Gwynne Dyer: Why are revolutions happening in the Middle East now?

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      Why now? Why revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt this year, rather than last year, or 10 years ago, or never? The protestors now taking to the street daily in Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Algeria are obviously inspired by the success of those revolutions, but what got the process started? What changed in the Middle East?

      Yes, of course the Arab world is largely ruled by autocratic regimes that suppress all opposition and dissent, sometimes with great cruelty. Yes, of course many of those regimes are corrupt, and some of them are effectively in the service of foreigners. Of course most Arabs are poor and getting poorer. But that has all been true for decades. It never led to revolutions before.

      Maybe the frustration and resentment that have been building up for so long just needed a spark. Maybe the self-immolation of a single young man set Tunisia alight, and from there the flames spread quickly to half a dozen other Arab countries. But you can’t find anybody who really believes that this could just as easily have happened five years ago, or 10, or 20.

      Yet there is no reason to suppose that the level of popular anger has gone up substantially in the past two or five or 10 years. It’s high all the time, but in normal times most people are very cautious about expressing it openly. You can get hurt that way.

      Now they are expressing their anger very loudly indeed, and long-established Arab regimes are starting to panic. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, by far the largest Arab country, makes it possible that many other autocratic regimes in the Arab world could fall like dominoes. The rapid collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe in 1989 is a frightening precedent for them. But, once again, why is this happening now?

      “Social media” is one widely touted explanation, and the Al Jazeera network’s wall-to-wall coverage of the events in Tunisia and Egypt is another. Both are plausible parts of the explanation, for the availability of means of communication that are beyond the reach of state censorship clearly makes mass mobilization much easier.

      If people are ready to come out on the street and protest, these media make it easier for them to organize and easier for the example of the protestors to spread. But this really does not explain why they are ready to come out at last.

      The one thing that is really different in the Middle East, just in the last year or two, is the self-evident fact that the United States is starting to withdraw from the region. From Lebanon in 1958 to Iraq in 2003, the U.S. was willing to intervene militarily to defend Arab regimes it liked and overthrow those that it did not like. That’s over now.

      This great change is partly driven by the thinly disguised American defeat in Iraq. The last U.S. troops are leaving that country this year, and after that grim experience U.S. public opinion will not countenance another major American military intervention in the region. The safety net for Arab regimes allied to the United States is being removed, and their people know it.

      There is also a major strategic reassessment going on in Washington, and it will almost certainly end by downgrading the importance of the Middle East in U.S. policy. The Arab masses do not know that, but the regimes certainly do, and it undermines their confidence.

      The traditional motives for American strategic involvement in the Middle East were oil and Israel. American oil supplies had to be protected, and the Cold War was a zero-sum game in which any regime that the U.S. did not control was seen to be at risk of falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. And quite apart from sentimental considerations, Israel had to be protected because it was an important military asset.

      But the Cold War is long over, and so is the zero-sum game in the Middle East. The Arab oil exporters choose their customers on a purely commercial basis, and they have to sell their oil to support their growing populations. You don’t need to control them or threaten them to get oil from them; just send them a cheque. Besides, less than a fifth of America’s oil imports now come from the Arab world.

      As for Israel, its military value to the United States has gone into a steep decline since the end of the Cold War. Nor does it need American protection: it is a dwarf superpower that towers over its Arab neighbours militarily. So remind me again: why, exactly, should the United States see “stability” in the Middle East as a vital national interest?

      The revolutions of 1989 became possible when people in the Eastern European countries realized that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene militarily to preserve the Communist regimes that ruled them. Is another 1989 possible in the Arab world?

      Well, the Arabs now know that the United States will not intervene militarily to protect the regimes that rule them.




      Feb 18, 2011 at 5:05pm

      It is interesting to also see the shift in the Latin American political situation. So much for lie of America being the defender of democracy.


      Feb 18, 2011 at 6:13pm

      It's a bit of a stretch, I think, to place waning US support in such a prominent place.

