For people like myself who study political repression and how states engage with political opposition in contentious politics in the Middle East, the past few weeks have been remarkable. The amount of information and images constantly becoming available from Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Jordan and elsewhere is almost impossible to digest in its entirety. We are truly experiencing a remarkable moment.
When uprisings in Tunisia finally resulted in the ouster of Zain Al-Abidine Ben Ali, people around the world began to take notice. Those documenting the story of this revolution found a common starting point in Mohammad Bouazizi. This college-graduate, Tunisian citizen was denied the only work he could find, selling vegetables on a cart, by the regime. The humiliating way he was handled by the regime lead him to commit suicide by setting himself on fire in front of a government building. This act, and the message it sent, galvanized the people in their uprising and became a symbol across Tunisia and much of the world.
But with Bouazizi as the starting point, it was easy to conclude that this revolution in Tunisia was about domestic discontent based largely on economic inequality, repressive police, corruption, unemployment and so on. In fact, it was this focus on Tunisia’s domestic particulars which led many commentators and analysts to suggest that “Egypt was not Tunisia” before, and even after, the transformational events of January 25th when Egyptians began to rise up in the streets of Cairo. Ultimately, Egypt’s uprising, like Tunisia’s, resulted in the ouster of a sitting president and a transition to something new.
Now, we are hearing a familiar refrain that “Yemen is not Tunisia,” “Libya is not Egypt” and so on. Of course, these statements, on their face, are unequivocally true. Each of these states has their own territory, geography, demography and economics. Different domestic dynamics will likely lead one to conclude that repressive events are triggered by different things in different states. Each one of these states has complex domestic politics, different colonial and post-colonial histories and different opposition groups.
Egypt, for example, is a majority Sunni Muslim republic (with a Coptic Christian minority) of over 80 million people whose domestic politics have been dominated by a secular party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), while the only notable opposition movement was the religiously oriented Muslim Brotherhood. It has also experienced several major wars in the modern era. Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom of one million people with a relatively peaceful modern history, has fault lines that can be categorized by a sectarian divide between a ruling Sunni minority and politically weak Shiite majority. It is hard to imagine two Arab countries that could possibly be more different. These differences have conditioned analysts of repression and the relationship between states and opposition parties to focus on domestic and not regional dynamics.
But when we learned that even though “Egypt is not Tunisia,” it was heavily influenced by the revolutionary events there, I was reminded of a research interest I began pursuing several years ago, that is, the question of regional effects. Are these events the product of separate and isolated domestic dynamics, or could there be something regional or “Arab” going on? Recently, I revisited some data and a remarkable trend that certainly raises questions reappeared. It’s hard to imagine a more pertinent time to introduce this than today when much of the Arab world is experiencing uprisings.
The chart below depicts repression trends in the Arab world over almost three decades from 1981-2009. The three different series in the chart represent Arab countries separated by regions I’ve named North Africa, The Levant and the Gulf. This disaggregation was a simple attempt at clarity since it was very difficult to look at repression trends in the Arab world in any discernable fashion with 22 different lines zigzagging across a chart. Some may question how I determined which countries fall into which regions, particularly for states which fall on borders in the way North African Egypt straddles the Levant or the way Iraq straddles the Gulf. Any categorization of this sort is imperfect and arguments can be made to place border countries in adjacent regions, so I did, and it had no significant bearing on the remarkable results.
The score for repression here is based on an index  which codes annual human rights reports by watch groups like Amnesty International for each country in the world and quantifies scores for repression based on instances of political arrests, disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings. The lower the score on the scale (ranging from 0 to 8) the more politically repressive a region is. The series for each region represents the mean of these scores.
The focus here is not meant to be on which region is more repressive, or which period or year was most repressive. Rather, what stands out immediately is that these 22 states, with all their different domestic dynamics, acted in a remarkably similar fashion over time throughout the Arab world. In many of the 28 years on this scale, the three series go up together or down together to similar extents. This defies just about anything anyone could expect when conducting such an analysis. The fact that states responded to opposition groups in the Gulf and North Africa the same way, at the same time, tell us that regional events or effects played a role in the relationship between states and opposition groups.
