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Tunisia and Egypt

When one wave of revolution hits an Arab country it is very likely to hit several others. Like the revolts of the colonels. It started with a coup d’état of army colonels by Gamal Abdel Nasser (who supplanted his lackey Muhammad Naguib) in early 1953. There followed another coup of colonels in Syria which then teamed up with Egypt to comprise the United Arab Republic in 1956. The preposterous flag with two stars, one for each state, is about as deep as the union was. Then colonels in Iraq made all the right gestures for another high flown and extremely bloody revolution about which you can read in Elie Kedourie’s magnificent essay, “The Kingdom of Iraq: A Retrospect,” in The Chatham House Version and Other Essays. You should know that this great historian was denied his Oxford D.Phil. for his thesis which was later published to great acclaim as England and the Middle East. Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb, whom I knew a little bit later when he was director of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, led the campaign against Kedourie on account of his analyses and projections of Arab national nationalism and his dissent from the idolization of T.E. Lawrence. The conservative political theorist, Michael Oakeshott, brought him to the London School of Economics. (If you want to grasp why Harvard is so dreary a place for the study of the Middle East just think back to the bigoted man who ran its center 40 years ago. Given tenure spots, legacies at universities have long lives, long after the passing of this chairman or that. Kind of like Edward Said at Columbia. His theories are desiccated. But they will be taught more or less everywhere until the last assistant professor of “orientalism” expires.)

Now back to the other pan-Arab revolutionary ventures of the past: Yemen, Libya, Sudan. All of these governments are failures, dismal failures, even if they possess current oil supplies and plentiful oil reserves which only the last two of them do.

But then there are the parochial Arab governments. Based in territorial circumstances, hoisted on the shoulders of local tyrants, paying perfunctory tribute to pan-Arab interests while conspiring against them. Egypt, where the dictatorship now seems to be under threat from protesters, has been led by the pathetic Mubarak. He kept his country in penury, his poor poorer, his foreign policy docile, his military passive (after all, it doesn’t want to lose all its jet fighters to the Israeli Air Force again). He wages war against the Muslim Brothers, without which war whatever modernism Egypt has achieved would dissolve. Many of the “employed” in Egypt are paid not to work. Jordan is a decorous kingdom which at least half of its citizens—the Palestinians—would want overthrown. The king changes the cabinet every other Wednesday. Lebanon is about to fade from history or into history. The Saudis have not precisely betrayed Lebanon. But even their cash could not rescue a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state, the only one in the Arab League. Chalk this one up to Damascus, Tehran and, alas, Washington.

As it happens, the populist Tunisian revolt now shows signs of spreading, at least to Egypt. Like Algeria and Morocco, the nasty politics of Tunisia didn’t seem to affect many other Arab states. It was not exactly self-enclosed. But it didn’t make waves either. Tourists visited Tunisia like they visited Morocco. Then one man immolated himself and the instinct to put oneself in danger spread. I don’t mean this disdainfully at all. After all, “the tree of liberty...”

Still, many have been killed...although the estimates of victims of the police have basically stopped since January 12. On that day, the count was “more than 50.” Who knows how the number has risen in the 12 days since? What is clearer is that the turmoil of protest has spread to other Arab countries: Sudan, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt. But not even Stephen M. Walt, self-styled “realist in an ideological age,” thinks that the stirring of protest will actually levitate in any other Arab country. Writing in Foreign Policy under his grim mug shot on January 16, Walt explains why “the Tunisian revolution won’t spread.”

The toppling of the Tunisian regime led by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has led a lot of smart people  -- including my FP colleague Marc Lynch -- to suggest that this might be the catalyst for a wave of democratization throughout the Arab world. The basic idea is that events in Tunisia will have a powerful demonstration effect (magnified by various forms of new media), leading other unhappy masses to rise up and challenge the stultifying dictatorships in places like Egypt or Syria. The obvious analogy (though not everyone makes it) is to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe, or perhaps the various "color revolutions" that took place in places like Ukraine or Georgia.

I also don’t believe that what happened in Tunis will miraculously spread anywhere in the Arab world. Unless, of course, what occurs next in Tunisia is the coming to power of the Muslim Brothers or other close cousins of the jihadniks. To be sure, there is the Algerian model, not the armed conflict between the French and the National Liberation Front, but a virtual civil war between the draconian military and the vindictively pious which cost maybe a quarter of a million lives, many of them garroted in pure sunlight.