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Don’t rule out revolution in Syria just yet

March 11, 2011 11 comments

Revolutions are notoriously hard to predict. When they do happen, the experts are usually left looking silly. To illustrate the point, a university lecturer once told me of how he, the Soviet “expert”, published an article in The Times entitled “Why the Berlin Wall will not fall in my lifetime.” Weeks later in 1989, crash!

Many Middle East specialists are now finding themselves in similarly uncomfortable situations. They have quite obviously failed to predict the democratic revolutions now sweeping the region. It is not difficult to see why this has happened. Kevin Brennan writes:

Sovietologists of all political stripes were given strong incentives to ignore certain facts and focus their interest in other areas. I don’t mean to suggest that there was a giant conspiracy at work; there wasn’t. It was just that there were no careers to be had in questioning the conventional wisdom.

The problem then is succumbing to conventional wisdom. To answer the question: “Where the next revolution will take place?”, Middle East experts should now start thinking unconventionally. They should be meeting with activists and youth leaders on the ground, researching what’s happening on the blogosphere, following youth groups on Facebook and Twitter, engaging with the political opposition, monitoring local news sources, looking at what’s happening in the provinces and not only in the state capitals, and generally developing a more nuanced approach than has so far been the case. Conventional wisdom, with its emphasis on Western security concerns and macroeconomics, has been turned on its head post-Tunisia. It is at the street level that the rumblings of the next revolution will first be detected.

You would think someone will take note. This week, and within a space of only 24 hours, two articles appeared on the prospects of revolution in Syria, both of which belong firmly in the conventional wisdom school of Middle East analysis. The first was this by Rania Abouzeid in Time Magazine in which she claimed that, “much-publicized acts by Assad that have apparently helped endear him to the public include his driving to the Umayyad Mosque in February to take part in prayers to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and his strolling through the crowded Souq Al-Hamidiyah marketplace with a low-security profile.” Presumably like the impromptu appearances of Gaddafi in Green Square to thousands of jubilant supporters. 

Post-Tunisia, the Arab world is a very different place

The second article was Michael Bröning’s piece for Foreign Affairs, describing Syria as a “sturdy house that Assad built.” This was a more substantial piece, but it contains the same clichés and conjecture that plagues much of what is written about Syria these days. Bröning essentially argues that, “Despite various parallels with Tunisia and Egypt, a close look at Syria reveals that the Assad regime is unlikely to fall.” So it’s a Syria-is-not-Egypt argument. Sound familiar?

It was J K Galbraith who said, “The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.” The problem with these analyses is that they demonstrate an unwillingness to challenge the underlying assumptions of the great debate on Syria in the light of what has happened in the region during the past three months. Tunisia proved that “performance legitimacy” was no guarantee against revolution; Egypt the extraordinary power of citizen protest; and who could trust a word of state television after Libya? Syria is as much immune from revolutionary change as Romania was in the summer of 1989.

To be fair to the Middle East experts, the Arabs themselves didn’t see what was around the corner. Now that we are on the corner however, it seems rather foolish to predict where a revolution will not take place when the same experts failed to predict the revolutions that did take place. Like the Soviet experts before them, the Middle East experts are good at many things; prophesying is not one of them.

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