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Friday, June 10, 2011

Digging Deeper into the Arab Spring

I have been reading lengthier essays on the Arab Spring from a variety of contexts and perspectives. The scholars and commentators I have been reading highlight the fragility and complexity of the events.

Jeffrey Goldberg, whose work on Netanyahu I recently highlighted, did a cover story at the Atlantic that gives the best overview of the changes and possibilities of the Arab Spring in an article aptly titled “Danger: Falling Tyrants”. Goldberg spices up the essay with direct reporting from key sites in the region and with frank interviews with leading policy makers, including Hillary Clinton. I thought this was one of his stronger points:

Creating an overarching doctrine suitable for the moment is an almost impossible task, particularly during a crisis that demands from American policy makers analytical humility, doctrinal plasticity, and a tolerance for contradiction. Analytical humility is called for because the trajectories of the Middle East’s revolutions are still difficult to discern, and because it is not yet clear that tyranny is, in fact, in permanent eclipse. Doctrinal plasticity, which in a less value-neutral way could be called hypocrisy, is a necessity because, while it is true that President Obama, to the surprise of many, has shown himself to be more of a liberal interventionist than a cold-eyed realist, it is also true that America retains fixed, and vital, interests across the Middle East, interests that have already forced America to side with monarchs over the masses they rule. And a tolerance for contradiction is vital not only because America’s democratically elected government is scrambling to keep monarchs on their thrones, but because people across the Middle East are embracing American ideals—freedom of speech, financial transparency, leaders who are chosen by the people and are accountable to them—while at the same time distancing themselves from America itself, and rejecting American assumptions about what freedom is meant to look like.

 While Egypt's revolution garnered extraordinary media coverage, Syria's has not. If you want to understand the Syria story better check out this review essay in the New York Review of Books. Malise Ruthven roots the violent repression of Syria’s uprising in the deeper currents of Syria’s religiously diverse population.

How did Syria come to this pass? While some observers see in recent events a parallel with 1989, with the break-up of the East European–style system introduced by the Baathists in the 1960s, this is no velvet revolution, nor is Syria like Jaruzelski’s Poland. The regime’s violence is not ideological. It is far from being the result of an emotional or philosophical commitment to a party that long ago abandoned its agenda of promoting secular Arab republican values and aspirations. The regime’s ruthless attachment to power lies in a complex web of tribal loyalties and networks of patronage underpinned by a uniquely powerful religious bond. (emphasis added)

Another recent piece in the New York Review of Books highlighted the role of religious diversity in another country’s uprising. In his essay “Egypt: Why are the Churches Burning?” Yasmine El Rashidi, whose memorable eyewitness account of the Egyptian revolution is now an e-book, gives vivid descriptions of the violence against Coptic Christians in the wake of the overthrow of Mubarak. Here he relates his own experience on the streets of Cairo:

On a recent afternoon this month, in a busy downtown Cairo street, armed men exchanged gunfire, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and freely wielded knives in broad daylight. The two-hour fight, which began as an attempt by some shop-owners to extort the customers of others, left eighty-nine wounded and many stores destroyed. In the new Egypt, incidents like this are becoming commonplace. On many nights I go to bed to the sound of gunfire, and each morning I leaf through newspapers anticipating more stories of crime. Stopped at gun-point; car stolen; head severed; kidnapped from school, held at ransom; armed men storm police station opening fire and killing four; prison cells unlocked—91 criminals on the loose. Many people I know have already bought guns; on street corners metal bludgeons are being sold for $3; and every week I receive an email, or SMS, or Facebook message about a self-defense course, or purse-size electrocution tool, or new shipments of Mace. “These are dangerous times,” my mother told me recently as she handed me a Chinese-made YT-704 “super high voltage pulse generator.” “You have to take precautions, keep it in your bag.” (emphasis in original)

Coptic Christians are particularly vulnerable, as they always are during periods of transition in Egypt. What is most troubling is the connection Rashidi draws between the army and the increased violence against Copts.

In one of Mubarak’s final speeches, he warned that in his absence, there would be “chaos.” Since his resignation, the military council, led by former Mubarak insider Tantawi, has at times appeared to be pushing things precisely in that direction. The police remain largely passive, and soldiers often just stand by, watching crimes unfold. Meanwhile, the military has released long-held Islamist prisoners and lifted restrictions on approximately 3,000 wanted radical Islamists who had been in exile and blacklisted from entering the country.

If you are looking to dig deeper into the prospects for civil society and democracy in the wake of this time of change, these articles a great place to start.

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