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Oct.5, 2011

Vol. 112, No. 2

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Whither the Arab Spring?

More analysis from faculty and alumni

By Phil Zabriskie ’94
Published in the October5, 2011, issue


Thanassis Cambanis *00, a journalist who worked throughout the Middle East for the Boston Globe and The New York Times, and who wrote A Privilege to Die, an examination of Hezbollah, is now working on a book about Egypt after the fall of Mubarak.

“The parliament that’s elected this fall is going to choose who’s going to write the next constitution. There’s already a huge fight going on, and at the heart of this fight is whether Egypt will be a secular state or not. There’s a lot of arcane and detailed infighting that has involved the army, the liberal party, the Islamism parties—pretty much every powerful civil society group. The bottom line is that the secularists are trying to find some way to guarantee that the state won’t become Islamic even if the Isalmists win a majority in the parliament. It’s a big test, because Egypt is a roughly 90 percent Muslim country where people are conservative and Islamic. And whatever government emerges here, if it’s truly representative and democratic, it’s certainly going to be more Islamic than its predecessors. It’s a big question whether the status quo will let that develop organically.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 of the Woodrow Wilson School, who served in the US State Dept through last March, wrote about Libya in the Financial Times.


“Looking forward, it is really not up to the west, much less the US, to plan Libya’s transition. It is a relief to see so many articles and statements reflecting lessons learnt from Iraq. But the Libyans are far ahead of where the US was when the initial fighting ended in Iraq. The National Transitional Council has a draft constitutional charter that is impressive in scope, aspirations and detail – including 37 articles on rights, freedoms and governance arrangements.


“The skeptics’ response to all this, of course, is that it is too early to tell. In a year, or a decade, Libya could disintegrate into tribal conflict or Islamist insurgency, or split apart or lurch from one strongman to another. But the question for those who opposed the intervention is whether any of those things is worse than Col Gaddafi staying on by increasingly brutal means for many more years. Instability and worse would follow when he died, even had he orchestrated a transition.”


Will McCants *06, a former counterterrorism analyst at the State Department who founded jihadica.com and now works on terrorism issues for the Center for Naval Analyses, wrote about the “Al Qaeda’s Challenge” in a recent Foreign Affairs article.

“Al-Qaida is no longer the vanguard of the Islamist movement in the Arab world. Having defined the terms of Islamist politics for the last decade by raising fears about Islamic political parties and giving Arab rulers a pretext to limit their activity or shut them down, al-Qaida’s goal of removing those rulers is now being fulfilled by others who are unlikely to share its political vision. Should these revolutions fail and al-Qaida survives, it will be ready to reclaim the mantle of Islamist resistance. But for now, the forces best positioned to capitalize on the Arab Spring are the Islamist parliamentarians, who, unlike al-Qaida, are willing and able to engage in the messy business of politics.”

Thomas Heghemmer is a former post-doctoral fellow at Princeton’s Transregional Institute For the Study of the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa.

In most countries that have been affected here, the jihadis, al Qaeda, are sitting on the fence. They don’t know what to do because they don’t know what their role should be. So in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, they’re a little bit confused at the moment. The things to look out for are the evolution of the established groups, like al-Qaida in Yemen and al-Qaida in Algeria, whether or not they grow in membership, whether or not they increase their activities. Another thing to look out for is the flow of foreign fighters for example, to Libya. If we see more Islamist foreign fighters in Libya, for example, that’s a worry development.

“[But] the net effect of the Arab spring is bad for the jihadis. There’s going to be a lot of regional variation. There’s going to be a lot of ups and down. But I think in five to ten years from now, the jihadi movement will be weaker than it is today and we will look back and describe the Arab spring as a contributing factor.”

Jon B. Alterman ’87 is director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at CSIS. Previously he taught at Harvard and served on the Policy Planning Staff and as a special assistant to the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs at the State Department.

“Social media was important not because it allowed people to be part of a broader audience. But it allowed more people to produce information and become activists in a very short period of time. It’s not the act of looking at somebody else’s Facebook page. It’s not the act of looking at other people’s media, but by using tools to create media, people crossed that boundary between being passive observers and being participants. And what was striking about this was the number of people who became activists in a very short period of time. … When all is said is done, the most important part of this is not Twitter, it’s not Facebook. It’s television. Television is what created a nation-wide movement. But what really got people off the fence quickly was the ability to create information that made them identify themselves with the cause of change in Egypt. Social media lowered the threshold to become a creator of information and an activist in that way.”

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