      First, I would examine this thrown around claim that (many) despots "are effectively in the service of foreigners." It gets thrown around as if it is self evident. How was Egypt (the most common example) in the service of the US? Usually, this is cited: (1)Peace treaty, (2)anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies and (3)"cooperation" on Gazan border (not opening a border).

      Egypt received 100% of its territory back after the peace treaty. It stopped having to worry about a likely and potentially devastating war that might include attacks on its capital. It could resume normal commercial activities on the Suez (owned by Egypt). The MB was the main opposition to Mubarak/Sadat, and a revolutionary group, reason enough for suppression. The gazan border issue can be explained similarly Hamas & MB are part of the same movement, opening a border to free movement would semi-annex Gaza and would (potentially) be a MB/Hamas enclave within Egypt.

      The US certainly has relationships with these countries and understandings. Horse trading domestic policies for "aid," locating US bases in return for something. They do these deals with other countries too. A lot of these things are unpopular with The People but that's how it is in autocracies. Popularity is optional.

      I'm not saying that Mubarak was a great leader for Egypt. He was despot that served himself. But considering him Washington's man is BS.


      Feb 18, 2011 at 7:11pm

      "So remind me again: why, exactly, should the United States see “stability” in the Middle East as a vital national interest? "

      To the USA, Israeli Jews are like a house-full of their favorite nephews and nieces living across town. Smart, headstrong and tough, living in a tough neighborhood. It's their "family", and stability is good for them. Oh, and good for the oil of course.

      PT Barnum

      Feb 18, 2011 at 7:44pm

      This is the best explanation for why now? that I have read so far.

      Deryk Houston

      Feb 19, 2011 at 8:45am

      I agree for the most part with Gwynne Dyer on this subject but I don't think the States is doing this by choice. The fact is that it has been blindsided by the enormous costs of high tech warfare and has found itself bankrupt. The arguement that the US only gets five percent of it's oil from the middle east is raised all the time but it should be pointed out that the US has trade deals with it's close allies who need the oil from the middle east. Also: The point that it can now just "write a cheque" for it's oil doesn';t hold up either....because if the US controls the leaders in the middle east...then the US sets and controls how much that cheque is going to be for. Think about it.....the US has sold hundreds of billions of dollars of fighter jets and other weapons to these countries and has given them a special price on these return for making sure that they increase the oil supply to control the price. So I am surprised to hear Mr. Dyer use this arguement.
      I still respect his viewpoint though and wish more journalists had his courage to question our leaders.

      Born Yesterday

      Feb 19, 2011 at 4:17pm

      The theory that the regimes are collapsing due to an unofficial US withdrawal from the region seems quite plausible. We don't hear much about this theory in mainstream media outlets in the US/Canada, UK, Australia (i.e. Murdoch), etc., because keeping the idea of the old world order alive. The reality is that things are changing dramatically before our eyes throughout the entire world.

      David Black

      Feb 19, 2011 at 5:31pm

      I don't doubt that the US is lessing willing to intervene in the Middle East and Arab world after the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, but really, is that the reason that this is happening now?

      Can't we just allow the Arabs in Tunisia, Egypt, and the other parts of the Arab world take credit for their own revolutions?

      Does is really always have to be about us?

      David Wilson

      Feb 19, 2011 at 8:40pm

      The "March" of Islam. Turkey used to rule Egypt, could a poerful Islamic regional state unite Islamists as never before?


      Feb 20, 2011 at 8:48am

      I would not underestimate the 'tone' set by Obama compared to Bush as part of the awareness that the US is less likely to intervene. And unlike the higher-level US strategies, the public tone of the president is accessible to the people in the street.


      Feb 20, 2011 at 10:07am

      This is a respected journalist whose columns I enjoy reading every week.

      To say the Middle East is not of strategic interest to the US I think is off the mark. Its not just Israel and oil, how about terrorism? We're told of Yemen harbouring so many Al-Qaeda recruits, thats obviously a huge concern to the US. There should be another reason for the uprisings there...maybe we give Arab citizens the credit this time, and not assume every facet of life is controlled from Washington?