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Looking to the past to understand Arab Spring struggles and success

February 19, 2014 at 6:43 PM EDT
What differentiates Tunisia in its progress establishing a young democracy, while other countries inspired by the Arab Spring have floundered? What are the lasting consequences for nations that have plunged into long-term conflict? Jeffrey Brown asks for an assessment from Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya, Mary-Jane Deeb of the Library of Congress and Tarek Masoud of Harvard University.
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JEFFREY BROWN: We thought we’d turn again to three people who’ve watched events with us since they first began to unfold three years ago. Mary-Jane Deeb is chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress. The views she expresses here are her own. Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya news channel. And Tarek Masoud is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University. He specializes in Islamic political parties and their role in governance.

And, Tarek, let me start where you.

Every country is different, of course. We can’t go through all those differences. But what can be said so far about the factors that go into success or failure? 

TAREK MASOUD, Harvard University: Well, it’s a great question, Jeff.

I mean, I think one thing is that we have known for a long time that there are certain prerequisites to getting democracy. You are much more likely to get and keep democracy is if your country is pretty well economically developed, if you have a highly literate population.

And if you look across the Middle East, that kind of — those kinds of prerequisites are lacking. So it’s not surprising to me that Tunisia seems to be the only bright spot. And it really is on a bright spot in comparison to the grim stories in Egypt and Libya and Syria and elsewhere.

But it’s a bright spot, I think it, because, compared to those other countries, was just much more developed. It has a much more modern, kind of literate population, much more educated population. And I think that’s a big part of the story here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right so, let me ask Mary-Jane Deeb the same question.

To what degree could one translate what is perhaps a success story in Tunisia so far to other places?

MARY-JANE DEEB, Library of Congress: Well, you know, each country is different. And that’s the basis of the differences in the outcomes of the Arab spring.

Tunisia had a constitution in 1861.

JEFFREY BROWN: 1861?

MARY-JANE DEEB: 1861.

And so whilst Libya, you know, is relatively a new state, if you want, in modern terms, and Egypt, on the other hand, has certain basic institutions, such as the army, which plays a very important role. Therefore, each model is different.

And is it the organization of the state and the society that has affected the outcome of the Arab spring in each case.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Hisham, in a place like Libya, we see there are some tentative moves towards creating a constitution, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Egypt, we talked about what is going on. How do you — do you see some general theme here?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Arabiya Television: If you look at these homogeneous societies, a country like Tunisia would reform traditions going back to the 19th century.

In fact, just as an anecdote, Tunisia was the first country to outlaw slavery in the Muslim world, and it outlawed slavery 17 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States 1863, after the Antietam — the Battle of Antietam. There is a tradition of secularism in Tunisia.

There is — women are highly educated compared to women in the rest of Africa and the Arab world. Tunisia is a small country, homogeneous country, and, most importantly, Tunisia had a small armed forces. This armed forces never had a tradition of shooting at civilians in the street, the way the Syrian military had, the Iraqi military had, the Yemeni military and Algerian military.

That accounts for the development of Tunisia. Tunisia probably is the only country that is going to make that transition. Egypt was close because Egypt also is a homogeneous state mainly. But the Islamists in Tunisia — in Egypt and the fact that you don’t have strong a democratic movement, and a dearth of democratic tradition, led Egypt to this state.

So, on the one hand, you have the persistence of the old order and the lack of democratic forces that believe in pluralism.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Tarek, it’s another big question here, but, so, therefore do you look at — we have heard talk about the economy. We have heard talk about the rise of Islamist movements.

We haven’t even brought in Syria yet. I raised it in the — in our opening segment. What do you look at most to help you determine what we might be talking about next year at this time or five years from this time?

TAREK MASOUD: Oh, well, you know, it’s hard to know.

I mean, so there are two different approaches that we could take to kind of try to divine the futures of these countries, right?  The one approach is the really pessimistic approach I just shared with you, where I said, we will just look at their level of economic development. And we know, from looking at all kinds of countries across history, that the odds are not really good for any of these Arab countries in terms of their ability to achieve democracy.

