On Thursday, April 28th, 2011, the Middle East Policy Coucil held a one-day conference on Capitol Hill in Washingtong D.C., "featuring a discussion of the populist movements sweeping across the Arab world, their regional and global consequences, and how they are impacting U.S. interests and policy choices." Jadaliyya Co-Editor Bassam Haddad was one of the speakers at the conference, as were Anthony Cordesman (Center for Strategic International Studies), Barak Barfi (New American Foundation), and Karim Merzan (American Studies Institute).
To view the video, click here. Transcript of Bassam`s talk is below. All transcripts can be found here.
BASSAM HADDAD, Director, Middle East Studies Program, George Mason University
Good morning. Thank you for holding this event and for inviting me.
It is probably too early to make too many statements on what is going on in the region, and it’s best to stick to more preliminary claims or observations. What we do know is that what we are witnessing, even in cases like Tunisia and Egypt, is not a revolution, however. Neither is it complete regime change. But that is not pessimistic analysis, judging from a historical perspective.
And I’m not going to go into why this is the case. I’m assuming we all recognize that these things take time, perhaps not fast enough for the Facebook revolution, but it is actually the case that what we are witnessing is simply a resumption of politics in places like Tunisia and Egypt, to begin with, although more genuine levels of participation and contestation, which might lead in various directions and might involve reversals.
I would like to begin by critiquing the snapshot view of the uprisings and address the heterogeneity of cases, which was discussed by my fellow panelists.
First, it is important for us to recognize that many of us arrive at the situation today and have a snapshot view of what’s happening. Even Middle East analysts that I personally know, even myself, are not aware as much as we would like to be of some of the cases in which uprisings are taking place.
But, however, we are — in the sense that we are not as aware as we are on other cases, but somehow we try to put everything in a particular mold, and that kind of snapshot view I think produces problematic analysis.
And I think it’s better to hesitate sometimes before we make claims regarding regional level issues or generalizations, or regarding countries that we just assume that are going in this or that direction, without having research studied, read about what’s been happening in the past 30 years and how these years are filled with what we are seeing today, including the contradictions we are seeing that do not make sense without looking at this history.
The second point is the heterogeneity of cases. We are looking at a region that involves a vast difference among countries in terms of their particular economies, their social structure, the external relations, their internal regional diversity, internal communal diversity, sectarian diversity, and so on and so forth.
Egypt is a case where we saw people centered in Tahrir Square, for instance. Syria is a case where we have a completely different way of protest or patterns of protest that actually are nowhere near the center of Damascus. And this is just an anecdote, but there are many other much more significant differences.
So I would like to just say those words at the outset so that we can take pause and be humbled — and I address this also to myself — in terms of what we say in terms of broad generalizations.
We do know there is a number of political and economic causes that have been brewing for decades in the region, waiting for a spark to ignite protests in a variety of Arab countries. But we cannot reduce the protests, revolts or revolutions, whatever your taste, to political and economic causes, and many have been doing so.
And I’m glad to see that some of the comments made today also were critical of this idea that poverty or even inequality or political repression alone can produce these outcomes because you have poverty everywhere, you have political repression everywhere, and not just in the Middle East of course, and you have inequity, you have social injustice, and it doesn’t produce these things automatically.
Authoritarian rule did not just violate rights and impoverish large segments of the population. It also crushed sensibilities and destroyed spirits. More than the existence of this or that factor, it is the combination of frustrations on multiple levels that we can discuss in single cases with no exit in sight that made these societies ripe for an imminent uprising. And “ripe” doesn’t mean necessarily that it will happen automatically, of course.
In fact, the biggest elephant in the room — that is rarely discussed because perhaps it is not sexy to write about it or talk about it on television because more serious research and articles have not been produced yet — the biggest elephant in the room is not a product of authoritarian policies or imperialism or even Israel. It is actually demographics, what is known as the youth bulge in the Arab world.
Syria is a fantastic example, where more than 25 to 30 percent of the population is between 15 to 25, depending on the sources you cite. And every year in Syria, as in other countries in the region, depending on the population of course, but in Syria, more than 250,000 people enter a job market that is not providing for its existing job seekers.
