On December 17, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside a local government building in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid. His act—a protest against his mistreatment by police authorities—catalyzed the simmering resentment of Tunisians who had endured decades of government corruption and oppression. Within weeks, much of the Middle East was aflame. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in defiance of their governments. Tunisia's autocratic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was the first to go, fleeing to Saudi Arabia. Then Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for 30 years, abdicated the presidency, leading to upheavals in other countries throughout the region.
In March, Stanford asked four scholars with expertise in Middle Eastern affairs to offer their thoughts on these events and what they mean going forward. This is an edited transcript of their discussion.
Historically, why has it been difficult to establish democratic governments in the Arab world?
Moulay Hicham: That's a very complicated question that has many dimensions.
One is that there was a kind of implicit contract between the West and many of these authoritarian systems, which I call a pact of authoritarian stability. The content of the pact was: You will guarantee a safe supply of oil, at a reasonable price . . . you will rein in Muslim fundamentalism, and in return, we will ensure your stability, we will look the other way if there are violations as long as they are not too excessive. Also, during the Cold War, the idea was that we would protect you against the Soviet Union, but in return, the nationalist discourse had to stay within limits that were not threatening to Israel.
There's a second dimension, and that is economic. When populations have a hard time making ends meet on a day-to-day basis, it is very hard to mobilize and to think of things that are abstract, that have to do with democracy, rule of law and things like this.
The third reason has to do also with certain elements of our culture, or at least how they were interpreted. The institution of the caliphate lies explicitly behind every monarchy, and implicitly even behind the republics. One could not, in essence, confront the leader and ask that he be accountable.
There have been previous attempts over the years to challenge rulers in the region and those have failed. What was different this time?
Abbas Milani: What has changed is a new sense of empowerment in the Arab street, the Muslim street. They feel like they are not subjects of a state, or subjects of a caliphate, but citizens of a modern polity. They want their rights. They are increasingly aware of these rights.
It's almost universal in these countries that there's a large, new, Internet savvy, often an educated population that is demanding to be part of the political process. To some extent, it is also modernization come home to roost: When you modernize a society, you create a technocratic class.
Joel Beinin: I don't agree with that at all. All of those factors, to the extent that they're present, have been present for a decade or more. If you had asked anyone before the uprising in Tunisia if the Arab world was on the verge of a broad-based popular uprising in favor of democracy, nobody, not a single person, would have said yes. Then Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia because he was insulted by a policewoman. Thousands of Tunisians had probably been insulted by a policeman or a policewoman before. Bouazizi decided to burn himself up, and the idea literally caught fire.
If the response to that had been limited to Tunisia, I don't think you would be seeing the breadth of democratic uprisings that we have throughout the Arab world. Tunisia is, in many respects, an outlier and not a central player in Arab politics.
The people who organized the first demonstration in Egypt on January 25 did not believe they would succeed. They, let alone outsiders, had no reason to think that this demonstration would be bigger than any other demonstration that had been called for the last 10 years. So, you could have expected somewhere between 200 and maybe 4,000 if it was really successful. It turned out to be maybe 20,000. No one expected that.
I've been studying Egypt since 1979 and I have thought since 1980, this place is going to blow up, but it never did. So, I think we are dealing here with the kinds of things that can't be predicted.
Moulay Hicham: We are in a situation where a sense of dignity has played an important role. The way in which these republics have organized their dynastic succession was a big insult to the Arab populations. Everybody [in Egypt] knew that the president's son or the president's brother wielded real power, but that this power would be flaunted in the people's faces, that there would be such unprecedented levels of cronyism that constitutions would be changed [to ensure the reign of Mubarak's family], was such an insult. It created a degree of shame that we have difficulty grasping without walking in the streets of Cairo. That dimension is extremely important and played as a trigger.
Milani: The trigger of an event should not be confused with the preconditions necessary for that event to happen. You can't predict that remarkable phenomenon when people suddenly lose their fear. Why does it happen? Because the conditions for this kind of empowerment, the sense of citizenship is there. I saw an Egyptian lady interviewed on CNN and she said, "I am 40 years old and I'm ashamed that not a single election has ever happened in my life that meant anything. I want to be counted." That's a sense of citizenship. That's a sense of saying enough is enough. They are not going to be afraid, they aren't going to be intimidated, and it does have a contagious effect.
Lina Khatib: What we have are two distinct sets of social learning. One is amongst autocratic leaders in the Arab world and one amongst the people in the Arab world, and it seems to me that there is a huge gap between the leaders and their people.
All the current uprisings in the Arab world share a similar trajectory. Every leader would look at what happened in other countries and say, "But our country is different."
Egypt said, "We're not Tunisia." The Yemeni president says, "This is not Tunisia or Egypt." Gadhafi in Libya says the same thing. They all responded in pretty much the same way by quieting the demonstrators and shutting down the media, and offering cosmetic reforms just to shut people up.
