Beginning early this year in Tunisia, the Arab World has been unexpectedly swept by massive popular protests against seemingly entrenched authoritarian regimes. Presidents in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya were forced out, while regimes in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain are under significant pressure. Protests have also occurred in Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and even Saudi Arabia. The king of Morocco has sought to defuse protests with sweeping political reforms that strengthen parliament and democratize its elections, though falling well short of establishing a fully constitutional monarchy.
Like the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites from 1989 to 1991, this wave of demands for freedom and democracy was largely a surprise to those who monitor the region. While electoral democracy made major strides in most regions of the world after the end of the Cold War, the Arabs seemed stuck in a world of entrenched autocracy. But, just as in the Soviet Block over two decades ago, people will rise up quixotically against their rulers, and sometimes will discover that those rulers have feet of clay.
Just as in Eastern Europe, success in Tunisia encouraged protesters elsewhere; success in the most important Arab state, Egypt, meant that success was conceivable anywhere. But what has determined where protests actually broke out, and where they succeeded? To fully answer that question requires in-depth analysis of each country on its own terms, in the context of its own history. But some broader patterns can be seen.
First, this is emphatically an Arab phenomenon. The Islamic Republic of Iran has seen its own democratic protests in recent years, but seems relatively unaffected by what’s happening among the Arabs. Turkey, with a well-established democracy, has discreetly encouraged the protests but hasn’t seen any against its own regime. Pakistan, far from having an entrenched autocracy, seems to have no one really in charge. Afghanistan remains a client of the United States (as are the Arab countries of Kuwait and Iraq). The tier of African states in the Sahel, just south of the Arab states of North Africa, have seen no echo of the Arab Spring. The Arab world, in short, though politically fragmented, remains emphatically a cultural community distinct from its non-Arab neighbors.
Second, the leaders who have thus far fallen are not kings or emirs. They are leaders with roots in Arab nationalism whose regimes were based on ostensibly popular movements rather than the claim to hereditary authority that is typical of the monarchies of the region. Yet there is no obvious reason why the monarchies should be more stable. With the possible and qualified exception of the Moroccan dynasty, all the monarchies of the region were established in the twentieth century at the behest of European imperial powers: they have no more legitimacy than the former Shah of Iran.
What they do have, though, is continuing Western support. This is most obvious in the cases of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where the United States and the European powers have avoided encouraging the pro-democracy protesters, and tacitly condoned the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain. In contrast, Qaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria built their regimes on a critical stance toward Western policy in the Middle East, and rarely were on good terms with the West. Of course, NATO’s air campaign (under UN authority) and discreet assistance on the ground was critical to the success of the insurgents in Libya.
Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen don’t fit the pattern; their rulers were generally friendly with the West, but lost power anyway in the first two cases. Yemen hangs in the balance. An alliance with the West clearly makes a difference, but not the whole difference.
Perhaps self-appointed presidents are more vulnerable than kings because when they inevitably try to perpetuate their families in power (as Mubarak, Qaddafi and Assad all did), it must appear as naked nepotism. When kings do it, that’s just what kings do. But kings can lose power too: just ask the French, the Americans, the Germans—and the Iranians.