March 31, 2010

On Dec. 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor set himself ablaze to protest political corruption and police brutality. One month later, following nationwide protests and strikes inspired by his self-immolation, Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali abruptly resigned, ending his 23 years of autocratic rule.

Since then, similar protests have swept the Middle East, leading to revolution in Egypt and threatening the governments of Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen in an unprecedented populist uprising many have termed the “Arab Spring.”

To better understand the rapidly developing situation in the Middle East, we spoke with Monica M. Ringer, associate professor of history and Asian languages and civilizations at Amherst. Ringer, an expert on Middle Eastern history, is former executive director of the International Society of Iranian Studies and  co-editor of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. She has authored two books, Education, Religion and the Discourse of Cultural Reform in Qajar Iran (2001) and the forthcoming Pious Citizens: Reforming Zoroastrianism in India and Iran. She sat down with Public Affairs intern Adam Gerchick ’13 on March 23 to discuss the Middle Eastern upheaval.

What is the relevance of Islam to the autocracies in the Middle East and to the region’s potential for democracy?

One of the misunderstandings about Islam is that it prefers a certain type of government, and so it’s often looked to by outsiders as one of the reasons why there isn’t democracy. In fact, theologically speaking, Islam actually promotes consultative government and a ruler who is answerable to the public.


The question really is: why are there so many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East? It’s not because the Middle East is largely Muslim. It’s because the Arab countries in the Middle East following World War I were under European mandates; essentially, they were colonies of European powers.

Those colonies established authoritarian regimes and really retarded the development of modern political institutions, representative institutions and national identities. Even after these countries became independent from European powers, those structures remained. It’s a structural problem more than a cultural problem.

Do you think the revolutionary movements in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain will succeed in establishing representative government? 

Of the three, Egypt is the most likely to have more representative organizations and structures, because it has a very vibrant [non-governmental-organization] society, and because, overall, that’s really the demand of the Tahrir Square protesters. I would see that as a democracy movement.

The revolt in Bahrain is much more a protest against oppression of Shiites—people airing their grievances; I’m not sure that’s quite the same.

And in the Libyan case, it’s not clear to me that what might have started out as people expressing their antipathy towards Gadhafi is a democracy movement. These things can easily be waylaid into playing out tribal divisions. So, what worries me is lumping them all together and assuming that people on the street protesting are necessarily interested in representative government.

How would you advise still-stable Middle Eastern governments to avoid revolution? 

Were I to advise some of the governments in the Middle East, the more “moderate” ones, I would say that people are looking to them to get ahead of demands and not just to pretend to be transparent and responsible but to enact meaningful reforms. People are not really looking for regime overthrow unless that’s the only way.

What is instructive is the use of Turkey and Iran as role models.  The Turkish role model is about the fact that Turkey has a government independent from foreign control. However, Turkey’s control over religion to the extent of limiting religious freedoms would not be seen positively. People are much more interested in individual liberties than they are in ongoing state control of religion.

I can’t think of a country that really wants to implement the Iranian model. Islamic government that dictates religion is not attractive, even amongst the pious in Iran. 

The lesson of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath is that revolutions are very dangerous. They usually end up being more radical and less democratic than the majority of the population intended from the outset.

What movements in the Arab world are taking away from this is the importance of moderation and incremental change, rather than the hope for something much, much better that deteriorates into a violent situation.

Are the United States and its allies conducting themselves properly in their enforcement of the United Nations-authorized “no-fly zone” over Libya?

No, I don’t think we’re taking the right position. It is very difficult to argue that a no-fly zone will be sufficient to do much of anything at all. Advocates have said, “Well, we just can’t stand by and watch the population be massacred by government forces.”

The questions then become: Why Libya and not other countries? When is it acceptable to intervene? Advocates would say, “We were asked to intervene by Libyan opposition movements as well as by the Arab League.” That certainly gives it more legitimacy, but the problem is, what would we be prepared to do beyond a no-fly zone, because that will certainly be insufficient either to protect citizens or to oust Gadhafi. It also leads, as many observers have pointed out, to the marginalization of more liberal forces.

Are we really prepared to invade this country and change the government? It’s very hard to set up new regimes that are legitimate. So I would have advocated for the U.S. not to become involved in this particular conflict. A better solution would be for the Arab League and the African Union to lead humanitarian intervention and dialogue.

Has the U.S. generally struck the right balance between supporting allies and taking a stand for democracy and revolution?

Overall, I think Obama’s done a good job. In the Egypt situation, there was a call for dialogue, there was a call for moderation, but at the same time there was not a blanket endorsement of [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak.

I think there’s a sense that the U.S. is more reluctant to support oppressive regimes than in the past. On the other hand, it’s very difficult for the U.S. to come out in support of every possible protest and “democracy movement” since we do have allies in the region who are looking to Obama’s words about whether we are going to continue to support them. So it’s a really delicate balancing act.