But we could also — I mean, we could take maybe a more hopeful view and look at the actual players in each country and think about, well, are the players, are they clever enough or smart enough or do they have the political will to kind of overcome some of these obstacles and do the necessary compromise that will get them to some kind of more inclusive democratic order?

And, again, so, when you look at all of these places, these things just don’t seem to be present. So, in Egypt, you know, it seems to me that the best predictor of Egypt’s future is Egypt’s past. Egypt from 1952 has basically been governed by the military. And that seems to be what is happening again.

If you look at, say, a country like Libya, well, when Gadhafi was in charge, basically, what he tried to do was dismantle any semblance of a state and just bribe the different tribes that lived in Libya with oil money. And, sure enough, the biggest problem that you have in Libya right now is that Gadhafi legacy of having no state. And so you don’t really have much of an army. You don’t have much of the apparatus of a nationally unified state.

So that’s what we would expect to be the problem in the future. And, you know, Yemen, for example, similar kind of story. So, really, if you look at Tunisia and why is Tunisia such a hopeful story, well, if you look at the last 50 years, particularly during the Bourguiba period, the dictator who preceded Ben Ali, he was a kind of liberalizing, modernizing autocrat.

And, so, again, it is not kind of surprising that that country is going in a slightly more liberal and modern direction. So, I look to the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Mary-Jane Deeb, you can pick up on that, but I also want you to bring in Syria, because how much is that — we look at it all the time on its own. How much of it is an outlier what’s happened in the Arab spring, or how much of it is really almost defining what will come?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, you know, three years ago, when we were looking at what was happening in the region, I remember saying it’s a house of cards. It begins in one country, and then it moves to the next.

JEFFREY BROWN: But we were talking about it in a positive way then.

MARY-JANE DEEB: We were. We were looking at those who were actually rebelling, those who were asking for change and reform. And we were saying the young people in the city of Cairo have learned from this, the people in Tunisia, and so did the Libyans.

But what we didn’t point out was that the governments were learning also from the experience of the others. So Tunisia and the Tunisian president fell easily. The one in Egypt took a bit longer, but he fell. And then you see the resistance building up in Libya, then even more resistance in Syria.

And the stakes are even higher in Syria than elsewhere, where, really, the focus was one individual, one leader, if you want. In Syria, it is the fate of two million people, the Alawites. And so the stakes are so much higher in Syria than they are in the other countries, that compromise is perhaps more difficult.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Hisham Melhem, not only did governments learn, but Islamic movements, militants learned as well.

HISHAM MELHEM: Not all of them.

The Ennahda movement in Tunisia learned from the Egyptian experience, what happened — what the people of Egypt did to Islamists and what the Egyptian military did to the Islamists. And that is one reason why they were more forthcoming and more willing to accommodate the secular forces in Tunisia.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, we’re just in our last minute. So, tell me what — so what are you looking at?

HISHAM MELHEM: What I am looking at is that at the Arab east is going to be engulfed in a long nightmare that is going to last for years. Syria is going no longer…

JEFFREY BROWN: Years?

HISHAM MELHEM: Years and probably decades.

Syria is no longer a Syrian war — a civil war. It’s a regional war where Islamists, Shia from all the way to Central Asia to Iraq, to Lebanon, to Iran definitely are fighting an entrenched Islamist, Sunni-dominated now forces that are being supported also by Sunni governments.

It is not an exaggeration to talk about one continuum front, sectarian front that is bloody from the Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. And the whole Arab world and the Arab east mostly, up in North Africa, is involved in this war.

The war in Syria is not going to remain in Syria. It is going to threaten Southern Europe. This is not a landlocked country like Afghanistan. And we saw what — the terrible consequences of the war in Afghanistan when the West left the Afghans to their own devices.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

HISHAM MELHEM: It is no longer a moral issue. It is a strategic issue for the United States…

HISHAM MELHEM: … to do something.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. All right, very sobering, indeed.

Thank you, all three, once again.

Mary-Jane Deeb, Hisham Melhem, and Tarek Masoud, thanks.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Thank you.