So we have basically an army for the past 10 to 15 years of people that are just lounging, waiting for an opportunity. This is something that does not in itself cause protests, but if something is sparked, as in the case of Tunisia, there will be people who are ready to go to the streets, because they have very little to lose and because of a host of other factors that took place, including the domino effect.
It’s very important for us to know that people would not have been able to step to the streets in Syria had there not been Tunisia and Egypt and these other cases today. So this is analytically very important and it tells us a lot about, first of all, the connectedness within the region, despite these other differences. And it tells us a lot about the psychological barriers to transforming internal discontent and frustration to something that is somewhat public.
So the objective requirements for mass mobilization were all there in the late 1990s, in fact, after decades of a combination of repressive rule and lack of economic opportunity. And I do say — and I do intend to say that this is, for the most part, across the Arab world, with the exception of some of the oil-rich countries that have been able to provide the basic needs for their populations, as well as being places where explicit violence was not the norm.
A few events prolonged this state of pent-up frustration from the ’90s and early 2000s — discontent and anger that brewed. A few events prolonged this frustration, including the attacks of September 11th. And of course the effect was different in many cases because the attacks also provided the opportunity for many of the rulers in the region to fight their “opposition,” quote-unquote, legitimately in the international perception in the name of fighting, of course, terrorism. The invasion of Iraq and the two wars in 2006 and 2009 between Israel and Hezbollah and Israel and Hamas respectively, though the latter was less of a war and more of a bombardment campaign — the point is that some countries in the region, not all, were affected differentially by these matters and of course this prolonged what we are viewing today.
In fact, what we are seeing today or what we saw in Tunisia in January is something that not one of us predicted. In fact, even those of us who predicted an imminent fall, we did not predict it would start in Tunisia. I do not know of any single — and I’ve done quite a bit of research — of any single analyst that predicted that this would happen this early, and if they did they did not predict that it would happen in Tunisia. Which also speaks to the importance of being just careful and taking pause in making a lot of statements, and I myself, again, might be overstepping this caution.
What seemed to hamper movement in the direction of protest in Tunisia, however, because Tunisia is a case that is far removed from this Levantine-related event that I shared with you — what seemed to hamper movement in the direction of protest in Tunisia and beyond was the fact that people were accustomed to respecting the wall of fear.
This is, again, one important variable; it’s not “the” variable. They respected the wall of fear on perfectly rational grounds. Once the psychological barrier was broken, the rest of the story was and is a matter of time for many such countries where the so-called objective conditions for protest or revolt were ripe.
Syria is certainly a case in point. And though the revolts and the consequences in Egypt are grand considering Egypt’s positionality in the region, Syria’s uprising and their — uprisings and their implications are no less consequential in the region. And I dare say, more dramatic, considering what Syria symbolizes for many in the aftermath of Camp David and the destruction of Iraq, twice.
I will say a few words on Syria and will leave the rest to the Q&A. Syria situation — Syria’s situation appears to be somewhat enigmatic from afar. But it is not so for long-term followers of developments there. Decades of oppressive rule complemented in the last 20 years with the rolling back of the welfare state, for the lack of a better word at this point, have produced the kind of disturbances to Hafez al-Assad’s strategy of leveling egalitarianism that the Syrian regime was never likely to withstand for too long.
The fact that the Syrian regime accumulated a relatively higher level of what we can call nationalist credentials was not sufficient to prevent or subvert protest. And certainly not when Syrian soldiers and secret service officers were shooting and killing Syrians.
This relatively higher level of nationalist credentials, which is actually touted by many inside and outside the regime, was acquired in part because Syria, as opposed to many states in the region, did not accept the prescriptions or conditionalities from international financial institutions like the IMF or the World Bank. Syria today does not have formal relations with these institutions, for instance. More significantly, however, Syria was and perhaps is the last bastion of anti-imperialism in the region at the level of states, and a secular one at that.
This is often referred to as Syria’s confrontational stance vis-à-vis Israel’s policies and the United States’ dominance in the region. Thus, Syria represented more than itself or the regime. It became a symbol of resistance to the unprincipled policies of the United States and the apartheid-like existence of Israel.
