Pundits have been guessing at the likely outcomes of the “Arab Spring,” recent grass-roots revolutions in key Arab nations that have ousted unpopular leadership in those countries.  With this week’s demise of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, questions about the end-game for the middle east continue to shift.  What will be the eventual outcome?  What types of governments will prevail?  jmb275 and I were recently discussing these events.

hawkgrrrl:  What’s your take on the fact that so many countries have undergone revolutions recently?  Do you think this is just the same old unrest or a new change brought on by human evolution and the digital age? 

jmb275:  Interesting that you coupled human evolution and digital age together. Yes, I think the digital age does play a large role in it. Not only has it been the mechanism for communication, and unification, but it has played a role in broadening people’s perspectives of what is possible. It’s not clear to me how this is coupled with human evolution in a scientific sense, but there may be some causation there, I don’t know. It seems to me that currently, for whatever reason, human beings are becoming more and more convinced that we don’t need authoritarian rulers to lead happy fulfilling lives in orderly societies. We can think for ourselves, act appropriately, and remain safe even if we don’t have someone telling us what we should think and do all the time. In the West this is a mainstay of human thought, but it is clearly spreading to other parts of the world

hawkgrrrl:   Do you think people will ultimately demand some form of democracy or do they just want to fight against the current flavor of oppression or replace it with a form that gives their group more power?

jmb275:  I think they are demanding a form of democracy because there is evidence that it is successful (even wildly successful). Some have argued that the middle east isn’t “ready” for democracy. I think that’s a bunch of crap. There are certainly downsides to democracy, particularly the oppression of minorities, and a good constitution to guarantee freedom of minorities is essential. I think the better question is whether or not people in the middle east want to allow gov’t to be separate from their religion (an absolute necessity for democracy to work). For that, I’m not sure they’re ready. I have a good friend from a middle eastern country and I’ve asked him this. He loves America, thinks it’s great and often points to our philosophies as what enables our greatness. But in the same breath he will defend an Islamic based gov’t and completely ignore the problems of tying a secular gov’t to a religion.

hawkgrrrl:  I’m a little skeptical about the ability of nations to reinvent themselves, especially when they’ve had an autocratic leadership.  Those whose experience is entirely under autocratic rule, IMO, begin to get weird, outlandish notions about power.  They demand change, but aren’t ready to govern themselves sensibly – they lack the experience and qualifications to do so as much as their leaders do sometimes.  Factional grievances are held for a long time, and revolution is a chance for revenge.  Opportunistic individuals emerge.  Revolutions can start idealistic and end up somewhere else entirely.  Or they can start somewhere unpromising and end up with democracy.  There were many in the American Revolution who would have been happy to make George Washington the king (president for life at least). Lenin said that the question after revolution was always “Who Whom?” or who would rule over whom? Revolutions are mere riots if no one coherent with a workable strategy implements a new model, and most people capable of that are also capable of Napoleonic ambition.

jmb275:  As you mentioned, it wasn’t as if everyone wanted or envisioned a democratic America after the revolutionary war. But we had smart, well educated people who knew the problems associated with a continuation of the old paradigm (something, ironically, we seem to have forgotten in today’s American politics), and who demanded something better. I suppose perhaps I’m just very optimistic of the people in the middle east. I think the human spirit longs for liberty and freedom as much as it longs for safety and security. People there are long overdue for a little liberty, and I think they’ll get it.
hawkgrrrl:  It’s never enough to want change.  People can idolize America, but they may not be able to recreate it.  It worked as well as it did because of location, culture, resource-independence, and absentee government.  A revolution against one’s own ruler is always going to be more bloody and come at a higher cost, and if the country doesn’t have those things in its favor, if it lacks resources (or has a poor economy), if it’s in a precarious location (hello Middle East!), or a culture that contradicts democratic aims (as you say – religion tied to government), I think you eventually get more of the same after a revolution.  You can’t change the government until you change the governed.

jmb275:   As I mentioned, I think the number one sticking point will be religion. As much as I think they may desire liberty, I don’t think they’re ready to admit a secular gov’t. My impression of Islamic culture is that there just isn’t much room for a separation of church and state. Since most people there are, in fact, Muslim, there would need to be strong constitutional language to protect rights of the minorities. But historically, Islam is not prepared to deal peacefully and justly with those who don’t heed its version of truth. As a disclaimer, if this makes its way into a post, I know I’m generalizing a great deal here and I know all Muslims aren’t like this, particularly those in the U.S. But those I’ve talked to from Middle Eastern countries seem to take a much harder line on many secular issues. Because of the nature of religion and the psychology it brings about, I think religion is the number one stumbling block to a democratic Middle East.

hawkgrrrl:  Religion is one heckuva sticking point, though. There’s a big difference between trying to overthrow a ruler who is oppressive and trying to overthrow a ruler whose oppression differs from the flavor of oppression you prefer, one in keeping with your own religous beliefs.  While there may be grass roots supporters of democracy, what flavor are the leaders-to-be?  While our system keeps power in check, it takes that first leader to allow it to happen or you end up with Napolean Bonaparte instead of George Washington.  My guess is that we don’t create a lot of George Washingtons in these cultures. 

jmb275:  Yeah, I think your skepticism is justified. The American experiment certainly doesn’t seem to be the normal outcome for a revolution. OTOH, I think there are some things to point out. Now that there is an America, a working version of democracy, that, despite problems, is capable of great good and creating wealth and happiness for many, there is a model to work from. The best thing the founders had to look toward was ancient Greece and a whole lot of philosophy. The U.S. would likely bend over backwards to support a democratic outcome to any of these revolutions. Hence, I can’t help but think that the probability of a democratic outcome is MUCH higher now than it would have been 300 years ago.

hawkgrrrl:  I certainly agree it’s more likely now, especially with the digital age.  More people are going to be predisposed to want it, but the question remains – what will those in power (or those willing to use violent means to achieve their aims) want?  What will they allow?

jmb275:  Nevertheless, I think we are in agreement here. I think your skepticism is well warranted, I guess I just have high hope that human liberty and justice will prevail.

The downfall of bin Laden who was killed this week in the Pakistani ISI’s backyard adds another dimension to this evolution in the middle east, sort of like finding out Hitler had a vacation home in Langley, Virginia.  Will this make it easier or harder for democracy to emerge?  Are theocracies and other autocracies more likely to emerge than democracies?

From Ali Soufan, NYT oped contributor and former Guantanamo interrogator:

Many terrorists whom I interrogated told me they expected America to ultimately fold. What they didn’t understand is that as powerful as the Bin Laden idea was to them, America’s values and liberties are even greater to us.

Richard Clarke, oped writer for NYT offers:

Often forgotten amid the ugly violence of Al Qaeda’s attacks was that the terrorists’ declared goal was to replace existing governments in the Muslim world with religiously pure Islamist states and eventually restore an Islamic caliphate.

So what do you think will be the likely outcome in the Middle East?  How much unrest before peace?  Will democracy prevail or an alternate form of rule (e.g. caliphates)?  Discuss.