This article surveys the contribution of non-state actors to the changes in the Middle East known popularly as the “Arab Spring.” Scholars have developed three prominent schools of thought on the Arab Spring, which emerged in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and other countries. One school describes the Arab Spring as a “pristine” popular movement akin to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the anti-apartheid movement in southern Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, the Tiananmen Square protests, or the Iranian Green Movement. Another argues that it a change shaped by the great powers, especially the United States acting through the the State Department, the Pentagon, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the International Republican Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy. Two strands of this theory exist. The first strand, popular among critics of Arab Spring and the U.S. role, suggests that the United States has perhaps unwittingly allied itself with jihadist non-state actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood and even al Qaeda veterans, and used them to topple relatively moderate and secular regimes with likely disastrous results. The second strand, popular among supporters of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, characterizes U.S. policy as actively promoting popular demands for democracy and freedom, and as sanctioning dictators, torturers, and other forces holding back prosperity and social progress in majority Arab countries. A third theory evokes Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody”: social media (especially Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) converged with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and satellite television channels such as Al Jazeera to make simultaneous revolutions possible in disparate contexts at a rapid pace.
After presenting a summary of the genesis and course of the Arab Spring from the standpoint of international legal history, this article applies certain key international legal instruments to the crimes of the Arab Spring, and attempts to bring greater local specificity to sweeping generalizations about the Arab Spring and its causes and consequences. Three findings emerge from this analysis. First, the role of the United States cannot be discounted, as illustrated by the divergent response of its leaders to crimes against humanity, such as torture and political persecution, in Egypt, Libya, and Syria as opposed to Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, for example. Depending on U.S. economic and security interests with respect to a country and its military, crimes may be excused, and tyrants granted a new lease on life despite overseeing failed states and resentful populations. This is most obvious in the case of Sudan, where the United States has not called for regime change despite far worse crimes against civilians, significantly harsher tyranny and social malaise, and greatly inferior economic and human development statistics than in Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia. Second, the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda veterans have played a unique role in the Arab Spring, as compared to prior social movements, but their interventions have been mediated by U.S. policy, social media, and Al Jazeera. Focusing unduly on technology or foreign states and neglecting local political and religious movements distracts attention from the interdependence of these social and technological forces on one another. Third, the lessons of Iraq since 2003 and the Gaza Strip since 2005 should not be ignored in wargaming (or predicting the results of) what may be called the “Twitterlutions.” Reprisals against politicians and security forces that perpetrated or tolerated mass violence against civilians, chaos and rampant violence, religious extremism, and economic disaster may be inevitable after the abrupt collapse of regimes such as those in Libya, Syria, or Yemen. These lessons suggest explanations for Washington’s strong support for the central role of the military in Egypt, while possibly foretelling a humanitarian disaster after a chaotic regime change in Syria or Yemen.
Looking to the future, the United Nations must strive to apply more equitably and consistently the foundational multilateral treaties relating to genocide, war crimes, the political independence of states, refugee flows, and human rights. These covenants provide an adequate legal structure, despite some gaps, for responding to the Arab Spring’s principal dangers. Unfortunately, international judicial institutions are a pale shadow of what they should be. A politicized and selective response to the Arab Spring threatens to create a double standard to political violence in Libya or Syria as compared with religious violence in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, a standard which gives jihadist regimes and movements a decisive advantage. Permitting this trend to continue will create more and more enclaves for al Qaeda activity beyond those existing in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. For the United Nations to respond adequately to the threats faced by diverse populations in Asia and Africa in particular, it must return to first principles, namely respect for territorial integrity and political independence, promotion of international peace, settlement of international controversies in accordance with principles of justice and law, the equal rights of peoples, and regard for human rights.
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