The fact that the Syrian regime exaggerates the import of this symbolism and has squandered much of this political capital by actively mimicking the brutality of both the United States and Israel in the region at the same time that it sought to appeal to this nationalist reservoir does not mean that these credentials do not exist at some level.
It would be a big mistake to discard this factor completely when it comes to regional variables. And we are seeing this at play when we compare Syria and Libya, where the fall of Gadhafi or even the fall of Ben Ali is very much the fall of Gadhafi and the fall of Ben Ali, whereas the fall of Syria is quite more complex as a result of Syria’s alliances, which we will see develop as time goes by as this conflict within Syria is going to be transferred, at some level, to the regional and perhaps even the international realm.
However, as we saw in the case of Egypt, this dimension — that of anti-imperialism — is not what these protests are about. And neither are the Syrian protests about anti-imperialism. These are local protests against local symbols of prolonged repression and stagnation. The resistance factor plays a more dominant role among publics outside Syria, which explains the relative quiet among the left and center segments of the political spectrum in the region, compared to their vociferous condemnation of the other regimes earlier and ongoing.
Ultimately the Syrian regime has always been more fragile when it came to its domestic policies. And despite the regime’s narrative of external infiltration, and what is called the mundaseen (ph), which is another world for infiltrators, the protests are certainly about domestic policies.
Rest assured, however, that the time will come in both Egypt and post-Assad Syria for the other issues dealing with Israel and the United States and other topics in the region. Just like there will never, or there will be no return — not never, but there would likely be no return to the sort of the repression we witnessed in the region for decades, there will also be no return to the weak and pathetic stance many of these regimes adopted vis-à-vis the United States and Israel, at least not any time soon.
What remains is a discussion of how Syria might differ or not from its Arab counterparts in terms of regime-protesters dynamics — regime-dash-protesters dynamics. I would like to address this at three levels if time permits, and then maybe say just a couple words about policy. I’m not very big on policy; I’m more trained in analyzing, and not always very well, of course, like the rest of us, but I’m not going to focus too much on policy. But I will say a few words.
Three things about Syria I can discuss very quickly if time permits: regime, on the one hand; opposition-slash-protesters on the other; and the society at large and divisions within it. I’ll start by looking at the regime. What is significant about the regime is actually a whole set of factors that I will not discuss all of them. I will discuss the relevant ones, at least what I think are the relevant ones, and I’m happy for — I’m happy to get more input or questions about these issues.
The most significant difference between the Syrian regime on the one hand and the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes on the other hand is that the kind of possibilities that -- the lack of an organic structure for the other regimes, in Egypt and Tunisia, does not basically hold in Syria. In other words, the Syrian regime is far more organic internally at least at the middle, above middle and top levels. And the higher you go, the more you’ll find an organic type of regime that is not likely to lend itself to the kind of outcomes that we saw in Tunisia and Egypt, whereby some sort of authority other than the top leadership of the regime can step in and resolve the conflict or transit into something else by basically removing the head or symbol of power. This is simply not possible in Syria. It’s a ship that will either sink or float, however badly.
So that informs the strategies of top leadership within the regime. And the kind of zero-sum game that you see unfolding on Syrian streets between the regime and the opposition is very much a posture that is reflective of that reality. I could be wrong; I would be extremely surprised if we see cracks at the top. There might be cracks at the top but they will reserved internally and then the ship will keep on moving in whatever direction that the victor decides. But we will not see a split whereby an institutional component is part of the split; say, the top security services or the top army officials.
Second, the opposition and the protesters. There are a number of things we can say about the opposition and protesters in Syria, but perhaps the most significant starting point is the fact that in the past 20 or 30 years the kind of connectedness among individuals in Syria is very different from, say, the case of Egypt. Whereby in Egypt, civil society expansion and various measures of civil and political rights were extended, in Syria this has not been the case. In fact, the atomization of Syrian society into individuals that actually stay away from politics for rational reasons having to do with the threat of getting involved in politics still colors the Syrian polity today.
