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


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.

Though these three states all took such vastly different approaches to the two issues that supposedly drive popular sentiment in the Arab world -- the U.S. and Israel -- they have endured startlingly similar anti-government protest movements. But if these foreign policy issues are really as important to Arab publics as Assad believes them to be, if they really constitute the key variable in regime stability, then why have these three governments found themselves embroiled in such similar protest movements? Why did Tunisians ultimately rise up against economic restrictions and police brutality? Why did Egyptians call for shutting down the interior ministry and raising the minimum wage, but not ending Mubarak's alliance with Israel? For that matter, why did they endure decades of Egyptian-Israeli ties, only to finally rise up over totally unrelated concerns? Why are Syrian protesters making the same demands now? Is it possible that Assad, and many of us in the West, have gotten Arab priorities so wrong?

Part of the problem is that the absence of true Arab democracies -- not to mention the incredible difficulty of accurately polling the region -- has left Arab public opinion largely a matter of inference and conjecture. We never knew what Arabs wanted because they had so few opportunities to express it. So we've been left to guess. It's little surprise, then, that we in the West have focused most on the issues that affect us most: foreign policy, especially toward Israel and the West; terrorism and violent extremism; and treatment of religious minorities. For years, we've projected our concern with these issues onto what we often call "the Arab street" -- a woefully clumsy term that is itself an expression of our difficulty and confusion with understanding the preferences, priorities, and desires of the 280 million Arabs of the Middle East and North Africa.

Now that Arabs are taking to the streets from the northwestern reaches of Moroccan Africa to the edges of the Arabian Peninsula, expressing popular will in a way that their governments had long made nearly impossible, we have a much clearer picture of what Arabs want. Their desires, it turns out, look an awful lot like those held by the rest of the world's people. Freedom from oppression and arbitrary rule, economic opportunity for self-sufficiency and advancement, and the chance for real political participation. Anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism remain real social forces in the region, as anyone who's spent time there can tell you, as do nationalism, legitimate concerns over the plight of Palestinians, and the angry legacy of anti-colonialism. But none of those appeared to be at all driving the popular, massive uprisings so forceful they could oust some of the world's most entrenched regimes. That took the more universal, more human, and apparently much more potent desire for dignity and democracy. So far, the protests have toppled two dictators, and the third may well be on his way. The world's assumptions about Arab politics, held even in the Syrian presidential office, may fall along with them.

Photo: A man waves a flag at a public funeral in Deraa for protesters killed at a March 25 demonstration. Reuters