The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Ursurprising surprises

Thanassis Cambanis has an essay in the Boston Globe called How wrong we were, in which he outlines five surprises stemming from the Arab revolutions. The surprising thing is that he's really wrong in picking those five surprises. Let's go through the ones he chose (update: I am told these subheadings were the editor's choice, not the author's — it makes a difference since the text is more nuanced):

Surprise #1: Military aid might be the best way to promote democracy.

Err... it didn't really work that well for the last 30 years in Egypt, did it? This idea rests on the conceit that the Egyptian army did not fire on protestors because of US pressure. I doubt this is the case; firing on the protestors would have been a grave escalation of matters putting the population against the army, risking civil war and insurbordination by younger officers. Continued military aid to the Egyptian military now only serves US interests, these are quite distinct from democracy or its promotion. And despite some $35bn in aid delivered since 1975, the US continues to have little understanding of the Egyptian military and military-civilian relations.

Surprise #2: Our allies don’t listen to us. (And they might not listen that much to other governments, either.)

Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali and others hadn't listened to pressure to reform for years. No surprise there.

Surprise #3: Israel doesn’t hold US foreign policy hostage, and neither does Saudi Arabia.

When the US has done something as stupid as that recent UN veto, I wouldn't say that Israel doesn't have an impact on US policy. It's more that neither Israel nor the US had much influence over the way events unfolded in Tunisia or Egypt. In fact that may be the biggest surprise: the US had very little ability to influence events on the ground in Egypt in particular, and was left out of the loop on key decisions such as Mubarak's attempt to stay on in his third speech.

Surprise #4: Islam isn’t the only political game in town. Neither is autocracy.

This is a surprise, really? Perhaps from the point of view of the US, but the dual failure of political Islam and the Arab model for autocracy has been written about for two decades at least. 

Surprise #5: The information revolution is real.

Again, is this really surprising?