So, perhaps it doesn’t matter that Tunisia isn’t Egypt, or Yemen, or Bahrain. They are, after all, all Arab. And, something in that common denominator was significant enough to tie very different states together, even in their responses to domestic opposition over time. What could that possibly be?
Michael Hudson, in a seminal book on Arab politics which discusses the question of regime legitimacy may lend us a clue. He writes that “the single most delegitimizing factor” for some Arab regimes “has been their consistent failure to match words with deeds on the Palestine issue.”
It has long been known that opposition groups in Arab states have often criticized their regimes for the inability to deliver on the pan-Arab cause of Palestine. This criticism takes different forms and sometimes targets regimes for their direct cooperation with Israel or for their cooperation with Israel’s biggest ally, the United States.
So it should come as no surprise that protestors in Cairo were chanting “La li Mubarak La li Suleiman hadol ‘omala il Amrikaan” (No to Mubarak and No to Suleiman, these are traitors for the Americans) or “Al Quds Raheen, Shuhada bil Malayeen” (To Jerusalem we will go, Martyrs in the Millions). See the video here. In turn, regimes have also tightened security and targeted opposition preemptively when the Israel-Palestine conflict incurs extraordinarily violent episodes.
This is not to say that Palestine is the only pan-Arab issue –” certainly there is great angst about the American-led war and the ongoing occupation of Iraq –” but Iraq is often viewed through a sectarian lens in the Arab world, whereas Arabs across borders, regardless of sect or background, feel a national and emotional commitment to Palestine.
What is also amazing about these trends is the consistency over time. There were different moments over the past three decades where there was great division between the regimes of the Arab world, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by looking at this chart. Even as Arab states were divided in their stances on the Iran/Iraq war, the Lebanese civil war, the invasion of Kuwait, Egypt’s separate peace, etc., they were united in the times which they repressed opposition movements in their own countries.
Also, despite all the attention the “information revolution” is getting for its role in the uprisings that are sweeping the Arab world, the chart seems to suggest that opposition groups were responding to regional events long before the advent of Twitter or Facebook, or even before the pan-Arab Al-jazeera or other satellite networks existed.
Certainly, I would not go so far as to say that the revolution in Tunisia or Egypt or the uprisings taking place across the Arab world were immediate reactions to anything going on in Palestine. Each of these different revolutions had their ignition moments. Rather, Palestine is a central Arab issue often adopted by opposition groups across the Arab world, whether for self-interested or altruistic purposes, and has been for the better part of a century. The dynamics between states and opposition groups over time, which often ebbed and flowed in response to the dynamics in Palestine, played a significant role in revealing the true nature of regimes as police states, ultimately turning the people against them.
Of course, opposition groups in Libya may have different demands than opposition groups in Yemen, but the uncanny nature of repression trends across the Arab states indicate that the state-opposition group dynamic was most active at certain flashpoints, and there is no issue which has the resonance or the potential to create uproar across Arab borders at the same time as the Palestine issue.
So while there seems to be a domino effect taking place throughout the region, there were clearly common concerns which moved people across national boundaries and so it should perhaps be expected that a people repressed together will rise together as well.
Ultimately, we should stop talking about a “wave sweeping over” the Arab world because it seems the Arab world has been united under a repressive surface for years. The only thing that is new is that the world has begun to notice.
. For more information on the CIRI Human Rights index used here visit http://ciri.binghamton.edu/. It should be noted that while CIRI is the most widely used index for repression scores in the most recent literature, similar trends appear using other indices like the Political Terror Scale.
. Arab Politics Michael C. Hudson, Yale University Press 1977, New Haven.
. For a thorough statistical analysis of the correlation between the dynamics in Israel/Palestine and repression throughout the Arab world see “An Illusionary or Elusive Relationship? The Arab-Israel Conflict and Repression in the Middle East," James Lebovic and William Thompson, Journal of Politics 68,3 (2006).