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Seasons of Change in the Arab World: For Better or Worse?

Posted: 05/20/11 02:33 PM ET

The revolutionary events that have swept across the Arab world since last December, branded the Arab Spring, have stirred great turmoil. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Syria and most recently Israel, a chain of destabilizing events has been unfolding, the likes of which have not been seen since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Decades of repressive government, police states replete with brutality and torture, and exceptionally high levels of elite corruption seem to be giving way to something altogether different. The outcome of these events is for now unknowable, but as a peace psychologist who studies complex systems, I see cause for hope amidst the chaos -- though it comes at great cost.

There is no shortage of speculation as to the causes of this political tsunami. Initial reports suggested that the trigger for the revolutions occurred in Tunisia when a college-educated street vendor burned himself to death in protest of his dismal prospects for survival amid poverty in that country. Experts tout the economic malaise that has gripped the region and much of the world. When the extravagant trappings of the ruling elite -- exposed in part through WikiLeaks documents -- coupled with the heavy-handed rule of autocratic rulers who often seemed inept or unwilling to provide sufficient services to their people, events reached a tipping-point. Add to this the mounting sense of injustice from widespread forms of political repression and exclusion that have been enforced in many states in the region, where Islamists groups and communists have been barred from active participation in politics for decades. And then there is the youth. The growing multitudes of unemployed, energized, well-educated, tech-savvy young people have given birth to an extraordinary pan-Arab youth movement. Through Facebook and Twitter, they share their grievances with the world and, combining strategies of non-violent activism with Madison Avenue marketing techniques, have managed to fuel and sustain multiple uprisings. Capping it off is acute outrage at the violent responses to protests by local and national police and military, which in Tunisia left 78 dead and 94 injured and in one day claimed the lives of 86 people in Syria. All of these factors have combined to create a perfect storm for contagious revolt.

But why now? Why not 5, 10, even 20 years ago? Here is something to consider.

Research by Paul Diehl and Gary Goetz on the approximately 850 enduring conflicts (those lasting 20+ years) that occurred throughout the world between 1816 and 2001 found that over 95% of them started within ten years after a major political shock; a massive change in the domestic or international political environment (world war, civil war, etc.). Ten years ago 9/11 shocked the world, and on its heels the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, deposed their leaders, and created a level of turmoil and instability in the region from which it has yet to recover. Such events, as horrible and costly as they are, provide optimal conditions for dramatic realignment of socio-political systems, even those well beyond the borders of the countries directly affected. However, the effects of such destabilization are often not immediately apparent; they can take several years to unfold.

The bad news is that the enduring conflicts triggered by such shocks, which constitute only about 5% of international conflicts, are the most grueling, costly and destructive and are responsible for most major wars. The good news is that the current state of instability presents one of the region's best hopes for achieving a more durable peace between the regions' ruling elite and its many marginalized, underprivileged groups. For in the same studies of enduring conflicts, the authors found that over three-quarters of them also ended within ten years of a major political shock. Thus, ruptures to stability can bring radical changes in political systems in the form of the most destructive wars or new chances for sustainable peace. If we view the past few decades of political repression, exclusion and coercive rule by states in this region as multiple simmering, enduring conflicts, then we see the time is also ripe for peace.

The real work for the advocates of peace, justice and freedom in the region, the Arab world, the U.S. and the international community, begins now. This entails essentially two tasks. First, the arduous work of bolstering or establishing a complex array of institutions, mechanisms and social norms -- through grassroots NGOs, government initiatives and international agencies -- which encourage tolerance, cooperation, inclusion and justice. But in parallel each nation must begin to actively dismantle the institutions and mechanisms that have for decades fomented inequality, resentment, exclusion and contempt. The effects of this work, like those of political shocks, may take a decade or more to surface. But without them, the Arab Spring is likely to descend into a long, abysmal winter.

Peter T. Coleman, PhD is a social-organizational psychologist on faculty at Columbia University's Teachers College and The Earth Institute, and author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts.