Interview: Michael Young on the “Arab Spring”

Michael Young

Michael Young is one of the leading political analysts in the Middle East and broader Arab world. He is the opinion editor of the The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle. He also tweets @BeirutCalling. In light of recent developments in the region, ArabsThink.com has had the opportunity to interview Michael Young about his take on events. The interview was conducted on the 9th of August 2011.

Many headlines over the past months have attempted to contrast 2011 to events of 1989 and 1848. Are these parallels correct? What of 1789?

What’s going on in the Arab World is a work in progress. I doubt that what happened in Egypt is 1789, given that the core of the ancien regime still remains. Some perhaps might say that 1952, when King Farouq was removed, was comparable to 1789. These historical comparisons are there to lend clarity to something that remains very unclear today. In each country we see different developments. In Egypt we removed Pharaoh, but not necessarily the system that Pharaoh ruled over, with the military still very much in power. In Libya, the situation has essentially disintegrated into civil war. In Tunisia, there was a removal of one leader, and perhaps the greatest prospect for a society that will move towards something more open and democratic. Despite these positive evolutions, even Tunisia remains a work in progress.

In Syria, there exists a real prospect of a situation descending into sectarian war. After four months of largely peaceful demonstrations, the outcome is still highly uncertain: will it be a revolution? If so, what type of a revolution and what will the determinant factors look like? Will the result be sectarianism?

The situations in Yemen and Bahrain are also worth mentioning. In Bahrain, the largely Shiite opposition has been silenced, at least for now. But no one seriously believes that this is the end of the affair in the kingdom. Each country brings a different lesson, so this notion of whether we are living 1848 or 1989 again is one that I cannot readily answer. What’s certain is that we’re moving toward hazier outcomes than what we saw in Europe in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet empire.

With regard to this haziness, there are structural elements in the Middle East, such as the many regional powers that cling on, that constitute barriers to fluid change. Is it possible to speak of a regional attempt to contain the Arab revolts and revolutions? Is it possible to speak of a counter-revolution?

The obvious answer today is that Saudi Arabia was one of those states that felt most threatened by, for example, the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The Saudis also played an essential role in the repression in Bahrain. They tried to play a role in Yemen, but the situation there is far more complex. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has tried to be the leader of the Arab world’s counter-revolution.

But even the Saudi position is not as clear-cut, given that the situation is so volatile. Recently, the Saudis found themselves moving towards opposition against the Assad regime in Syria. For many months the Kingdom allowed, giving considerable leeway for the Syrian regime to repress dissent.

Over time, it became untenable for Saudi Arabia to maintain a policy of virtual silence on Syrian developments. The continued repression led the Saudis, over the course of a week, to completely shift their position. In effect, the Kingdom played a key role in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and Arab League statements condemning the Syrian regime’s behavior. The Saudi ambassador was also withdrawn from Damascus. This, in turn, led other Gulf countries, such as Kuwait and Bahrain, to withdraw their respective ambassadors from Syria. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia, which had taken a backseat on the issue up until now, found itself taking a much more involved role in the Syrian issue.

Of course, Saudi Arabia is not the only player that has attempted to contain the shockwaves of what is happening. On an internal level, the Jordanian monarchy has worked to contain its own problems. In Morocco, the king went through with a constitutional referendum to appease protestors. Each regime has attempted in its own way to contain these revolts, but the most flagrant example of a country that has sought to play a regional role is Saudi Arabia.

In the face of successive fait accompli, as with the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other important actors find themselves in difficult positions. How will these major players adapt to these “post-revolutionary” scenarios? What will the new links with these states look like?

We don’t know at this point for certain what is going to emerge. When these revolutions began in Tunisia and Egypt, the Iranian positions, and that of their allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, were linked to their belief that what was happening was a blow to American interests in the Middle East. Famously, Bashar al-Assad, in his interview with the Wall Street Journal, tried to suggest that he was immune from such protests. Bashar believed that he somehow embodied a psychology of resistance that the Syrian people shared. That is something he will never forget, because it proved to be completely false.

What will emerge? With Syria and Libya collapsing into various forms of breakdown, the narrative that attempts to explain that what is happening is directed against the West and American interests, appears to have changed. In fact, this has not been against America or American interests, nor for that matter Iran or Iranian interests. These have been largely domestic crises or conflicts, for domestic reasons.

It’s interesting that Assad, in his WSJ interview, should have focused on the external factors to explain his legitimacy. Indeed, the legitimacy of many Arab regimes, including the Syrian regime, have solely been based on the perception of the leaders’ role towards foreign policy, and much less so toward domestic policy. What we see today is that a lot of these protests are focused almost entirely on domestic issues. Protestors are demanding, in all the affected countries, internal reform.

