Foreign Policy Blogs

Spring or Bog – The New Shape of Arab Politics?

Is the Arab Spring going to lead to polarized, issue-specific politics, similar to those that currently afflict America? If so, what are the implications for the wave of revolution and can, or even should, the US do anything to ensure that the democratic revolution is cemented? Moreover, what would the long-term effects of polarized politics in the Arab world look like?

The above questions popped into my head after reading a segment of a recent Reuters blog, discussing the idea that the wave of revolution currently sweeping the Arab world could lead to issue-based political posturing. The train of thought seems very plausible: political division occurs; diffuse groups form; issues are tabled, but lack adequate popular support to succeed; citizens recognize failure and form around popular, contentious issues; and political violence, apathy, or malaise set-in. The idealistic part of us wants to focus on positive factors, such as the earnest youth effort in Egypt, as well as clear solidarity surrounding ensuring a true democratic government takes shape there. Everything appears to be coming to a head in the Arab world, and one cannot help but to place hope in the Arab Spring. Pragmatically, though, I worry about the likelihood of it becoming bogged down through political simplification and insularity. We can easily foresee groups making concessions as long as they can secure certain bandwagon, ideological provisions. With this, and probably even more important, these concessions could occur in exchange for withdrawal of support for true, substantive political change, not the least of which is installation of responsive, democratic governments.

If we look for further counter-arguments, we could suggest that the revolution is clearly popular, and there are many binding factors that may help safeguard the democratic evolution; however, we do not need to look far to see how a strong minority can drive majority debate via the manipulation of visceral language and imagery, especially when it is motivated by ignorance or fear. Although many may disagree, I have a bad feeling that this reactive, strong posturing will take root in the new Arab political scene. The real question, for me, is only when.

Even if one takes the idealistic track, arguably we should be monitoring developments so that we can be best prepared for any derailment that occurs. Monitoring social media and tasking our diplomatic corps to be sensitized to political fissures and polarization are just a few things, for example, we should be doing. The question of should we intervene to support the Arab Spring is more controversial because, going out on a limb here, we (the US) are not always the best judges of whom to support, nor of the actual implications. Moreover, there is definitely something to be said for social natural selection, as in it can demonstrate sustainability and ensure ownership, important factors in a revolution. Conversely, what the US definitely should be doing is reviewing what policies and relationships it has, especially military, that could hinder democratic development in the Arab world; in short, make sure that we are not subverting the revolution by hanging on to relationships with authoritarians or those who have an interest in hindering political change.

Colonialism, exploitation, and political realism has distorted the social and geographical political map for the Arab world. As discussed in my previous post – “Fear and Loathing in the South” – the region appears to be more friendly to collective action. Another worry about the possible shift towards issue-specific politics in the region, hence, is the likelihood of notable political violence enveloping polities. Arab civil society is facing some serious challenges – unemployment, power grabbing, military authoritarianism, crime, disillusionment, violence, opportunism, etc. – let us only hope that it will not become bogged down through insular, divisive political debate.



Ali A. Riazi

Ali is an independent advisor on conflict and foreign affairs and an advocate for civilian protection. He has advised the Office of the Secretary of Defense, US military, NGOs, and intelligence oversight staff on topics, such as Afghanistan, civilian protection, irregular warfare, and civil-military affairs. His 13+ years of career experience have spanned humanitarian and national security circles and involved extensive experience throughout the Near East and Central Asia.

Ali earned a BA in Government & Politics (summa cum laude) and a Minor in International Development & Conflict Management from the University of Maryland, College Park. Additionally, he served as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant in International Political Economy. He is currently pursuing an MLitt in Terrorism Studies through the University of St. Andrews.

Ali's other blog interests can be followed at, and he can be found on Twitter at!/ali_riazi.