It just shows that there's a certain club, if you like, that these autocratic leaders seem to belong to, where they have implicitly or explicitly learned from each other. This blindness means that they kept repeating the same pattern again and again without realizing that things are really changing on the ground.
Because these leaders had succeeded in oppressing their people so well over the years, their egos were getting bigger and they were getting more and more courageous in their oppression. The corruption became more blatant.
They thought they could get away with it, but it got to a point where it really was the tipping point. We have to remember that the activists in Egypt had been working really hard towards this for a number of years. Their efforts should not be dismissed, because they laid the foundation for when the time was right for the trigger.
Beinin: We don't have an adequate conceptual model for understanding what happened here. It's more than a question of what's the trigger. Facebook and Twitter have gotten a lot of attention, but on January 28, which was the day of the first really big demonstration in Egypt—and was the tipping point when the movement became explicitly revolutionary as opposed to reformist—there was no Internet in Egypt. No Twitter, no Facebook, no email, and many cell-phone networks didn't work.
I would argue that for most Egyptians, Al Jazeera was the important thing that changed because you had a reliable source of news that did not reflect the government's point of view.
Moulay Hicham: What we see is a generational revolution, something along the lines of the 1968 movement in France where you had a young generation, which has completely different goals, completely different values. These movements have shown that they have strong mobilizational capacity, but they don't have organizational capacity. To transform this movement into a democratic result in Egypt, you need something more than coming down to the street to protest every time you feel betrayed by the military leadership. You have to be able to propose things that translate into palpable policies.
Here, you have a certain trait, which I see in my own country, which is that these youths are very suspicious of politics. They are suspicious of everything that has the character of party. They are suspicious of personal charisma of any leader. They think immediately, this is synonymous of old patterns. But at the end of the day, you cannot be strong only with your opposition; you have to also be strong with your proposition.
Beinin: This question of organization is very important. Over the last decade there has been a series of political mobilizations in Egypt: There was a popular committee to support the Palestinians after the second intifada; there was a popular committee against the invasion of Iraq; there was a campaign for the independence of the judiciary, etc. None of these things was organized on any basis other than Facebook pages or cell-phone calls to maybe all together a thousand activists in Cairo; middle-class people who, if they didn't know each other personally, certainly knew each other by face and had no connection with the rest of the country.
At the same time, you had in that decade more than two million workers going on strike, sitting-in in their factories, demonstrating in collective acts of protest. People knew this was going on. It was even reported quite a lot in the nongovernmental press. But there was no connection between this urban, middle-class, oppositional mobilization and this mobilization of Egyptian workers. So, there was the embryo of a certain kind of organization that is quite surprising. The labor factor is not present in any of the other Arab countries that have experienced popular uprisings.
Khatib: The fact is we've seen fragmented attempts at calling for democracy, freedom, etc., but these attempts did not have a political platform or particular political agenda, and this is something that Moulay Hicham and Joel have touched upon, which is that a lot of the young people, especially those who were taking to the streets or launching Facebook campaigns, did not have the necessary political knowledge and skills to be able to translate their demands into concrete change on the ground. We have to think about why that was the case.
There is an active effort to depoliticize populations in the Arab world. Rulers simply do not want their people to be interested in politics. This is done in so many different ways. One is by throwing money at people in the hope that they will have such a comfortable life that they will no longer be interested in politics, or by making it so difficult to form a new political party that people simply don't even go there.
At the same time, we have to think about the role of education across the Arab world. Whether we're talking higher education or at lower levels, in general they do not encourage the teaching of critical thinking. There is very little teaching of citizenship. People in the region sometimes are not even aware of what their constitution says. They're not aware of various mechanisms they can use to achieve certain rights. The regimes have made sure that people are as detached from politics as possible.
What do you make of the fact that these movements were primarily grassroots and secular rather than driven by religious leaders?
Milani: The limited role that radical Islam had in organizing these two movements we're talking about, Egypt and Tunisia, might well be the beginning of the end of the use of radical Islam as an excuse for authoritarianism in the region. If it is real change, it is going to have very positive consequences for the future of democracy in the region.
Beinin: Authoritarian regimes have used this bogeyman of radical Islam, but we should also be clear that the Muslim Brothers, or An-Nahda, which is the Tunisian variant, are not radical Islamic groups. The last time that the Muslim Brothers were accused of committing a violent act was 1954.
The Muslim Brothers opposed the radicals who initiated an armed struggle in Egypt in the late '80s and early '90s. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, they won 20 percent of the seats because the regime let them and they behaved with exemplary seriousness as parliamentarians, far more so than members of the regime's party.
I'm a little bit skeptical, though, about predicting the end of radical Islam. The middle class in Egypt is socially conservative, they are provincial and they are deeply religious. Now, that does not mean that they are calling for jihad every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but they are sincerely, deeply religious. That is not going to go away. All the modernization theorists who imagine that secularism is an integral part of modernity have been proven wrong.
