Abu Muqawama retains its autonomy and the views and beliefs expressed within the blog do not reflect those of CNAS. Abu Muqawama retains the right to delete comments that include words that incite violence; are predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass; or degrade people on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. In summary, don't be a jerk.
With so much going on today in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen, it's worth taking a step back and asking some preliminary questions about what it all means in terms of the bigger picture. One of our interns, John Dana Stuster, who has the misfortune of working with me but has spent a little time in the Arabic-speaking world, used Malcom Kerr's seminal The Arab Cold War: Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 as a departure point for wondering where we are headed in terms of regional power dynamics. What follows was written by Dana.
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing popular upheaval in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain will affect the Middle East, but how remains to be seen. Indeed, there is little to indicate what the new governments of Tunisia and Egypt will look like, or if the governments in these countries at the end of this year will look at all like the governments in these countries at the end of two years. The door is open for more overthrows as these neo-revolutionary states find their new political footing.
Neo-revolutionary is an important distinction. The Middle East has other revolutionary states, vestiges and reminders of the last period of revolution in the region. In trying to understand the implications of the past three months, there may be some relevance in looking to previous spates of revolution in the Middle East.
The Nasirist Arab revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, typified by the Free Officers coup in Egypt but which also included revolutions in Syria, Iraq and to a certain extent North Yemen, factionalized the Middle East. The Arab states coalesced into two opposing groups: conservative monarchies intent on the continuity of their governance, the foremost being Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and new regimes like Egypt, Syria and Iraq eager to spread their revolutions across the Arab world. Malcolm Kerr described this as the Arab Cold War, and like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the Arab Cold War saw moments of kinetic warfare in proxy battlefields. In the Jordanian Black September civil war, Syria sent a tank division (with hastily painted PLO insignia) in support of the Palestinians against the Jordanian monarchy, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia fought through proxies in North Yemen in that country’s civil war from 1962 to 1970.
The Middle East is not what it was fifty years ago. Saudi Arabia still retains some influence but is not the powerhouse it once was, and Egypt’s primacy has long passed; indeed, the centers of political gravity in the Middle East – Iran and Turkey – are not Arab states at all, nor have they polarized the region as was the case in the Arab Cold War. Iran, who came late to the Middle East’s revolutionary vanguard, remains divisive and a rival of Saudi Arabia, but these states have not engaged in the proxy wars that marked the regional tension of the 1960s. In stark contrast, Turkey has pursued one of the most cordial foreign policies in the world, trying to be friends with Europe, the Arab states, and Iran, while maintaining its relationship with Israel – this has had mixed results, but the effort is there. Some alignment remains. Iran has Syria and, increasingly, Lebanon in its orbit, and Saudi Arabia is still wary of Tehran’s role in the region. The Saudis, for their part, have stayed fairly close to the Hashemite monarchy and still retain a fair amount of influence throughout the Gulf, but it is far from the unity of the 1960s when the monarchists banded together against an existential threat.
Perhaps the greatest difference, and maybe the reason the Middle East is no longer so starkly polarized, is the absence of an ideological bloc. In the Arab Cold War, the revolutionary regimes united under the banner of Gamal abd’ al-Nasir’s brand of pan-Arab socialism, but pan-Arabism, which peaked with the formation of the United Arab Republic in 1958, collapsed amid the Arab infighting after the 1967 war with Israel. There is no equivalent to pan-Arabism in contemporary Arab politics, or if there is, it hasn’t emerged yet. It may be that in a year’s time the neo-revolutionary states will have an ideology of their own – even if they do, it seems unlikely that they would have enough clout in the region to promote an international ideology.
The relevance of the Arab Cold War to the discussion of the recent Arab revolutions is this: when the Arab revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s occurred, it realigned the Middle East and created rifts between the old regimes and the new. The emergence of neo-revolutionary regimes, regardless of what form they take, is threatening not just to the old monarchies but those vestigial revolutionary states as well. The popular movement that will be the foundation of what follows in Tunisia, Egypt and potential others is inimical to the systems of governance in these other states. It seems reasonable that both the Iranian and Saudi factions will have concerns about their association with states whose recent revolutions threaten their own regimes. Though there is nothing to suggest that the neo-revolutionary states will align with each other, it seems likely that they will be isolated within the internal politics of the Middle East. Although Tunisia, Libya and even Egypt were not exactly aligned with any bloc before, the revolutions of 2011 could affect the dynamics of the region’s politics by creating non-aligned states that are isolated from, or even adversarial with, the Iranian and Saudi blocs. The point, in sum: expect intra-Middle Eastern tensions to rise to a quiet simmer.
The way this might manifest isn’t readily apparent absent a political faultline like pan-Arab socialism during the Arab Cold War. The model outlined above lends itself to a division based on systems of government – the monarchists who don’t like the old revolutionaries (plus Lebanon), who both don’t like the neo-revolutionaries. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iran, however, seem intent on framing the divisions in the region as sectarian – which would work well for them, marginalizing the popular successes in Tunisia and Egypt and drawing the focus to the distinct aspect of fighting the Other in Bahrain, be they Shi’a or Sunni. To rewrite the narrative as a matter of sectarian conflict is, as Marc Lynch has observed, a dangerous fabrication, but if it takes hold, it could exacerbate the Saudi-Iranian tension into something more.
Or the Middle East may fracture along some other faultline entirely. There is so little indication of the direction the neo-revolutionary states will take. It will be years, probably decades before the implications of the past couple months are apparent (Kerr published the first edition of “The Arab Cold War” in 1965, thirteen years after the Free Officers coup in Egypt. He then revised it twice over the next six years). There’s a possibly apocryphal story that Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai, an amateur historian, was asked what he thought was the effect of the French Revolution on Western civilization. It’s said that he paused and considered his answer carefully before saying, “It’s too soon to tell.” It is too soon to tell, but it’s worth noting the possibility.