The editors of the Middle East Research and Information Project have a great article up about the uprisings in the Middle East (and how the uprisings are framed) and, specifically, in Syria. Two seemingly contradictory passages caught my eye that describe a Syrian uprising in pessimistic terms, but also as inevitably successful. Consider passage one:
Indeed, the role that the Syrian regime has chosen in world affairs has paradoxically become one of the main props of its continued rule, even as Arab ambassadors withdraw and the chorus of international criticism grows louder. Syria’s neighbor to the north, Turkey, has restricted itself to periodic scolding and lately a visit by the foreign minister as the tank assaults proceed. Given its proximity to Syria, extensive trade relations with Syrian businessmen and revived aspirations to Middle Eastern leadership, not to speak of its shared interest in keeping a lid on the Kurdish question, Turkey is leery of regime change or protracted disequilibrium to the south. Those Arab states, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, that prize “stability” above all else are determined that the successes of the Arab revolts stop in Tunisia, Egypt and, perhaps, Libya. These states are apprehensive about the possible spread of destabilizing ideas — not only democracy and accountability for deposed dictators, but also brands of political Islam and strains of sectarianism that they have not sponsored. At the same time, they are desirous of weakening Damascus’ entente with Tehran. The result is not support for the protesters but risible trust in the regime to enact “quick and comprehensive reforms.”
And passage number two:
What is beginning in Syria? It remains difficult to say. One can stipulate, however, that the season of Arab revolt, including its Syrian phase, marks the end of an era. It is surely not authoritarianism per se that is disappearing in the Arab world, considering the Saudi quashing of the Bahraini rebellion, for example, or the worrisome signs coming from Egypt under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces there. But no longer is mass social mobilization against injustice absent from the regional stage. No longer can the will of the people be so blithely ignored. There will be no more hereditary transfers of presidential power in republics, and the notion of uncontested executive authority has been shaken to its core. Even monarchies now want to appear to be on the side of the people, as the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Bahraini royal families clearly do when they recall their envoys to Damascus (their ulterior motives notwithstanding). In Syria, no matter what the outcome of the uprising, there will be new checks and balances on the regime and its coercive apparatus, not because regime insiders will have become democrats, but because they will now fear the street. Unbridled crony capitalism is also gone forever. The allocation of resources will become more just, not because the rulers will have become socialists, but because they will now wish to avoid a recrudescence of protest. Politics, in short, has returned to the Arab world.
The first passage is highlighting how little support the uprising in Syria has amongst the international community, despite the chorus of condemnation. Internationally, many states prefer the stability that accompanies the Assad regime to the uncertainty that would come with revolutionary change. This is perhaps one of the reasons why there has not been more overt international support for the Syrian protesters (though certainly not the only reason.) Yet the second passage supports the notion that the uprising in Syria will succeed. The ability to look pessimistically at the Syrian uprising and yet still conclude that there is no possible alternative to success is driven by a more nuanced definition of success.
For many, the trial of Mubarak is the epitome of success. To see the hated former leader behind bars is how to measure success; yet as the continued protests across Egypt demonstrate, there are still many challenges that face Egypt before one can call the revolution successful. In other words, although bringing a leader to justice is the most cathartic symbol of a successful revolution, it typically is not the most accurate. In all likelihood, Assad – or some form of the Assad regime – will remain in power at the end of the Syrian uprising (whenever that may be.) Yet, as the editors of MERIP say, changes in the way governments rule their people are inevitable. While this may not satisfy those who lost loved ones during the uprisings, it is certainly revolutionary in its own right.
The conclusions made by the MERIP editors are a more eloquent version of my attempt to define a successful revolution:
The optimist in me believes that the Arab Spring will eventually result in revolutionary changes throughout the region. In some countries the change will be more immediate (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco) while other may experience more prolonged and less easily detected reform (potentially Syria, Bahrain, Jordan). Regardless of what happens in several hotspot countries for the rest of year, one has to believe that the mass democratic movement in the Middle East this year has caused every regime (including those that saw little or no protests) to consider making revolutionary changes – both drastic and subtle – in order to retain power. In other words, whether revolutions are considered successful or not depends little on the immediate success of the movement, but rather the long term consequences.
Yet unfortunately, the absence of grey in the Middle East debate will define a successful revolution as one that topples a dictator. Even if Assad were to survive this challenge to his rule, it will certainly be interesting to look at Syria in five or ten years to see how the state has changed. When protests first broke out in Syria, many Syrians were fond of saying that the fear barrier had been broken. This is both true and revolutionary for it caused Arab leaders to fear their own people. Whether or not Assad stays in Damascus, this reversal of the fear barrier cannot be taken away.
Photo from The Middle Eastern Eye