Arabian Fights: Why It’s a Little Early for Dramatic and Sweeping Statements About the Arab Uprisings
How does one evaluate or even describe the nature and effects of a tornado when it’s still swirling? This is the conundrum facing anyone writing about the tumultuous changes taking place in the Arab world. These qualities of extreme flux and fluidity—what Frantz Fanon termed an “occult zone of instability”—are what have given rise to the dizzying plethora of terms coined to try to describe the unrest: “Arab Spring,” “Arab uprisings,” “Arab revolution(s),” “Arab awakening,” and Iran’s particularly misguided phrase, “Islamic awakening,” are just a few. Since concerted popular protests began in Tunisia on December 18, 2010, anti-government unrest has spread to many Arab countries. Several dictators have fallen, and others appear to be on their way out. But the outcomes in different Arab states undergoing these radical changes, and for strategic relations in the region as a whole, remain undetermined and, to some extent, unreadable.
The reshaping of the political and strategic landscape of one of the most important regions on earth properly commands the attention of the entire world. There are profound implications for U.S. foreign policy given that virtually everything most Americans, including policy-makers, thought they knew about Arab societies and political culture turns out to be incorrect or no longer applies. The uprisings clearly require a thorough reconceptualization of American and other Western attitudes toward Arab peoples, culture, and societies, and the casting aside of moldy orientalist stereotypes and anachronistic assumptions.
Because everything is changing so quickly and in so many places at the same time, following the trajectory of developments is daunting enough, let alone trying to analyze and understand exactly what they mean or where they’re going. The most obvious and persistent questions are almost impossible to answer. Are we seeing the emergence of liberal Arab democracies, Islamist systems, or entirely new hybrid post-Islamist political orders? Will the new Arab world be more pluralistic or embolden sectarianism? Will the changes bring greater stability or more conflict? Will they be the basis for economic revival or the chaos underwriting economic collapse? Developments are shifting so dramatically that it is difficult even to formulate the right questions, let alone to investigate possible answers.