presumption on Gaddafi’s part, that he will be able to continue on as dictator in Libya.  Considering Chavez remained a staunch ally of Gaddafi even when he massacred civilians early in the revolt, the rebels have no reason to be impressed by his credentials as a mediator.

As of the last update I saw on the New York Times (early afternoon on March 3rd), squads worth of rebel recruits were making way from their provisional headquarters in Benghazi to the front line–without weapons.  They can only hope to be provisioned once they get there, where they will face air strikes by loyalists while Western governments continue to debate an air power intervention that isn’t conceptually-complicated at all.

The effective “front line” at the moment means oil-rich Brega, a coastal town where both on Wednesday and at the time of this writing Loyalists have sought to dislodge the Rebels.  The Rebels aren’t adequately-armed for the challenge that lies ahead–an invasion of Tripoli to bring the Gaddafi regime down quickly.  According to a Washington Post story which ran yesterday, 400 Rebel irregulars who tried to travel west along the long coastal road from Benghazi to Tripoli on their own motion were allegedly caught by Loyalists and executed.

There are other ongoing contentious episodes that haven’t quite gained the visibility of the previous–Yemen, Bahrain, and Iran. The failure of Iranian protests to get top billing in foreign media is a novel development for us; a failure of Yemeni President-for-life Ali Abdullah Saleh to work out an agreement with his opposition could usher-in the collapse not only of his regime but possibly even his state.  Next time we will consider these less-visible uprisings, and maybe try to grasp at whether imitation of an idealized revolutionary script such as Tunisia’s or Egypt’s can help a country with a distinct history of violent repression to transcend the conventions shaped by that oppressor.

The sudden spasm of violence in Libya suggests it cannot.


6 thoughts on “Variance in Middle Eastern Uprisings

  1. Kukri

    NATO says it will not impose a NFZ because 1) no NATO members are threatened, and 2) NATO, especially France, wants a UN resolution first.

    The UN will not impose a NFZ because China and Russia object to it. Russia has been particularly vocal, saying a NFZ violates the internal affairs of a sovereign state. A Russian diplomat went further, saying a NFZ would be illegal under international law unless the UN approves it… in short, a NFZ is illegal unless Russia doesn’t veto it! Amazing chutzpah, eh?!

    The Arab League says it is interested in a NFZ, and hopes to bring the AU into the action as well.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      If NATO is waiting on the UN, and the UN can’t act without Russian and Chinese permission, and Russia and China won’t support any action against a dictator, when we should be conferring with the Cameron government in the United Kingdom. The desire might be there (as they surely want to stop the deterioration of the richest country on the continent), but I don’t see how the African Union is going to enforce a no-fly zone.

  2. Jon In Egypt

    I actually spent today walking around the protest/celebration/carnival with Trager (he’s in my cohort and we share an advisor). I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear that you quoted him.

    Tahrir, by the way, was a marvel. Tourists – Egyptian tourists – were coming from all over the country to show their kids the square. There was music and cotton candy and a hilarious Qaddafi impersonator running around spouting nonsense while someone held an umbrella over his head. And at the same time, people were making some pretty intense speeches about their mistreatment at the hands of the security forces and – more provocatively – of the military. The refrain of the day was about the security apparatus. With Shafiq gone, this is the next big demand.

    I lurch back and forth between pessimism and optimism. Getting rid of Shafiq and replacing him with an engineer makes me feel better, as does hearing that elections and constitutional referenda seem to be going forward, but something isn’t quite adding up. The old security apparatus don’t seem to be going anywhere, and I don’t know if protests will reform them so easily (unlike getting rid of the PM, which was a clear demand that made for catchy protest slogans, exactly what’s to be done with a massively evil security apparatus that employs one in thirty-eight Egyptians, well, it’s all very unclear). And in any case, the protests aren’t really keeping the country and economy shut down anymore, so there’s a loss of leverage that worries me. I’m not sure what channels protesters have for getting their demands taken seriously, other than when the military brass deigns to talk to April 6 leaders. I guess we’ll learn more as the various elections approach, but between the entrenchment of the military’s privileges, and the increasing number of stories of (very Mubarak-esque) repression I’ve been hearing over the last week, I have doubts about exactly how democratic this is all going to be in the end.

