Have We Got Arab Politics All Wrong?

We've long tended to assume that foreign policy drives Arab public opinion, but the uprisings in Egypt and Syria may show us otherwise

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On January 31, in one of his few public interviews, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal, "Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people." Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fallen, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak looked about to follow suit, and mass protests had begun in Yemen. But Assad shrugged off concerns that his own rule might be threatened. "If you want to talk about Tunisia and Egypt, we are outside of this." He explained, "This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas."

When asked what he meant by ideology, Assad pointed to Mubarak's close relationship with the U.S. and Israel. "Why is Syria stable, although we have more difficult conditions? Egypt has been supported financially by the United States, while we are under embargo by most countries of the world. We have growth although we do not have many of the basic needs for the people. Despite all that, the people do not go into an uprising. So it is not only about the needs and not only about the reform. It is about the ideology, the beliefs and the cause that you have." Assad has placed anti-American and anti-Israeli causes at the center of Syria's foreign policy. He has aided Hamas and Hezbollah, allied with Iran, ushered foreign fighters into Iraq, and flaunted U.S.- and Israel-led efforts to derail his rogue nuclear program.

For most of his decade in power, Assad has deployed his heavily ideological foreign policy as a tool to generate domestic support and ward off opposition. His assumption is two-fold: that Arab leaders who ally themselves with the U.S. and Israel will infuriate their people, perhaps to the point of violence; and that Arab peoples are willing to overlook oppression, corruption, and all the ugly hallmarks of a police state so long as the government makes itself an enemy of the U.S. and Israel. Assad has been governing from his belief that Arabs, in other words, are more driven by an inherent anti-Americanism than they are by any desire for domestic freedoms. It's long been an article of faith among Western analysts and academics that, whatever Assad's true motivations, his rabidly anti-American policies afford him a greater degree of popular legitimacy, public support, and, as a result, regime stability.

And yet, two months later, Syria has been overtaken by anti-government protests that look an awful lot like those that occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square for two straight weeks. Demonstrators are marching by the thousands, resisting police crack-downs, calling for political reforms, and torching such symbols of state oppression and corruption as a police station and a Baath party headquarters. They're even pushing for the end of the country's decade-old "emergency law," which, just like the Egyptian emergency law that protesters there succeeded in overturning, codifies some of the country's harshest political restrictions.

While Assad is right that his foreign policy "ideology" is the near polar opposite of Mubarak's, which centered on close alliances with the U.S. and Israel, the two governments' despotic, oppressive domestic political systems were about as similar as they could be: single-party republics with life-long "presidents," tightly controlled state economies, rank corruption, arbitrary police rule, and pervasive restrictions on speech. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's Tunisia also shared all of these characteristics -- or at least it did until Ben Ali was overthrown. And all this despite the fact that he was nowhere nearly as involved with the U.S. or with Israel as Mubarak or Assad.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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