They are not allowing themselves to be dragged into a debate on foreign policy, on neo-colonialism, on Israel and Palestine, etc. Suddenly, people are saying, “let’s deal with our own problems.” This is something that Arab regimes for decades have avoided. In other words, in order to avoid addressing domestic issues, they have tended to direct their people’s hostility outwards, brushing internal problems away by blaming them external reasons – be it other Arab regimes, America, Israel, and so on. Today, that game is no longer working.

There exists today a shift from ideology within the Arab political public space. The relative disenchantment from questions such as the Palestinian cause, which for decades has constituted the heart of regime foreign policy and domestic manipulation, is amongst one of the leading examples of this shift. With the disintegration of these systems of legitimization, is it possible to say that the next Arab political space can be paralleled to a European or post-political one relatively free from ideology?

I think that we should be wary. At this point it is difficult to predict what the outcomes will be. I suspect that in a lot of countries, as they go through this process of reform, the focus will be on domestic issues. A lot of these societies have gone through convulsions requiring, almost naturally, that in a “post-revolutionary phase” that they will have to deal with their own issues; rebuild their own societies.

Again, this will vary from country to country. In Egypt, certain things will be determined by the outcome of the elections. I personally don’t have any faith in the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, because ultimately their ambition is to change as little as possible, especially with respect to the army’s control over large parts of the economy.
In Syria, if we enter into a (sectarian) civil war, then who knows how long such a calamity would last and who would emerge triumphant, and how the country will emerge from civil conflict. These are questions very difficult to answer today.

We should not jump, at this moment, to a post-ideological Arab world along the lines of Europe. Even Europe itself offers many contradictory examples and lessons in the post-1989 period. What happened in former Yugoslavia is very different from what happened in the Czech Republic, with its Velvet divorce from Slovakia. These examples also vary from the Hungarian case, with the re-emergence of a centralized power system, if not an increasingly authoritarian one.

The Ghosts of Martyrs Square

Amongst minorities of the region, there exists a fear that the fall of autocratic regimes will result in the take-over of more totalistic and extremist elements. Are these fears founded?

The fears are founded because the regimes themselves have sought to create sectarian issues within their own countries. The Syrian regime has essentially sought to pursue a self-fulfilling prophecy. For the regime, if the Assads go, minorities (both Alawites and others) will be crushed and marginalized. For the Syrian autocrats, if anything were to replace their rule, it would be some form of Sunni-Islamism, radicalism and so forth.

I don’t believe that this is necessarily true. The problem is that the regime in Syria is behaving in such a way that is virtually ensuring that such an outcome will be true. This has become in certain respects a tactical reflex on its part, because if it can ensure that such an outcome is true, it would encourage outside actors to say that “better the Assads than a situation where we have communal carnage, and an emergence of Sunni Islamism.”

In a way, this has always been the traditional Syrian modus operandi. By heightening the very fear that outside powers want to avoid, the Assads ensure that these same powers are ready to make concessions to the Syrian regime. There has always been a fear that if the Syrian regime were to fall, Islamists would take over. So the Syrian regime has systematically over the years, encouraged or allowed to a certain extent, within controllable boundaries, the emergence of certain types of Islamist movements.

For example, the Syrian regime was responsible for allowing Al-Qaeda militants through Syria into Iraq. Syria allowed networks to be created to transfer jihadists and militants into Iraq, acting like the fireman who starts a fire that he alone can extinguish. This is how the Syrian regime functions. The problem today is that this regime has today increased the prospect of a sectarian civil war, even though the Syrian opposition has tried hard to avoid the sectarian trap. The regime has increased the likelihood of a more radical Sunni radicalism emerging as a result of its brutal measures in recent months. We can only hope that this effort will fail.

It is undeniable today that Islamist movements have a large support base in various Arab countries. Islamists in the past have always called for the establishment of exclusive and total Islamic states. Today, their political rhetoric seems to have changed; they have also claimed to be leading actors of the revolutions. Can they be trusted?

It depends on which movement we’re talking about. We’ve noticed that there have been strains in several of the Islamist movements since the fall of regimes. We know that in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has gone through a period of turbulence in the last few months. Two weeks ago there was a massive Salafist demonstration in Tahrir. But it is important to note that the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood are not the same.

In Syria, it is unclear what role the Muslim Brotherhood is playing. It did issue a manifesto a few years ago that was much more “liberal” than what one would expect from such a group: they spoke of pluralism, etc. But again, for many people this is hypocrisy – a mere tactical façade. I’m not sure it’s quite that. But at the same time, one has to wonder, when power is finally near, will your strategy be the same one that you were compelled to adopt during your period of exile or repression? Or do the young members say that this is their chance. These questions are perfectly relevant to ask today, but once again it is necessary not to give any finality to these issues raised because we are in the middle of a transformative process.

There are many countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that have great influence over these movements. Will the Saudis encourage or discourage them, or do nothing at all? What happens if outside actors get involved in a lot of these domestic discussions on whether Islamist groups should be allowed into the political process, which ones, etc? Many actors who have influence over these groups are not particularly enlightened.

