The stunningly quick fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt had many observers in the West reaching for familiar historical analogies of momentous upheaval: the fall of the Berlin Wall or the revolutions of 1848. Those living in the Arab world likewise had their own set of analogies to add to the mix, from the Egyptian nationalist uprising of 1919 to the set of upheavals in the decade after the 1948 war that toppled a feckless republic in Syria and ineffectual monarchies in Egypt and Iraq -- and threatened the remaining Arab regimes.
But some five months after demonstrations began in Tunisia, those comparisons all seem overblown. Generals are running Egypt, Libya has descended into civil war, and dictators have fended off challenges in Syria and Yemen. Some regimes, such as Bahrain, anxious to cling to power, have chosen to manipulate their countries' ethnic and sectarian divisions. And many old problems, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seem to be reasserting themselves and may be even further away from being solved.
U.S. President Barack Obama's speech on Thursday, May 19, will be an apt occasion to address the ambiguity of the new regional status quo. Far from celebrating a historic revolution, we should now be asking whether anything has changed at all -- and if it has, has it been changed for the better?
Yes, there is significant change. My heart tells me that it is likely to be for the good in the long term; but my head tells me that it is far too soon to tell. There is reason for both great optimism and tremendous fear. And there is also room for confusion -- the upheavals in the Arab world are taking shape in starkly different ways in the various countries of the region. Still, certain things are clear.
Most importantly, perhaps, the deep gap between rulers and ruled in the Arab world is now undeniable. Or, to put it more precisely -- because nobody but the delusional or sycophantic denied that chasm -- it is now unavoidable. It was no secret that most existing regimes were cruel and corrupt. But now the people of the region feel compelled to confront these injustices, in hopes that their political life can be different. Arabs have long articulated various grievances -- economic, social, cultural, and international -- but now they are increasingly zeroing in on fundamental political reform as the way to begin solving all these problems.
Better politics won't cure everything, but nothing will get better until the societies of the region get their politics right -- so seems to be the prevailing ethos. If citizens lack jobs, if they are beaten by the police, if their rulers are corrupt, and if the existing international order only serves the will of powerful states, then part of the solution starts with a better political system at home -- one that is structured to make authorities accountable to the people and avoid the concentration of power in the hands of permanent rulers. Political reform will not solve any of these problems by itself, but it is seen as a necessary first step.
The resulting struggle looks at first glance to be completely domestic, and in the short run that is where the attention will be. But part of the discontent with existing regimes is their international impotence and even complicity in an order widely perceived to be unresponsive to the rights of the weak. The Arab upheavals are less about ignoring world problems than about postponing them until political reform produces systems capable of addressing them. The new politics will therefore not replace the old politics, but only make them more complicated.
And that means that international actors will also need to confront the Arab world's gap between rulers and ruled. Western officials have long admitted in private (as the diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks made abundantly clear) that the Arab regimes were often venal and repressive. But many of those same regimes seemed indispensable, so their flaws were ignored. That era has completely passed; the era in which Western decision-makers could view Arab societies primarily through the eyes of Arab rulers is over.
But if Arab states have failed their societies, they have done so in a variety of ways -- and the societies they have failed also differ among themselves. That helps explain why the upheavals have played out so differently in different countries. Egypt and Tunisia, with relatively cohesive societies and very strong institutions, march one way; deeply divided societies with weak institutions, such as Yemen and Libya, tumble along another. In Jordan, deep cleavages have made all actors pull their punches; in Bahrain and Syria, the regimes have cynically played the sectarian card to their own advantage. And there have been great differences in the efficacy of the various official responses to protests: clumsiness from Egypt and Tunisia, thuggishness from Libya, Syria, and Bahrain. The surprise here may be the tired Palestinian leadership: Formerly divided between the West Bank and Gaza, Fatah and Hamas managed to stay one step ahead of popular pressure by kissing and making up.
Historical analogies with Europe in 1848 or the Arab world in 1948, while often facile, do point us in a helpful direction. A regional upheaval can play itself out in many different ways. What appears an unstoppable historical force in one country can be a mere disturbance in another; what is deeply entrenched on one day can disappear the next. But underneath the uncertainty and diversity, four regional trends can already be discerned.
First, an Arab public sphere has emerged based on a rich blend of new (Internet-based) and old (printing press) technologies. And that public sphere has discovered a strong political voice. The various fora have their quirks, biases, and bars to entry, and none completely escapes official monitoring and control. Al Jazeera presents one view of regional change -- but it also shows some loyalty to its Qatari patron. The Egyptian print media are feisty and free -- but lay off the military. Such silences and gaps are real, but the cacophony of the current day contrasts starkly with the monotonous and turgid public discourse of a generation ago.
Second, politics crosses borders even when it seems to be domestic in focus. When Americans watched Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square earlier this year, it marked the first time in decades that an Arab crowd inspired more sympathy than fear in the United States. But audiences across the Arab world felt more than sympathy -- they felt a very strong sense of identification. The newly political public sphere is more genuinely pan-Arab than the Potemkin Arab unity schemes of the 1960s.
Third, it is not only feelings that cross borders. Repertoires of action (such as gathering in the public square), slogans ("The people want the fall of the regime!"), and techniques (focusing on a unifying, non-ideological demand) travel as well. Arab publics are learning from each other and developing their new political vocabulary together. And conversations with activists reveal that the seepage of ideas and practices takes place not merely by osmosis but also by active transport. Leaders of newly emerging groups in various countries are working to create diffuse networks. The way that Arab publics have learned to speak, feel, and act differently than in the past has been exhilarating, but also destabilizing and disorienting. And it might yet prove to be futile.
But we come then to the fourth and final change -- one that is clear even in the midst of upheaval: Change itself now has a standing place on the agenda. Prior to 2011, it was never quite clear what an Arab ruler would have to do to lose his job. Launching a catastrophic war, presiding over economic decay, bilking the public coffers -- none of these things was cause for dismissal. Despite an unearned reputation for political instability, the Arab world contained political systems that seemed impervious to change. That is no longer the case. Many rulers may survive the current upheavals, but all will be shaken and even the survivors will have to recast their rule in some way (for better or worse).
In short, if the past five months can be said to have achieved anything, it's that the term "former ruler" is no longer an oxymoron in the Arab world. When the U.S. president speaks tomorrow, he will have to be concerned not only by how his words play to regional leaders, but also by how they will be heard by Arab societies.