The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising

It may be too early for fresh scholarly insights on the Middle East uprisings, says Madawi Al-Rasheed

September 29, 2011

It may be premature to draw lessons from the ongoing Arab revolutions, but Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on the politics of the region, has identified 10 such lessons before the dust has settled. Unsurprisingly, then, the analysis is swift, and relies on the author's previous knowledge of the region and observations of current events. It offers no grand theoretical framework with which to understand the uprisings, nor does it make an attempt to see them through the prism of longue durée historical process.

As a result, The Arab Revolution is an uncomfortable cross between a sophisticated journalistic account and a set of policy recommendations.

Filiu deconstructs existing narratives about the Arab world and considers why, thus far, only two Arab autocrats, those in Tunisia and Egypt, have been successfully overthrown under the pressure of peaceful uprisings, and with relatively little bloodshed. Other more violent situations - Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain - are also discussed here, but without clear conclusions, while countries that have experienced minor protest (Saudi Arabia) and others that have remained immune (Algeria, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait) are mentioned only in passing. Two monarchies in Morocco and Jordan are currently under pressure, but Filiu argues that they will eventually succumb and move towards an increased constitutionalism that will limit the monarchs' power.

Given the wide range of local trajectories and outcomes in the region over the past six months, the overarching use of the term "Arab" in the book's title is certainly problematic. Moreover, few of the arguments here are new. And, as Filiu presents what he sees as the lessons to be drawn from the uprisings that so many scholars of the Arab world failed to predict, he spends most of his time stating the obvious and debunking obsolete myths that have long been disregarded by serious scholars of the region, with the arguable exception of die-hard orientalists and their patrons among policymakers.

Accordingly, we hear that Arabs desire democracy just as much as the citizens of other nations do, and that their religion cannot explain the previous stagnation of their political life. Filiu invites policymakers to watch the angry unemployed youth who have dominated the protest movement, and goes on to observe that young Arabs will remain volatile and agitated unless new economic opportunities are created, and that the Facebook generation, assisted by its counterparts in the diaspora, created webs of social networks that drove millions into the streets of Arab capitals.

Lacking central charismatic revolutionary figures, a collective youth movement has put unprecedented pressure on ageing but powerful autocratic presidents. Its youth and anger may well create perpetual revolutionary momentum, but it is not as conducive to stable democratic evolution.

If democracy is delayed, Filiu warns, then chaos will follow. To militate against this chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most organised Islamist movement, with its many branches in the Arab world, must seize the opportunity and accept the necessity of sharing power with other secular and liberal political forces, as peaceful protests serve to make the violent jihadi trend obsolete.

Filiu contends that these uprisings will not generate a domino effect. So far, all that has emerged is an Arab public sphere that longs for greater freedoms, economic opportunities and respect for civil and human rights. But the region's colonial-era borders have proved resilient and are unlikely to be redrawn as a result of the spirit of democracy sweeping the region.

Although Filiu argues that the rich Gulf monarchies, mainly Saudi Arabia, serve as safety nets, this seems quite a naive reading of the part that conservative and oppressive monarchies have played in the region.

Indeed, their role has largely been one of thwarting democratic change. One wonders how an oppressive regime with vast oil revenues could be a safety net in a volatile region, when surely its overriding concern is to maintain the status quo in order to escape the very domino effect that Filiu dismisses.

It is disappointing that Filiu's set of lessons does not include a serious assessment of Western support for Arab dictators over the past five decades. This support was arguably the main difference between Eastern Europe, where the West sided with the people against archaic communist regimes, and the Arab world, where Western governments have largely supported the autocrats.

Indeed, if there is a lesson to be drawn from the recent events in the Arab world, it is that Western policymakers must realise that even if they continue to support dictatorships, they cannot rescue autocrats at their darkest moments. The powerful slogan of the revolutionaries - "the people want the downfall of the regime" - is a compelling symbol of an unstoppable mass movement.

A further shortcoming in this book, whose writing appears to have been completed in March, is Filiu's failure to offer even an initial view of the long-term consequences of Nato's intervention in Libya in support of armed rebels. Certainly as events have developed since then, it is hard not to see the prospect of civil war, partition and sectarian and ethnic cleansing looming large in the hot spots of Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

Perhaps unavoidably, this book is a premature account of a complex and unfinished historical moment.

The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising

By Jean-Pierre Filiu

Hurst, 208pp, £12.95

ISBN 9781849041591

Published 1 September 2011

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