Revolutionary Lessons from the Middle East and North Africa

This blog was written by Haleh Vaziri, Ph.D, a long time friend and confidante of Sigma’s President, Bob Bilkie. Haleh has a rich training in, and personal knowledge of, Middle Eastern politics and culture, which make her views of the current tumult in that region of the world particularly timely and valuable.

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Revolt in the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, should inspire questions regarding what we across the Atlantic know about the region. These uprisings are teaching us lessons that undermine conventional wisdom, and three are important right now.

(1) Tunisia—the little country that could: Experts have predicted that one of the MENA’s major players would be the epicenter of any political earthquake shaking the region: Egypt, the Arab world’s “beating heart”; Iran, self-declared Persian protector of Islam’s Shi`as; or Turkey, the Muslim Middle East’s only functioning democracy.

Surprisingly, Tunisia sparked the MENA’s revolutionary flame when a fruit vendor literally set himself ablaze on 17 December to protest police harassment and lack of government accountability. This hard-working everyman’s plight galvanized Tunisians familiar with the sting of political insult. Although a U.S. ally in fighting terrorism, nobody paid much attention to Tunisia until citizens took to the streets, demanding justice for their compatriot and themselves. On 14 January, the president of 23 years fled the country, making Tunisia the little democratic engine that could.

(2) The revolution is televised: Media is fueling this engine, and the buzz surrounds social networking. Yet the MENA’s internet users are mostly young, middle-class and well educated. Television viewing, by contrast, is universal. With 200-plus satellite channels, Arabs can choose from dozens of news outlets. Amid the Facebook posts and tweets, the “Al Jazeera effect”—visuals of citizens confronting state repression—is more significant in spreading revolutionary defiance.

Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have owned this story. Their coverage of demonstrations and reformist experiments resembles their overall news programming which strives to hold Arab governments accountable to the citizenry. By reporting the facts, these channels undercut the credibility of state media outlets to foster a political culture of responsibility and rights while Arabs bear witness to one another’s trials and triumphs.

(3) Some dominoes wobble but do not easily fall: Declarations about revolution’s inevitability and the domino effect are tempting. Yet inevitability is hindsight’s gift. The MENA’s tyrants may ultimately fall, but questions about when and how persist. The dictators’ willingness to leave and the instruments they use to maintain power vary from one country to the next. Tunisia’s and Egypt’s presidents chose to leave, realizing they could not prevail without resort to devastating force to crush popular discontent. Iran’s and Libya’s rulers have not hesitated to unleash their armies on demonstrators. Even these two situations differ.

Iran’s Islamic Republic is no one-man show. With competing institutional power centers, officials employ faith, favors and force to sustain their theocracy. The opposition has not swayed Iranians benefitting from government patronage, nor has it consistently challenged repression. The tent over President Qadhaffi’s one-ring circus may collapse sooner than the Islamic Republic, but his stranglehold on Libyans is more suffocating. Vowing to punish “traitors,” Qadhaffi’s brutality is transforming peaceful protests into civil war.

The Middle East and North Africa will remain in next week’s headlines. If their revolutions topple anything, it should be our long-standing notions about the region. These three lessons are just the first act. This drama’s ending is unclear. Whether dictatorships endure or democracies emerge, we in the West have a lot more to learn.

Ms. Haleh Vaziri, Ph.D.
Politics and Media Markets in the Middle East and North Africa