Burning Question: Why is it that the Middle Eastern uprisings took the world by surprise?
With sudden speed this spring, people across the Middle East rose up to reshape their world. The Alumni Bulletin asked Provost Nayef Samhat to help put the events in perspective. He studies the politics of the Middle East and international relations there.
Why is it that these uprisings took the world by surprise?
Most of these states have pretty strong security organizations and most of them have mildly influential civil society organizations that are tied to the government or the state or the ruling party rather than being independent. So a lot of those factors suggest that the opportunities for people to rise up in a way that escapes the control of the government are rather limited.
What's the common thread for action in these countries?
The conditions for rising up are ripe: failed development promises, unresponsive governments and states, and, in the end, an inability for people to credibly articulate their complaints through legitimate political and independent processes. What it tells us is that even the most repressive regimes are susceptible. There's a breaking point
The word "refolution" was coined by Timothy Garton Ash during the East Bloc transformations. A little bit of revolution and a little bit of reform. In some places you may see more revolutionary changes—Bahrain and the government there. I don't think in Syria you'll see the government change. I'd be surprised. Syria will probably be the most interesting case because, number one, the United States is not deeply tied to Syria. And number two, Syria is more tied to Iran for a variety of reasons. Number three, we don't know the exact link or the relationship between the president (Bashar al-Assad) and the party apparatus.
Even with the demise of [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, which is probably the most significant development, all the elements of power are still in place in Egypt. The military is still in place. The security apparatus is still in place. The levers of economic control are still in place. I think Egypt will go the way of a Turkey. The military will probably see its interest in serving a kind of managed democracy.
Should the U.S. fear this change?
I don't think we have to be terribly fearful. I'm not entirely convinced the Libyan regime will fall. We have a problem there, because we've alienated someone who is a large oil producer. But [Muammar Gaddafi] has been isolated before, and I do not think he is the hinge on which the region turns. In Egypt I think the connection between the U.S. and the Egyptian government, and in particular the Egyptian military, is very strong. I think Egypt's kind of controlled democratic transition will ensure the kind of stability that will provide some assurance to the Israelis and the U.S. I don't think Syria is going to radicalize any further or be more intrusive
Bahrain is a different case, as the monarchy there is Sunni governing a Shiite population. They're going to have to make some concessions to placate the unrest. It's a base for the U.S. I don't think the Saudis want to see a Shiite regime come into power there. A Shiite-governed Bahrain means that Iran may develop ties based on religious allegiance and that might mobilize the Shiites in Saudi Arabia and that will perhaps further stir the Shiites in Lebanon. That, I believe, is the perceived concern.
The U.S. has supported regimes in the interest of stability and sometimes at the expense of democracy.
Have we lost credibility in the Arabic-speaking world?
You have a lot of tensions. You don't want to be seen as intruding in the internal affairs of states. Moreover, you have a particular regional order that is stable and you want to maintain that order because you don't know what the alternative is.
The U.S. and its values and principles are embraced by the people. Who does not like freedom and opportunity? The perception is often that the U.S. or its policies are supportive of the status quo, which it often is, that they have been unjust to the Palestinian cause, that they have tolerated certain practices by certain states in the region that they wouldn't tolerate elsewhere. The policies of the U.S. may not necessarily be appreciated by some, but the values and the country and the opportunities are. So I think the U.S. has a lot of capital there, and this is an opportunity.
What role are al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups playing in these popular movements?
I don't think radicalism and militancy are a pervasive phenomenon in the region. I think certainly the kind of violent radicalism of an al-Qaeda draws upon all classes, so the notion that only the poor engage in violence is not necessarily true. I think the basic conditions apply to the vast majority of people there, the overwhelming majority—they want economic opportunity, well-being, security, and freedom. Those are the basic principles, and our encouragement of those principles throughout the region will serve us well.
What's your forecast?
I'm optimistic by nature, so I think there will be some change. I think there will be degrees of change, improvements in opportunity and freedom. I do think it's essential to solve the Palestinian issue. It's not the source of all problems in the region, but until you solve that issue there will always be the potential for instability.