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The Arab Spring
By Adam Garfinkle, Editor of The American Interest
Text: https://www.fpri.org/articles/2013/11/how-think-about-middle-east-arab-spring-and-after
Review by David T. Jones

In a 5200 word lecture published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Adam Garfinkle combines scholarly analysis of Middle East circumstances and the “Arab Spring” with judgments and predictions. He is not sanguine; indeed, depressingly not.

Garfinkle is the founding editor of American Interest and former speechwriter for Secretaries of State Powell and Rice.

After pedantic thrashing through ways in which the Middle East can be examined, Garfinkle battens on a classic “compare and contrast” between standard Western/U.S. political structures and “Arab” countries (excluding Turkey, Iran, and Israel). In so doing, he constructs a three-pronged template for analysis characteristic of modern societies:

  • A state executive function characterized by impersonal, formal authority with administrative processes based on meritocracy; established procedures are impervious to penetration by personalistic or familial interests.
  • Rule of law, lending order and predictability to political arrangement with all citizens (including rulers) bound by the same constraints. Law trumps persons in formal protection for minority rights, rights of free speech, assembly, etc. And individuals can alter law; it is not divinely inspired.
  • Accountability—“some means by which political leaders’ decisions and general behavior can be aligned over time with the desiderata of the majority of citizens.” Essentially, democratic elections.

Unfortunately, Garfinkle finds Arab states lacking in all dimensions. 

He concludes that Arab countries are patrimonial in nature. To one degree or another, tribally-based affinity networks define these states, and consequently “in” and “out” groups have problematic relations.

Rule of law is sketchy.  Islamic law holds a privileged place in domestic family law. Overlaying Islamic law is Ottoman law, often pertaining to land-title and commercial law. There are elements of European law, but no Arab country has ever implemented genuine constitutional law setting rulers within some bounds of legal restraint.

And accountability? Garfinkle concludes no Arab country has a record of holding genuinely free and fair elections. Procedural accountability is thus very weak; however, substantive accountability is often strong within kinship-based affinity groups/tribes/clans/etc.

Americans misunderstand because we have forgotten the long socio-legal struggle to institutionalize our political system and assume it is natural. Nor is it secular, but rather “a deep inheritance of Anglo-Protestantism… long shrouded in secular language of modernity.”

The upshot, however, was that the Arab Spring had no hope of transmuting into Western-style democracy. Garfinkle recalls his early prediction that “few or even no democracies would ultimately emerge from the tumult,” primarily because protestors knew only what they were against. For example, the self-immolating iconic Tunisian fruit seller cared “not a fig” for democracy.

Somewhat apocryphally, Garfinkle predicts that the Arab Spring “may well lead to destruction not only of the post-Ottoman Empire state system, but destroy several Arab states, e.g. Syria, Iraq, Libya. Moreover, the state-based façade layered on the region by Great Powers may be disintegrating along with a “medievalesque leveling of social authority.” The consequence is a degree of radical insecurity “not conducive to the birth and maturation of democratic attitudes and institutions.”bluestar

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy



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