HBS Faculty on Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa

The historic events in North Africa and the Middle East are examined by three professors: Deepak Malhotra, an authority on negotiation strategy; Noel Maurer, an expert on the politics and economics of the energy business; and Magnus Thor Torfason, an authority on how behavior is influenced by the social structures of individuals and organizations. Key concepts include:
  • The US response to events in the Middle East and North Africa needs to be guided by three key tenets of effective diplomacy: considering our enemies tomorrow, not just our friends today; identifying what makes these situations different from other, similar situations; and being steered by values that can be clearly and consistently articulated.
  • Although they bring uncertainty and higher oil prices in the short term, these revolutions offer the possibility of enhanced representation that will bring the people in these nations more stability, public goods, and a better and more competitive business environment.
  • In autocratic states, protestors always face the threat of violent retribution. Social media networks helped to allay fears by showing people beforehand that the protests would be huge, thus providing some reassurance that it would be difficult for the regimes to retaliate. However, powerful international networks formed through major organizations, such as the United Nations, may be necessary to determine whether the protests are ultimately successful.

From Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Yemen, as a number of nations in North Africa and the Middle East go through cataclysmic changes, the world watches and wonders what the future may hold as myriad protestors risk their lives for revolutionary change. Three Harvard Business School faculty members—Deepak Malhotra, an authority on negotiation strategy; Noel Maurer, an expert on the politics and economics of the energy business; and Magnus Thor Torfason, an authority on how behavior is influenced by the social structures of individuals and organizations, examine these historic events through the lens of their research.

Deepak Malhotra

The US response to events in the Middle East and North Africa needs to be guided by three key tenets of effective diplomacy.

First, diplomacy needs to consider our enemies tomorrow, not just our friends today. Events are unfolding, and the political landscape is changing at an astounding pace in this region. Although tempting, the US response should be less focused on addressing the "current" state of affairs and more attuned to the various potential trajectories of change. For example, instead of trying to control the immediate aftermath of a dictator's fall from power (e.g., in Egypt), we should focus on building relationships with the country's many future leaders and constituents. This outreach should include all parties that will be relevant in the future, not just those whom we agree with and like. Even if the elected leaders of tomorrow are going to be of the unsavory variety, 30 years of experience dealing with Iran shows that neglect and isolation are ineffective strategies for managing conflict.

Second, diplomacy is about identifying what makes this situation different from others that look just like it. Despite apparent similarities in the uprisings that have gripped the region, every country is unique. The histories, perspectives, and needs of people across the region differ, and we need to tailor our approach country by country. For example, too strong a hand in the case of Egypt could backfire, whereas too light a hand in the face of Gadhafi's assault on his own people could be deemed unforgiveable and may be harmful to our legitimacy in the region. Some have voiced concerns that inconsistency—treating some countries and dictators differently from others—can undermine our legitimacy. I believe we can have consistency in our guiding principles, such as supporting human rights, without sacrificing much-needed nuance and variation in strategy (e.g., backing military intervention in one case but not another).

Third, diplomacy should be guided by values that can be clearly and consistently articulated. There has been much recent discussion about which objective the United States should pursue—democracy for them vs. security for us—in instances where the two seem at odds. The problem with this debate is that it stems from an imprecise articulation of American values. "Democracy" is not what Americans value; what we value, more accurately, is "liberal democracy." Thus, we would not support the right of 51 percent of a population to persecute or kill the other 49 percent, despite the fact that this is consistent with the notion of democracy as "majority rules." Instead, we value democracy of the kind that not only heeds majority opinion but also has a healthy respect for individual and minority rights. This is an important distinction, because liberal democracies tend not to impose a "democracy vs. security" dilemma on us; in dealing with liberal (or quasi-liberal) democracies, we typically can support both objectives simultaneously.

Accordingly, the guiding principle for our engagement in the Middle East and North Africa should be to support movement toward liberal democracy. This principle not only lays a foundation for clarity and consistency in our diplomacy but simultaneously promotes a nuanced foreign policy. For example, it does not obligate us to intervene or lend support simply because a country is heading toward majority rule. What we would need to assess in each case is whether the trajectory is toward liberal democracy. We should keep in mind, of course, that democracy is often the first step towards liberal democracy, and in any case, is a necessary condition for it.

Noel Maurer

Revolutions, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, are all revolutionary in their own particular way. The current upheavals in the Arab world are no exception. What they have in common are good reasons for foreign businesses and Western governments to cheer the changes.

In Bahrain, the Khalifa family, members of Islam's Sunni sect, rules over a majority Shia population. This kingdom in the Persian Gulf earns $5 billion from oil, but production is declining. Banking and other financial services are now more important to the national economy. Security forces initially fired upon demonstrators, but withdrew after President Obama intervened with a phone call to the king. Some commentators worry about Iranian involvement, but according to Wikileaks, the US State Department does not believe that the opposition has links to Tehran.

Protestors want the elected parliament to have real power. So far, the signs point toward compromise. The more the Bahraini opposition gets what it wants, the better for foreign business. Absolute monarchy can be a wonderful thing if the monarch is on your side, but there is little to prevent exploitation, opportunism, and corruption by the rulers. Bahrain has been steadily sliding down the Corruption Perception Index for years. Parliamentary democracy will only improve that standing, and democracies are subject to less radical political change than authoritarian regimes. The thing to fear is the monarchy's digging in, not the success of the opposition.

In Egypt, little has changed with Mubarak's ouster by the military, which plays a major role in the Egyptian economy. A third of the economy is under military control—military activities range from bakeries to appliance factories. With the armed forces' prestige at an all-time high, the chances of any serious economic reform in Egypt's future have plummeted, regardless of future political changes. If it was important to get a military partner on board as part of a business venture before the revolution, it's doubly important now.

