Since the beginning of 2011, the Arab world has changed irreversibly. A region politically frozen for decades has begun to stir under the pressure of its own citizens. Popular discontent has led to the ousting of long-time presidents in Tunisia and Egypt. It has shaken the position of President Saleh in Yemen to the point that few believe he can survive and has convinced President Qaddafi in Libya that he can only survive politically by waging war—with tanks, planes and heavy artillery—on his own citizens. In Bahrain, the Shia population, representing the majority in the Sunni-ruled country, has been trying to wrest concessions from the king, demanding a constitutional monarchy or even the elimination of the monarchical system.
The Middle East is in Transition—to What?
The Arab world has been changed irreversibly by the popular uprisings that started in early 2011. The long period of dormancy that enveloped the Arab world has come to an end. The uprisings have been triggered in all countries by similar mixes of economic hardship and lack of civil and political rights. But we should not expect the uprisings to lead to similar changes in all countries. Already, three different patterns are emerging. In Tunisia and Egypt, the presidents have been overthrown by members of their own regime, including the military; they are now trying to limit the extent of change and to transform a potentially revolutionary process into one of reform from the top. In Yemen and Libya, the challenge to the leaders has turned into a challenge to the survival of the state itself: the two countries have no institutions that can persist if the presidents are ousted. In other countries affected by protest, the regimes have been trying to subdue the protest through a mixture of populist concessions, cautious reforms introduced from the top, and the occasional use of force.
Instant democracy is highly unlikely, but Middle Eastern countries, politically frozen for decades, are moving again.
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