Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. and an expert in U.S. Middle East relations. He is also a former State Department Analyst and Negotiator. He has written The Much Too Promised Land; America's Elusive Search For Arab-Israeli Peace (Bantam Books, 2008) and is working on a new book: Can America Have Another Great President? (Bantam Books, 2012). Dr. Miller spoke to International Business Times about the ongoing political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.
IB TIMES: We are seeing unrest spill across the Middle East and North Africa. The rulers of Tunisia and Egypt have already been toppled. These countries seem to all have similar problems (high unemployment, high food prices, rapidly expanding populations, repressive governments, etc.). Are we likely to see any more governments collapse in the near-term in the region? Or are they likely to avoid such a fate after seeing what happened in Cairo and Tunis?
MILLER: There's no way to 'cookie-cutter' this thing; each country is unique. However, these nations have some of the same issues: under- and unemployment, corruption, weak economies etc. But to determine where the next explosion will occur, you have to consider the battle between the haves and have-nots. Where is the competition for resources the fiercest? Where are things so desperate that it might prompt action on the part of the opposition?
Then you have to look at the cans versus the cannots,” that is the divide between those who are able to participate in government and those who cannot. And where is this divide the most acute and where are the grievances the greatest?
The third factor to evaluate is the capacity of the ruling regime to repress their peoples. The state has all kinds of repressive tools at their disposal, but are they willing to use them against the population? In Tunisia, the answer was no. In Egypt, despite the overwhelming power of the military, they refused to use firepower against the protesters. In the newly-developing unrest in Bahrain, I get the sense that the government will not be able to crush the Shia majority which has genuine longstanding grievances.
The fourth factor to consider is how well-organized and sustained the opposition forces are.
Even taking all this into account, it is very difficult to predict with any precision which government will be the next to fall. However, if you have a weak state, strong opposition, and powerful grievances-- as in Jordan, Bahrain and perhaps Algeria-- they are probably the likeliest candidates to see their rulers fall. But it's hard to predict with any certainty to find the next domino to fall.
IB TIMES: Iran is a non-Arab State, but they, too, have witnessed protests inspired by the turmoil in Tunis and Cairo.
MILLER: Iran is interesting in that it is the only country in the region that has undergone a genuine revolution in its recent history [1979 Islamic Revolution]. What has happened in Egypt might be regarded as revolutionary but it doesn't look like a radical revolving of the social and economic order, like what happened in Paris in 1789 or Moscow in 1917 or Teheran in 1979.
IBTIMES: Will the existing governments in countries where unrest has struck start making more concessions? (like higher food subsidies, relaxation on media, job programs)?
MILLER: You have to be country-specific and you have to gauge the intensity of hatred for the government authorities. The protesters on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere clearly disliked Hosni Mubarak's cult of personality, the patronage and corruption among the political elite, and his plans to transfer power ultimately to his son Gamal.
However, I don't think, for example, that the vast majority of Jordanians hate their King Abdullah, nor do I think the vast majority of Saudis hate their King Abdullah.
It's a question of legitimacy of the governing authority as perceived by the public and especially the political opposition.
IBTIMES: Generally speaking, there have always been high rates of poverty and endemic corruption in many of these Arab countries. Why have the people waited so long to stage an uprising?
MILLER: I think that Tunisia provided a spark. I think that social networking has played a large role. But most importantly, the trend-line in these countries have been negative for so long and the frustration level reached a point of no return. All these forces simply coalesced.
IBTIMES: Were you surprised by the rapidity of the events in Egypt?
MILLER: Absolutely, anyone who says otherwise isn’t being honest. Egypt is (or was) the largest, most powerful, most stable Arab nation - and its government fell in just two-and-a-half weeks. Just remarkable.
IBTIMES: What about Saudi Arabia? Would anti-government protests there be unthinkable?
MILLER: Saudi Arabia is a completely different system, a totally different model. With their immense oil wealth, smaller population, the Saudi rulers have the resources and capacity to appease, reward, and essentially bribe their citizenry to keep them in line if they choose to. Although, even there, the gap is widening between the haves and have-nots, as is the generational divide. In addition, the question of legitimacy is quite different. King Abdullah is not viewed the same way that secular leaders like Mubarak or Ben-Ali in Tunisia was. It's not a cult of personality. The Saudi Royal family behave very differently. Plus, their line of succession is widely accepted.
IBTIMES: Are the oil-rich Persian Gulf states immune from this kind of unrest?
MILLER: No one is immune, that has become quite clear. But, like the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and other emirates have the wealth to buy themselves insurance from potential revolution. Moreover, regimes that have fallen, or might be in danger of doing so, are closely associated with the U.S.—as do most of the Persian Gulf states.
IBTIMES: Does Israel find itself in greater danger if more Arab despots fall? They seemed wary about Mubarak's fall.
MILLER: Israelis are facing a potentially worst-case scenario. They've enjoyed peace with Egypt for more than thirty years. While there seems to be little risk of the peace treaty being broken now, there seems little doubt that the next Egyptian regime (whatever form that takes) will be much more critical towards Israel than Mubarak was. Israel's political alternatives, already quite small, will narrow even further.
IBTIMES: Yemen is a desperately poor country and their strongman is a U.S. ally. Most of the people are uneducated and very few have access to the internet. Is this the least likely Arab country to undergo a revolution?
MILLER: The thing is even if Yemen has a change in regime, nothing will change for its people. Even if these countries implement a long-term social-economic improvement scheme, it'll take a long time to really improve the lives of the population. Nothing is likely to change, much less improve, for the vast majority of Egyptians (where a government transition is taking place).
IBTIMES: How do you think Turkey views all this unrest (given their huge and restless Kurdish minority population)?
MILLER: Turkey (another non-Arab state) has long considered itself the model of how to reconcile Islam with the governance of a modern secular state. The Turks are not next in line; their revolutionary period was completed over eighty years ago with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. They've already negotiated a contract between military and civil authorities. Turkey is also in a very strong economic condition. Even the government's relation with the Kurdish minority has recently improved.