Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Critical Juncture for the Middle East?

The foreign policy community in DC is spending considerable time and effort trying to judge what is going to happen in the rapidly unfolding situations in Libya, Algeria, and Bahrain. Bahrain is of particular concern given the country's small size, last night's miscalculated use of force at 3am against sleeping and mostly unarmed protesters, and the fact that Bahrain is home to the US 5th Fleet.

With all the turmoil, it's hard to keep track of what the situation is where. It's even harder to settle on a paradigm for judging these events.

Given the highly unexpected regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, the Middle East may be in a "critical juncture" in which the basic "rules" of the status quo are changed in response to an exogenous shock. In this case, the shock would be the deposition of both President Ben Ali and President Mubarak in only 2 months' time. Some have suggested this may be the beginnings of a new "wave of democratization" sweeping the Middle East.

The problem is, it's sometime's hard to tell if you're in a critical juncture. In some cases (Pearl Harbor, 9/11) it is beyond clear that the shock to the system will change policy. There is no question that Mubarak's ouster represents a critical juncture to the Egyptian domestic political system. But whether the authoritarianism which has gripped the Middle East for a century is due for a change is more difficult to answer. Only time will tell.

For academics, excellent note-taking skills are in order. For policymakers, the events in Libya, Algeria, and Bahrain are a yellow light. That a critical juncture is even possible at present is itself significant. But despite pressure or wishful thinking, policymakers should proceed with caution when crafting policy responses. Because the answer to whether or not this is part of a wave of democratization is: we simply don't yet know.

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