Therefore, we see that there is a lot of commonality in terms of how the protesters or the opposition is united against something, but there is very little indication that they are united for something. And that creates — that has strategic implication for how things unfold on the ground. As a result, the opposition is somewhat fragmented. It does not have a clear systematic strategy. Also, now, because of a lack of communications which is evident by the siege of Daraa and soon to be followed perhaps by other cities, because this is becoming a model.
And you know things are getting really nasty when these tactics — when these regimes begin to emulate Israel, in its siege of Gaza for instance. And that is likely to continue if other factors, like international or regional interference, does not bear fruit.
So as a result the protesters are likely to be more and more fragmented and attempts at connecting actually might not even be feasible within the opposition. The other issue with the opposition is that it has not yet resorted to violence, which is something that is a good idea because resorting to violence is going to justify and legitimize responses that are — that will make what we have seen recently look like a picnic.
One other, and that is the opposition in Syria, to the extent that the United States tries to support it or other regimes or countries or states or governments try to support it, I think it might actually backfire depending on the source of the support because of the nature of the Syrian polity. The organic Syrian opposition, for instance, vehemently refuses support from factors or states like the United States because it will delegitimize them. It’s a bit of a different situation than in the other cases.
In terms of the society at large and divisions within it, of course this does not explain the — or does not prevent a coup d’état or a change in regime. But it makes it very complex that the Syrian society is made up of a variety of groups. We can call them sects, we can call them communities, we can call them what we will. I try to avoid calling them sects because that lends itself to the sectarian argument that I reject. But Syrian society is quite heterogeneous and in the natural state it’s very difficult for them to come together to define, in this condition, to define what they want. It’s much easier to come together to define what they do not want.
Which is one of the reasons why, despite the thousands and tens of thousands of people we saw on the streets, this is the reason why millions of Syrians who are not in love with the regime, and many of them actually do not like and perhaps detest the regime, are not going to the streets; not because of support for the regime but because of the fear of an unknown unfolding in Syria that would produce the kind of chaos that Syrians still remember from what happened next door in Iraq or what is happening today in Libya.
So the regime has opportunities to drive a wedge in, basically, in the situation today, between protesters and to reduce the flow of this reservoir of Syrians that have not yet taken to the streets. Of course, the continuing violence by the regime is likely to spin all these variables I discussed out of control and bring even more and more people to the streets despite all of these seeming impediments. So there is a threshold of violence that is at play here. I don’t know — I do not know what the threshold is. But I do know that if it’s crossed a lot of these cautionary statements will dissipate.
I’ll say a few things about policy, what do we need to do or what does the U.S. need to do with respect to foreign policy in Syria or in the region at this time. Anytime people speak about policy I would like to just say that we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. I’ll just mention one of them for the — because I think I’m running out of time. First, what is or on what basis are we making policy recommendations?
And that is something that we take for granted and we never rethink the basis, or at least many of us do not rethink the basis or rethink them simply in a procedural manner. Are we assuming that continuity is desirable? Or are we to rethink the basis of U.S. policy in the region?
The current uprisings, in my view, coupled with what has happened in the United States over the past 10 to 15 — well, 10 years — including what happened in 2008 economically and so on, signal that it is high time for the U.S. to reconsider the basis of foreign policy, not necessarily foreign policy itself. Things don’t change that quickly and perhaps shouldn’t.
I have no illusions that social justice will have a place even in a reconsideration of the basis of U.S. foreign policy. This is not something that, I think, sane analysts would advocate — at least not with a lot of salt or whatever spice. My fear, however, is that even rationality will be sacrificed yet again. Rationality in the sense of at least holding back forces that exact undue influence on U.S. foreign policy at a time when the world is changing and, if nothing else, the United States is no longer at the top or on the top of the world without potential rivals.
Absent rationality, do not bother introduce any social justice concerns, and I think it is prudent for us to recognize in the Middle East that there is this other player, even if it’s an embryonic player, which is — you know, in a sort of romantic way — people power. And that is something that I think we must contend especially if we’re looking at the long term, not just at the next presidency or the next election.