The most successful state in the Middle East is Turkey, which is industrialized, economically vibrant, far more democratic than any of the Arab states at this point, militarily significant and ruled by a party which comes out of an Islamic tradition. You can have modernity with a very religious population and with all sorts of constraints that we in the United States would not imagine. But that doesn't mean it will prevent them from being democratic; it doesn't mean it will result in an Islamic theocracy.
Milani: I think it's completely wrong to confuse piety and secularism. A nation can be deeply pious and the society secular. The United States itself is the best example. In order to have democracy, you absolutely need to have a secular public domain.
To have a secular public domain doesn't mean religious forces can't participate, and it certainly doesn't mean people cannot be pious as a middle class and have respect for the Koran; of course they can.
Beinin: And what would we do, for example, among many other possible examples, with Article Two of the Egyptian Constitution, which says that the shari'ah [the divinely ordained code of conduct for Muslims] is the primary source of legislation—in practice it has not been—or the one that says that the religion of the head of state is Islam? We would not, in the United States or France, regard that as acceptable. Wouldn't even regard it as acceptable to discuss it.
Milani: Have you ever had a Buddhist president in America? It took 180 years to have a Catholic president. You still haven't had a Jewish president.
Beinin: Okay, but it's not written in our Constitution, whereas it is written in the Egyptian Constitution.
Moulay Hicham: It would be very, very problematic to apply the Lutherian model of what happened in the West to this process. There is still a re-Islamization taking place in norms and behaviors. People are deeply religious in the region and the problem poses itself as a kind of dialogue or debate between the political sphere and the religious sphere. We're not talking about the separation of the two; we are talking about the constant dialogue about accommodation between the two that is going to be ongoing and very sensitive.
From a constitutional point of view, I think the centrality of shari'ah will remain in these constitutions, but how the language is redrafted and reframed to take into account this whole process is going to be crucial.
I think Islamists have understood that these populations are demanding change, have a deep sense of what they want and that they want to be in a post-Islamist political order, but it's not clear to me yet whether Islamists' withdrawal [from protest movements] is an understanding of this, or is just strategic behavior to wait for the opportune moment to come into the game again.
So, I would not entirely read their political behavior as acquiescence to this reality. I read it more as wait and see, and I would not be surprised if there is an attempt at one point or another to hijack the democratic process.
Beinin: It's not necessarily even a hijacking of the process. I don't know how many votes the Muslim Brothers would get in Egypt if there were a really free election. People who know say between 25 and 33 percent, but that's at best an informed guess. Looking at the game as it is actually being played gives you a much more real sense of the way Islam and politics are intersecting as opposed to should we or should we not be afraid of the Muslim Brothers. I don't think we can see yet the end game.
Khatib: Also, one thing that is very important is the internal debate going on with the Muslim Brothers, especially between the young reformers within the movement or the party and the older generation. Outside the Arab world, especially in the United States, when people talk about Islamist groups, they tend to imagine them as unified entities that are uniform in thought. This is not the reality.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been very interesting because this kind of debate has been taking place for a few years now and it is these young reformers within the movement that have been more open to engaging with secular opposition groups in Egypt.
Milani: Yes, but when Hicham was referring to hijacking, he wasn't talking about this process. What I think he was talking about is that they would pretend to be good participants in the parliamentary process and when they get to power then they dismantle the parliamentary process. That's precisely what happened in Iran.
There, you saw amongst the religious forces this same kind of fractionalism, the same divergence of opinion. In the month leading to the Iranian revolution, [Ayatollah] Khomeini played exactly the same kind of moderate parliamentarian role. Then, once they settled in power, the most radical, the most organized, the most brutal minority from these different factions won out.
Moulay Hicham: People have seen the Iranian example. People will not easily accept leaving one form of despotism to fall into another one. It's very important to give other actors the possibility to convene networks and to basically create a critical mass to be able to participate. It's very important that the right rules be put in place to incubate civil society.
What developments will you be looking for that signal credible movement toward democracy?
Milani: First, I think it's a question of women's rights. Which of these societies in the Islamic world is going to make the decision that, in spite of all the impediments, they are going to confirm and affirm gender equality, and equality for religious minorities before the law? This is something that is going to be very hard.
The notion of civil supervision of the military, freedom of speech and assembly —these are signposts. If these things exist in a society, to me, we can call that society democratic.
Moulay Hicham: How inclusive these regimes and their calls for reform will be with the citizenry. And the concrete implementation, whether in elections, whether in the enforcement of human rights, whether in allowing freedom of speech and so forth, how congruent their pledges will be with what they deliver.
