Sep. 2, 2011
Emory Expert: Are We Witnessing a True Revolution in Libya?
Emory Middle Eastern history and Islamic studies professor Kenneth Stein is an expert in the Middle East, American foreign policy in the region and the modern Arab world. He says he’s worried that though we’ve seen a lot of fighting in the region, so far we have only witnessed popular uprisings not yet true revolutions.
“For real change to occur there must be a distinct move away from authoritarianism and elite control over social, economic, and political systems,” Stein explains. “For an overhaul of the way governments operate, those in the middle and lower classes need to have ways to participate in determining and shaping their futures.”
Stein says ridding a country of authoritarian or dictatorial leaders is the necessary first step to creating democratic change: “Tossing authoritarian or dictatorial leaders from absolute control is a quick, gratifying and necessary first step; building contracts between newly evolving ruling institutions and the ruled takes longer. And sometimes it is violent. Along the way to reform, detours can be taken in which those who once preached reform, end up squashing other reformers so they can climb to the top of a newly fashioned hierarchy.
“This is what happened in Iran from 1979-1985. Today there is clerical authoritarianism where there was once a secular autocrat,” Stein says. “We have already seen in Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia, now Libya, and soon perhaps in Syria, that as the iron hand of the ruler disappears or weakens, tribal, ethnic, confessional, and religious fissures lingering beneath the surface erupt. When they do, violence can occur, sometimes hindering the evolution of new systems based on citizen rights. When Saddam fell in Iraq, the ethnic and sectarian divisions erupted mercilessly.
“The United States needs to nurture change, restrain violence where it can, but not expect to remake these countries in America’s image,” he explains. “The human and financial costs are too great. Arab states who can afford it, like the oil exporters, have to step into the breach and help regulate the desired political change.”
Contact Ken Stein.