    Speaking of gnawing doubts: For your reading pleasure, this article more than any other put its finger on my worries about Egypt: – it was written before the Shafiq dismissal, but doesn’t lose much of its punch even now.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      That was an interesting read, Jon. Thanks.

      As far as prospects for regime retrenchment go, I don’t see any means that the demonstrators could stand up to the Supreme Armed Forces Council–if that institution determined that it couldn’t protect its interests while mollifying their demands. I think there is room for debate about that. The successive resignations of Omar Suleiman (who instantly disqualified himself to stand independently of Hosni Mubarak) and Ahmed Shafiq (whom as far as I could tell was more-reasonable, but alas, tainted by his connection to the old regime) as well as some arrests of top officials and the military’s promotion of the reform of a term-limited presidency with 4-year terms may seem like cosmetic concessions on their own, but taken together they suggest a pragmatic experiment to discern which of these demands the protesters are serious about. I’m especially curious how the military intends to react to demonstrators’ overtaking of the headquarters of the hated state police and their retrieval of many volumes of documents the police were trying to destroy. Maybe the military will do nothing, drawing white lines that the hated repressive apparatus will be outside, essentially without protection. That would be fascinating.

      In any case, the demonstrators deserve a lot of credit for being no one’s fool and mostly maintaining a resilient, non-violent movement that focused on an elaborate but stable series of democratization and reform goals. The Supreme Armed Forces Council deserves a lot of credit for generally having an aspect of gravity about these proceedings, and for mostly treating the demonstrators with respect. Generals often don’t like being in charge of politics, and the Egyptian military will have to consider carefully whether it has the will to seize control of a country this restive. So far, at least, I suspect the generals have treaded lightly and made a series of reactive concessions to the demonstrators because they believe that trading all their credibility for power in this new environment would be a bad trade. Or do you think our Defense Department has been gently prodding them into concessions the whole time? $1.3 billion in annual military aid is a lot of leverage, especially with the Egyptian economy in a weakened state.

      In no democracy do social and economic elites relinquish all of their power–though some of them do become irrelevant in the wake of radical upheavals. I suppose different vested interests will scramble for immunity, or to keep Egypt’s large population of the poor from seizing too many of their assets. Obviously, the state police are the most-vulnerable group right now, while the military is both the most-powerful and the most-legitimate. Elite conferences may decide much of what proceeds, but the military would be gambling with Egypt’s future stability (and thus its future economic growth) if it doesn’t deliver on the constitutional changes recommended by its own reform panel.

      The Boix thesis of barriers to wealth redistribution as a condition for elite concession to democracy brings a question to my mind: How mobile is capital in Egypt? Can the rich there move their financial assets abroad?

  3. Jon In Egypt

    P.S. Despite my fondness for Yemen, I’m not actually any kind of expert. But I know a lot of people who are, and they all seem to think that Saleh is really, really running out of options. I’d bet folding money he’s not going to make it through this and keep power.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      Yes, I’ve actually judged which governments I think are officially in trouble by following the Wall Street Journal’s diagram map of Middle Eastern protests. They give daily updates on major developments in any Middle Eastern countries whose opposition has turned out. The countries I’ve listed for a closer focus are the ones facing protests daily. Sustained protests generally have meant burgeoning protests; on this basis I’ve decided that the uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain are also serious (though I might have to add Oman to the list now that protests there have become sticky). I plan to talk about Iran a bit, too–because I think its security and military apparatus is quite sufficiently-disciplined to use as much force as is required to quell any uprising.

      Yemen will be an interesting (and perhaps very scary) test case for the capacity of a Sunni radical Islamist to steal the momentum of a nascent democratic movement, in light of Zindani’s recent call for theocracy in Yemen. While he was well-received by his own crowd, it’s impossible to gauge whether he has a major constituency at present.


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