Beinin: These are all good and important things, but I don't think we can make a checklist and say, well, if they do this, this, and this, they're democratic, because democratic institutions take decades to evolve. Societies which have been authoritarian for half a century or more, there is no way there is going to be freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and equality of women and equality of all religious communities in a short period of time.
Did we have equality for women in the United States when the Constitution was adopted in 1787? No, we did not. Did we have equality between blacks and whites? No, we did not. Democracy is a process that never ends, and no matter how democratic a society is at one moment, that can always be challenged and reversed. It can also develop and progress.
If Arab states are going to become democratic, which I certainly hope they will, it will happen in their way, on their timetable, and according to the norms that they regard as the most important.
Khatib: I would add that the very fact that this kind of debate is happening is an encouraging milestone in itself. No democracy in the world today is perfect. It's a continuum, but what we're talking about is, how do you determine whether the benchmark is there or not?
Eventually, when we have something emanating from within these societies that leads to freedom of expression, to transparent elections, etc., then that's what we're talking about rather than adhering to a pre-determined set that is universally applied.
What is the best thing the United States could do in the Arab world, and what is the worst thing it could do?
Milani: The best thing the United States can do is to say, 'We are on the side of the people. We are on the side of people determining their own fate. We are not going to support authoritarian regimes simply because they offer a semblance of security, or a cheap flow of oil.'
I think it's in the long-term interest of the United States to have democratic governments in the Middle East. In the short term, there might be bumps, but in the long run, the interests of those people in the Middle East and of the United States can fully be obtained if there is democracy.
The worst thing the United States can do is interfere in the domestic affairs of these countries, think that it can determine their fates, think that it can import democracy for them, think that it can determine who should rule these countries. That will undermine the democrats and undermine the democratic process.
Moulay Hicham: I second many of the arguments Abbas advanced. I am almost certain that these breakthroughs in these countries would have not happened if . . . there was democracy promotion á la Bush. I am sure people would have been intimidated; people would have been insulted by this hegemonic discourse. Part of the result [can be attributed] to the fact that the United States has taken a back seat.
It's going to be a very tricky course. The United States has to develop a discourse as a diplomatic tool, but be honest about it. That it really does stand for democratic change in the region. But here comes a challenge. It was easy with Tunisia, it was easy with Egypt in the beginning, but it's going to be harder and harder as [the United States] is confronted with its interests.
As a democratically elected government revisits the policy of Egypt towards Gaza . . . then it's going to be hard. As events happen in the Gulf and there's a big stake in oil, it's going to be harder for the United States to maintain that objectivity and those general principles. Here is the challenge: making the values conform with the politics.
Lastly, is the economic damage sustained in these countries. The basic needs of the people are not being met. All democratic breakthroughs have a big test as economic hardships challenge whether the democracy can deliver for its citizens. Here, the United States can play a big role. Creating incentives for these democracies to really have growth and distribution in its populations.
Khatib: One of the worst scenarios is a repeat of Iraq. What happened in Iraq was a big blow to democracy progression in the region because it made the leaders in the Arab world even more autocratic. They did not want to face the same fate as Saddam.
It made the people less enthusiastic about seeing the leaders go because nobody wanted to see the kind of chaos that happened in Iraq in their own country.
I think the United States has learned that lesson. The United States is now more forthcoming in strong statements about wanting to support democracy; however, we are not seeing this matched by policy. U.S. foreign policy is still formulated on the basis of shortsightedness. They supported several autocratic regimes in the Arab world because these regimes offer insulation from what may happen tomorrow. They were not thinking about what the effect of having autocratic regimes will be on generations to come.
It is in the interest of the United States to have these democracies, and these new emerging democracies in the Arab world, so far, don't look like they want to isolate themselves from the United States. They are open to engage. The United States has to prove itself credible by matching values with actions.
Beinin: I think we all agree that one of the very worst things the United States could do would be to intervene militarily, and even to intervene by approving military interventions of other parties.
The United States policy makers need to realize, and this is a bitter lesson that I don't think the Obama administration has yet come to, that the United States has no credibility in the region. Not because Arabs or Muslims hate our freedoms. Precisely because they embrace the values that we claim to uphold, but they see that our behavior in the region does not express those values. There is not very much that the United States can do in the short term to reverse that, in my opinion.
The single most important thing, in my opinion, that the United States could do to regain its credibility is pressure Israel to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict on the basis of the international consensus.
Moulay Hicham: I'm not sure we can assume that the end of authoritarianism has come in these countries. In Egypt, there are good signs, but I am very skeptical of the intentions of the military during a transition. After all, they were the principal pillar of the regime, and just because the party of Mubarak and the family of Mubarak have been discredited doesn't mean that the bulwark of the system is not there.
Throughout the region, there will be stalemates, there will be success stories, there will be breakthroughs, and there will be regressions, too. There will be instances where some form of electoral democracies will come but they will not deliver. This is a long process.