No Democratic Dominoes in the Middle East

Because I have consulted on issues of civil society, youth engagement and democratization in both Libya and Syria, I have been repeatedly asked in the days following Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution and Egypt's uprising, not if or how or whether but only when revolutionary turmoil will spread to those and other "Arab" or "Muslim" countries -- on the theory that it is "1989 in the Middle East" and the regimes there will fall like dominoes. Ordinary Americans, like their counterparts in the media and Washington, are imprisoned in the same shallow generalizations that have captured US foreign policy, and proceed from such foolish assumptions as "Arabs" or "Muslims" or "Middle Eastern countries" are all the same, all of a piece, all likely to follow a singular path into chaos, revolution and who-knows-what? And so we must again be reminded that, as unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way (Tolstoy), autocratic Arab regimes are each corrupt in their own way, and likely to respond to pressure in their own way, and hence likely to experience radically distinctive destinies. Democratization comes in many forms, slow and fast, civic and political, gradual and revolutionary, successful and unsuccessful. And of course, sometimes it does not come at all. Some countries will reap a whirlwind which will blow in new tyrants (witness what followed the Algerian "revolution"); some will endure preemptive repression and renewed autocracy (Iran, Saudi Arabia?); some will change a little by other means and stave off radicalism (the Emirates and Kuwait?); and some may actually become democratic -- though that is the path of greatest resistance -- with results no one much likes (Hamas in Gaza).

The differences in context are crucial: for some autocracies have oil, others don't; some have a small, some a large population, some are secular, others religious; and when religious, some are Shiite, some Sunni and some Sufi -- this matters! Some have massive unemployment, others have manageable unemployment. Some are ruled by self-appointed dynasties, some by military rulers, and some by monopoly parties. The bottom line is Arab dictatorships with Muslim populations are radically dissimilar and there will be no common democratic destiny -- or autocratic destiny -- for Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria -- let alone, say Iran or Turkey which aren't even Arab.

I am not so foolish as to predict anything, even for the countries I know well, but let me say a few things about why neither Libya nor Syria are likely to follow Egypt into a chaotic uprising, and neither Qadaffi nor Bashar Assad are likely to be forced into exile any time soon. The only generalization that can be drawn from these examples is don't generalize! Especially if you are President Obama or Secretary Clinton.

Take Libya: Libya has a small population of around five million, ample supplies of natural gas and oil, a history of being anything but a proxy of the West; it also has a tradition of participatory local governance (if in non-essential matters) because of Muammar Qadaffi's long interest in participatory democracy and peoples' committees (see his Green Book from the 1970s!). Moreover, Qadaffi himself is not detested in the way that Mubarak has been detested and rules by means other than fear. His son Saif, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and two forthcoming books focused on liberalism in the developing world , has pioneered a gradualist approach to civil society in Libya, insisting along the way that he would accept no office that wasn't subject to popular elections. No dynasty likely there.

Syria is governed by old Baathists as Iraq formerly was, but its ruling family has now passed into the hands of the former ophthalmologist Bashar Assad and his British-educated, banking career wife Asma, both of whom are relatively popular among Syrians with whom they mix regularly at restaurants and in the Sukh, where they wear blue jeans (not exactly Mubarak!). They are not passionate Baathists, but members of the Alawite minority and Syrian patriots who have experimented (ever so cautiously) with opening society, engaging young people, developing a pluralistic cultural legacy (through a new program with the Louvre). Bashar spoke this week in a Wall Street Journal interview about the need for change. But like Qadaffi, Assad is not lumbered with a reputation for being an American stooge -- a key element in the popular indictment of Mubarak and the Shah of Iran before him. So the unhappy countries of the Middle East and North Africa will continue to be unhappy each one in its own way. Each will react to the refreshing but chaotic spirit of Cairo's Liberation Square uniquely. The results will be as varied and unpredictable as they have always been when democracy raises its voice in nations experiencing it for the first time. No dominoes, no copycats, no single wave of reform. Myriad reactions as various as the distinctive peoples of the region -- each one with a unique story behind it, a unique destiny before it.