Sunday, March 27, 2011
This Arab Spring has been uncannily like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, only this one's entirely made by humans. Like continental plates grinding against each other, tensions that can't go on forever have been going on way too long. Once they shift, the energies released are as implacable and unstoppable as a tsunami. Mass movement is scary, more like a force of nature than a volitional act.
Volitional acts do matter, though. In both natural disasters and manmade ones.
Revolutionary situations expose the faultlines usually hiding beneath the surface of a political superstructure. While the unrest of the Arab Spring has spread in ever wider circles, events in the countries where it has broken out have followed rather distinct trajectories. While situations like these are extremely fluid and anything but deterministic, a good deal of what's going on is explicable by the hidden faultlines within the societies now coming to the surface.
Egypt and Tunisia are rather robust societies and polities. There are minorities—in particular the 10-million-strong Coptic one in Egypt—but they're not big enough to endanger the unity of the society. Both countries have relatively stable institutions, and local, tribal, or sectarian identities aren't strong enough to tear the country apart. Their revolutions were from the start a contest between an autocratic state and a relatively uniform people. In both cases, the people triumphed in the revolutionary phase, and both countries have since moved to a post-revolutionary phase, where the contest continues at a lower intensity and with relatively little violence. The prospects for an outcome that's significantly better than what went before look pretty good, even if it's certain to fall far short of the dreams of the revolutionaries.
Bahrain is fractured along sectarian lines. The migrant workers making up half the population have not participated much in the revolutionary activity. The citizenship is about one-third Sunni and two-thirds Shi'ite, with the institutions of power held by the Sunnis, and the revolutionaries mostly Shi'ite. Clearly, the regime's threshold of using lethal force on the revolutionaries was lower. It has now turned into a sectarian conflict, with external powers drawn into the game. This is a recipe for civil war. Too much blood has been shed already for either party to step back from the brink, and a great deal more will have to flow before one of them is defeated, and it is unlikely that whatever emerges will bear much resemblance to a state of, by, and for all of its citizens equally.
Libya is a tribal society, and its character has quickly asserted itself. The situation has been so fluid because tribal leaders have been switching allegiance between the rebels and the loyalists, some more than once. Tribal loyalties are stronger than national ones, or loyalty to Tripoli or Benghazi. There's no way of knowing how that'll go, nor of what will emerge if and when Qaddafi is finally toppled. The possible outcomes range from a long and protracted tribal civil war to some kind of new arrangement between the tribes to restore a semblance of normalcy and perhaps even some kind of open society.
Syria is in a class of its own: a 70% Sunni Muslim country with a large variety of minorities, and the summit of the ruling clique from one of them, the Alawites. That makes it very difficult to predict what will happen there, since so much depends on the decisions of that ruling clique.
I just came across an interesting article about the correlation between the level of violence in a revolution and the type of system that emerges from it. Nonviolent revolutions have resulted in consistently better systems than violent ones. That means that prospects are pretty good for Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen if things don't spin out of control there in the endgame, but rather bad for Bahrain and Libya. Clearly there's no single template that the revolutions will follow; much depends on local conditions and structures as well as the path the dynamic, unpredictable, and fluid revolutions themselves take.
It is pretty powerful argument for nonviolence, there. That violent revolutions aren't worth the sacrifice, because what emerges won't be any better.