One Year of the Arab Spring: Global and Regional Implications
Since an obscure young fruit vendor named Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the dusty Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, the flames that ended his life have spread across the entire Middle East, both figuratively and literally. The protests, demonstrations, and upheavals originally inspired by his action have acquired a variety of terms – Arab spring, Arab awakening, Arab uprising – and they have ousted, threatened, or at least frightened almost every ruling regime in the region. The terms used to describe this phenomenon clearly connote a sharp break from the decades of political stagnation and quietism that preceded Bouazizi’s desperate act and imply that some momentous region-wide transformation has been set in motion.
However, as Amos Yadlin reminds us in his introductory overview, only six of 22 League of Arab States members have experienced the full force of the upheaval, and in only two of those (Tunisia and Libya – the latter in the wake of external military intervention) has the regime actually been overthrown. In two others (Egypt and Yemen), the leader has been ousted but major elements of the ancien regime remain in place; in one (Syria) the struggle between regime and opposition continues unabated; and in one (Bahrain), the uprising seems to have been suppressed, at least for the time being. This volume does not delve into the domestic politics and society of those six states. Such issues are ably dealt with by area studies experts. Instead, in keeping with the mandate of the Institute for National Security Studies, we focus here on the regional and international implications of this phenomenon, with special reference to the potential ramifications for Israeli national security.
One year is not a very long time in which to judge the significance of events, especially when they continue to unfold, and historians may rightly criticize efforts of this sort as premature. In validating their criticism, they will almost certainly enjoy repeating the widely cited (though never really authenticated) comment allegedly made by Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai to US President Richard Nixon about the significance of the French Revolution: “Too soon to tell.” Any rush to judgment should certainly be avoided. Unfortunately, there is no consensus among historians on what does constitute sufficient perspective. More to the point, policymakers and the analysts who are supposed to help them in their deliberations do not have the luxury of waiting until some period of time arbitrarily defined as “enough” does elapse. Instead, they need to identify the challenges they face and constantly formulate and reformulate their policies in real time, notwithstanding the unavoidable fact that they will have to do that on the basis of incomplete or even erroneous information and of inevitably imperfect understanding. The purpose of the authors of this volume, all members of the INSS research staff, is to provide brief, concentrated studies of the international and regional dimensions of the Arab spring in the hope of minimizing analytical imperfections in the ongoing public debate over issues that confront Israel with urgent choices.
Mark A. Heller