The Arab Uprisings of 2011 and the “War on Terror”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

The extraordinary uprisings in the Arab world that began in early 2011 have already achieved extraordinary results:  the departure of Tunisia’s long-ruling authoritarian president, and statements by Egypt’s and Yemen’s presidents that they will not run for re-election or attempt to bequeath power to their sons.  (King Abdallah of Jordan also replaced his prime minister, but he does this so often that this does not qualify as an extraordinary event.) Unrest has also occurred in other Arab countries, including Algeria and Oman.

These events are reminiscent of 1989, when a wave of democratization swept through many communist countries.  But 1989 has two legacies; the democratic revolutionary wave that arose in both Eastern Europe and China that year succeeded in the former but failed in the latter.  It is not yet clear how successful the current democratic revolutionary wave in the Arab world will be.

Whatever the outcome of these uprisings, they will certainly affect the “War on Terror.”  Predictions are difficult at present, but hearkening back to the events of Cold War may help shed light on what the impact of the recent unrest might be.

The Cold War involved a confrontation between Western democracy and Marxism-Leninism.  In much of the Third World, though, the United States supported authoritarian regimes. Democratic forces there were often weak, and Washington feared that if it pushed for the democratization of pro-American authoritarian regimes, the Marxist-Leninists might win the first elections and then destroy democracy.  The result would be that an anti-American dictatorship replaced a pro-American one.

Concern about this prospect was so great that the U.S. government often doubted that the political movements opposed to pro-American dictatorships were sincere in favoring democracy.   On occasion, Washington even worked for the overthrow of democratically elected leaders or governments that the United States feared were going in “the wrong direction.”  Some of the most famous (or infamous) examples of this policy were American support for the ouster of Mohammad Mosaddeg as prime minister of Iran in 1953, and the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, as well as the Allende government in Chile in 1973.

These policies sometimes succeeded in the short-run. More reliably pro-American, albeit authoritarian, regimes were installed or maintained in power.  But there was a long-term cost.  Resentment against the United States arose, not just in the country concerned, but in many others as well.  This also resulted in the Marxists or other authoritarian revolutionaries being able to more credibly argue their claim: the United States opposed democratization if it perceived it as anti-American;  thus, supporting anti-American authoritarian revolutionary opposition movements was the only way to get rid of pro-American authoritarian regimes.  In other words, the American policy of supporting pro-American authoritarian regimes because they were seen as more reliable sometimes backfired. The result was that the anti-American authoritarian opposition was better positioned to seize power than the democratic opposition when the old regime fell.

The United States, however, didn’t always support pro-American authoritarian regimes that were losing their grip.  The Reagan administration, for example, helped bring about successful transitions from pro-American authoritarian regimes to democratic ones in the Philippines in 1986, in South Korea in 1988, and in Chile in 1989.  Of course, from the Gorbachev era onward, it was less risky for the United States to support democratic transitions, The rise of pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninists became, first, a lesser concern, and, then, no concern at all.  The Middle East, though, was an exception, especially after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Washington feared that attempts at democratization in this region would lead to the rise of anti-American Islamic fundamentalist regimes. 

In this region in particular, then, the older logic still seemed to hold:  democratization, however desirable, was just too risky to promote.  Furthermore, there didn’t appear to be much of a credible democratic opposition in most of these countries anyway.  George W. Bush’s attempt to move away from this logic, as noted earlier, foundered.  The electoral victory of Hamas in 2006 was not the result that the Bush administration had anticipated when it urged the holding of Palestinian parliamentary elections.  The Obama administration, if anything, went more resolutely back to this older logic of supporting stability over democracy in the Middle East. For example, in 2009, it gave only tepid and belated rhetorical support to Iran’s extraordinary Green Movement, which arose to protest the widely disbelieved government announcement that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a wide margin.           

The Arab uprisings of 2011 have posed a serious dilemma for the United States.  These movements are genuinely popular, but are they democratic or radical Islamist?  Are they pro-American or anti-American?  Should the United States continue supporting the authoritarian regimes (if not the dictators themselves) in countries long allied to the United States for fear that anti-American forces will come to power otherwise?  Or should Washington abandon these allies (who may well be unsalvageable) and support a democratic transition process, despite the risk that anti-American forces might come to power through this means and then destroy democracy?

One thing is certain:  Whichever course of action the United States chooses, it cannot avoid risk.  Which risks, then, should it run? Supporting existing authoritarian regimes may appear to be the safer option.  Of course, if the United States does this and one or more of these regimes falls anyway, relations with the new regime are not likely to be good for some time.  But even if this policy works — the opposition is crushed and the status quo remain intact — there is a long-term danger. The United States will be resented as the enemy of democratic change, and the conviction will arise that support for a revolutionary alternative is the only way to get rid of a hated pro-American regime. 

Supporting a democratic transition also runs risks.  What if the United States ceases supporting an authoritarian regime, but it survives anyway?  This will clearly complicate the relationship. As mentioned before, what if the democratic transition process leads to the rise of an anti-American authoritarian regime?  This scenario should not be dismissed:  the risk of supporting a democratic transition with this result is real.  Yet it is very much in the American interest to run this risk, rather than adopting the seemingly safer policy — continuing to support a pro-American authoritarian regime that only fosters resentment and a more thoroughgoing anti-American opposition.

For, just as the United States cannot be certain what the outcome of a democratic transition process in Arab countries would be, neither can the hard-line Islamic radicals.  Indeed, these recent widespread protests seem to have caught the radical Islamists off guard.  Such elements appear to have played little or no role in Tunisia. And, far from orchestrating the demonstrations against Mubarak in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood only joined them once they had gotten under way.  In addition, while Islamists have joined the demonstrations against President Saleh in Yemen, these appear mainly to be the established Islamists willing to work with others (as they are doing with the Socialists) and not al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 

Just as the large-scale protests taking place in the Arab world pose a challenge for America and U.S.-backed regimes, they also pose a challenge for Islamic radicals.  If hard-line Islamists attempt to gain control of these popular movements, they may well resist, and even search for allies, such as America. But if the hard-line Islamists don’t attempt to control these popular movements, they risk being marginalized. Instead of leading to the Islamists taking power, then, the democratization process could well result in their failure to do so.

While popular demands for democratization in the Arab world pose challenges for American foreign policy, they also present it with opportunities.  If the United States can help the democratization process in the Arab world now, it stands a strong chance of establishing good relationships with these new governments and marginalizing the radicals.  Although it might not come to a complete end, the “War on Terror” could be diminished markedly in a relatively short period of time.  This is an opportunity that the United States cannot afford to miss.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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