21 September 2012
U.S. policymakers must keep in mind the changes which have occurred throughout the Middle East, including in countries which have not seen regime change. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, popular protests and civil unrest led to the downfall of leaders who had retained power for decades. As a result, U.S. policymakers have focused their attention and financial resources on post-transition countries in the wake of the uprisings. However, important changes have occurred in every country in the region, including those which did not see regime change.
In a recent article for the journal Comparative Politics, Brandeis University Professor Eva Bellin refers to Arab countries, which did not see regime change, as “silent springs,” a clever appropriation of the title of the 1962 book by Rachel Carson. Silent springs are countries such as Qatar, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia in which protests broke out but were “silenced” when the regime outmaneuvered them. However, as Bellin correctly points out, recognizing silent springs as important in their own right is critical for academics and policymakers alike.
For example, in the wake of protests in Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa formed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate his own regime’s conduct during protests in February 2011. The report, presented to the King himself, was critical of the regime. It listed specific cases of the excessive use of force, arbitrary detainment, and policy failures by the government.
In Jordan, Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh resigned from parliament of his own accord after being appointed by King Abdullah II in October 2011. Before the Arab uprisings, such resignations were almost always a euphemism for being ousted by the monarch. In this case, the monarchy was caught off guard by a prime minister exercising independent authority. His resignation sent a powerful signal – likely unwelcome by the monarch – and to the international community about internal frustration within the regime.
These shifts – and similar ones inside other silent spring countries – have three important implications of which policymakers in Washington should take note. First, regimes in silent spring countries are now less able to take advantage of intimidation as a tool of repression. The Arab uprisings were marked by a critical moment in which the public broke free from their fear of the police and security services. While these forces maintain control in silent spring countries, the threat of repression is less of a deterrent now than in years past.
Second, while regimes may have been able to repress their people in this round of uprisings, they may not necessarily be able to do so in the future. Successful repressions of protests in the silent spring countries have been met with deep resentment by their publics, many of them young and thirsty for the rights and liberties enjoyed by their peers outside the Middle East. This resentment has important implications for the prospect of protests in the future.
Finally, silent spring countries and their repressive tendencies have been laid bare to the international community. Images and text transmitted via social media have played an important role in this regard. In trying to smother dissent, these regimes have exposed their true nature to the entire world. Such exposure will be difficult to overcome with even well-crafted diplomatic rhetoric about democracy and civil liberties. It is also more risky in the wake of NATO intervention in Libya under the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect.
Ultimately the silent springs have not broken, but they have bent. As the United States seeks to posture itself in the next five years, it must consider the wide-reaching effects of the changes which have taken place in the silent spring countries. The United States should continue to leverage its influence on behalf of the citizens of these countries at the same time that it supports regime transitions elsewhere. It should continue to support democratic reforms, encourage a transition from resource-based economies, and promote social cohesion across ethnic and class lines.
While democratic transition in the silent springs is by no means inevitable, supporting the aspirations of a young generation in the Middle East is crucial to advancing the interests of the United States in promoting greater freedom in the region and around the world.
Scott Weiner is the chair of the Middle East Discussion Group of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He is a doctoral student in Political Science at The George Washington University where his research focuses on state-minority relations and political violence.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.