What of the legitimacy of the Islamists?

Throughout the years, focus has been on how many of these Islamist movements have been subjected to systematic regime repression. Yes, this repression has existed, but I feel that there has always been just as systematic repression, perhaps less bloody, of liberal movements. You see this in Egypt, and even in Syria. The Egyptian authorities did try to crush armed Islamist movements. In Syria they also managed to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, liberal movements, or projects, were also marginalized: often with less blood because these movements themselves did not engage in armed revolt.

But the paradox is that there has always been an implicit understanding between regimes and Islamists. I’m not trying to get into conspiracy theories, but regimes have allowed certain latitude to Islamic and Islamists groups with specific margins, that they have sometimes not allowed to liberals. This was the case in Egypt with the arrest of Ayman Nour, one of the leading opposition figures. We saw this in Syria with the arrest of Riad Turk, when his group of communists were moving toward greater democratization. In Egypt today, the army could benefit in seeing a certain controlled Islamist movement, because this would mean that the army itself is seen as the potential savior or barrier against an Islamist project.

Who will inherit or win out in the end in these revolutions, and what will their relation be with the Islamists? It’s always more convenient for these militarized regimes to deal with Islamists, who represent a potential threat that in turn justifies the strength and abuse of the security services and the army. Liberal contestation, on the other hand, does not always justify the same suppression of opposition groups.

What of the elements of the “Ancient Regimes” – particularly in Egypt and Tunisia?

In each country the military differs,  and their objectives and structures differ. This is one particular reason why we’ve seen so much variety in this so-called “Arab Spring”.

In Egypt, the army has sought to play a subtle game by allowing elections and agreeing to put Mubarak on trial. On the one hand, the election can turn to the army’s advantage if the Islamists do well, because the army itself will represent an alternative to an Islamist Egypt. On the other hand, the army was obliged, under the pressure of the street, to put the former president on trial. I don’t believe this is something they wanted to do, especially as the legal process might prove to be embarrassing to senior members of the army, above all Field Marshal Tantaoui. But it’s a mixed bag.

In Syria, there have been efforts to find a military figure as a solution to the problem of the Assads. But this is not a realistic project. In Egypt what happened, happened because it was possible for the military to tell Mubarak to step down. In Tunisia, the military played a key role at a vital moment to turn against Ben Ali. In Syria it’s much more complex as the military is effectively controlled by the Alawite minority. If the military were to breakdown along sectarian lines, then obviously the situation would differ greatly.

The past few weeks have been decisive for the “Syrian Revolution.” How do you read the evolution of regional and domestic political positions (Jumblatt’s Turkey visit, Davotuglu’s Damascus visit, Hariri’s statement, the Saudi King’s position, etc.)?

The region gave Assad a long time to crush his revolt. Had Bashar al-Assad crushed the revolts in this five month period, no one would have said anything. Nor the Saudis, nor the Turks and nor the Gulf countries. He was given great latitude to suppress his own people. But then at one point, it became clear that he was unable to do finish the job. So a lot of these countries realized that he’s not going to win. Worse than that, in order to survive Bashar is going to destabilize the region far more dangerously than we can imagine. As a consequence, a lot of these states have changed their politics towards Syria.

The Turks have been trying quietly to bring about regime change in Damascus, even if they remain deeply reluctant to push hard for such an outcome. I think this is why General Ali Habib, the former Syrian Defense Minister was ousted last Monday. The Turks had seen him as the possible leader of a transition council. His ousting was a message to Davutoglu before his visit, that the Turks should not think that they could present such a project to the Assads.

The point is that a lot of these states, particularly Saudi Arabia, backed Bashar, and looked away from his crimes for five months. They believed that if Assad could crush the revolts in this timeframe, it would add to stability in the region. The Turks were just as cynical. I suspect that even the United States, for a time, thought the same thing.

Suddenly everyone realized that the outcome could be far worse, as the president’s instinct became to destabilize Syria, and even the region. But most importantly, Assad has no other option but to pursue the war of eradication against his own people. This could eventually lead to sectarian conflict.

For the King of Saudi Arabia, this becomes very problematic, as he is a paramount representative of the Sunni community in the Arab world. Not to mention practical aspects: what is happening may lead to Islamist radicalization that could even turn against the Kingdom.

This is where we find ourselves today. This all shows great irresponsibility in the region and in the West. Bashar was allowed five months to pursue the butchery, and now, a lot of these states are lagging behind to resolve the Syria issue. All this should have been dealt with much sooner. We can only hope that a civil war can be avoided.

Questions written by Mélissa Rahmouni and Tamer Mallat. Interview conducted by Tamer Mallat.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Egypt, English, Foreign Policy & IR, Gulf states, Interview, Lebanon & Syria, Turkey

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