Libya looks like a classic revolution, with barricades and battles. Gaddafi has lost control of the east. A prolonged civil war is a possibility, but so far the signs are that his regime is crumbling. The first goal for the international community is to keep the oil flowing. The United States and United Nations began to accomplish this by imposing selective sanctions that will allow oil to be exported but deny Gaddafi the resulting revenues. Otherwise, the rebels would have no incentive to let exports flow. Furthermore, now that the Obama Administration has offered "any type of assistance" to the rebels, there is even less incentive for them to damage the oilfields. Although production is down because the companies operating in the country have evacuated most of their personnel, exports continue from ports under rebel control.

Gaddafi might want to destroy the eastern oilfields, but the US will likely soon protect this area by declaring it a no-fly zone— and Gaddafi's air force is defecting in any case. He might be able to destroy the western fields, but his forces have more important things to do at the moment … such as defend Tripoli. Unless Libya dissolves into chaos, which so far does not appear to be happening, the new government is likely to be favorably disposed toward the West. The country will be no paragon of limited government, but it would be hard to match Gaddafi's capricious corruption. One question is whether the Italian oil company Eni will be tainted by its association with Gaddafi—but that would provide an opportunity for other energy companies. The inevitable uncertainty around the transition will be frustrating, but there are opportunities to be had.

All these revolutions should be welcomed for increasing freedom and dignity for millions—but there are also hard-headed reasons to support them. Although they bring uncertainty and higher oil prices in the short term, we should cheer for the possibility of enhanced representation that will bring the people in these nations more stability, public goods, and a better and more competitive business environment. This is certainly not true of all revolutions, but in these cases, at this time, supporting change is worth the risk.

Magnus Thor Torfason

The waves of unrest that now sweep over the Middle East and North Africa have been referred to as "Revolution 2.0." The term admittedly ignores the vast history and evolution of governmental transitions over the ages, but these protests are nevertheless clearly influenced by network relationships and interaction in ways that would not have been possible even a few years ago. The most obvious factor, and the one that has given rise to the "2.0" moniker, is that of online social media.

Social media and, perhaps even more importantly, mobile phones have played a key role by solving the coordination problem faced by potential protestors. The costs and benefits to an individual thinking about getting involved depend in large part on how many other individuals are participating. In autocratic states where retribution against protestors is a real possibility, the potential costs of participating in a small protest can be very large. This results in a catch-22 situation: Large numbers of people are willing to rise up, but only if a large number of others do so at the same time. It seems clear that social media and mobile phones helped solve this dilemma by convincing people that the protests would be large, thus providing some reassurance that regimes would not find it easy to retaliate.

That said, other networks may ultimately be more important in determining whether such protests succeed. My research on international network structures suggests that in the past, democracy has diffused through a network of interstate relationships, formed through common membership in international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and many others. One of the ways in which such organizations facilitate democratic transitions is by constraining rulers who wish to forcefully quell local unrest. For example, the involvement of Mohammed ElBaradei, former Director General of the IAEA, brought immediate legitimacy to the uprising in Egypt and limited the options available to Hosni Mubarak.

Unfortunately, this network is likely to provide less support in many of the other states that are currently in the throes of rebellion. Data I have collected shows that Tunisia and Egypt—the states where the rulers relinquished power relatively peacefully—have considerable involvement in international relations of this sort. But Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and others are less connected to the international network.

Even where regimes are toppled, it is far from obvious that democracy will follow. In fact, dictators tend to be replaced by other dictators. To prevent such an outcome, international relationships and influence are crucial. Even so, the sheer number of states now in flux limits the capacity to provide effective governance support. In the crucial months ahead, a commitment by a wide community of states can tilt the balance. The potential returns to the promotion and support of democracy in the Middle East have seldom, if ever, been higher.

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    • Anonymous
    The article beautifully details the potential complications and outcomes that current Middle-east crisis can unfold.

    To point out to Mr. Malhotra's concern of focusing more on libral part of democracy- I believe that pushing for democracy is the stepping stone for progressing towards liberal democracy. At present there is a higher risk of getting another dictator to be replaced once Gaddafi comes down, so focusing on democracy should be weighted more than anything. Once the chance of autocracy/monarchy is ruled out, then focus should be moved to liberal democracy.
    • Adebayo Komolafe
    • Principal Consultant, Incriva Consulting
    The article has above all successfully pin-pointed the need to observe the dynamics for a change in government transition in internationally connected or disconnected states as the case maybe.

    Mr Magnus has given us the facts from his research on states that have experienced peaceful transition to the ones encountering stiff rebellion, which simply means moving from dictatorship to democracy does not happen in a matter of weeks, rather there must have been some level of softening or paradigm shift in international relations on the part of the long serving rulers.
    In retrospect, Hosni Mubarack's Egypt cannot be likened to Gaddafi's Lybia with regards to confederation, free speech and social media syndrome.

    I sincerely hope there is a complete turnaround for good in Lybia, yet I wonder when such awaken state of being will spread to West and sub-saharan Africa.
    • SAT GOEL
    The observations on Bahrain appear to be closer to ground realities. The average per capita income is over $20,000 and literacy rate is high. The ruling class is largely benevolent. There is a limited parliament by the people. Still the unrest. This means that people want participation in the administration which can be achieved with some opening up of parliamentary system.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    This is an indepth record of issues and what the future is likely to be/should be.
    My only concern is that the changes being effected could make Alqaida/Taliban type forces to emerge and try to usurp the thrones. In that unwelcome situation, how would the West act to thwart such attempts is a moot question.
    Democratic rule replacing autocracy is the preferred course but would this happen?
    • Khadija Khan
    • President, Pakistan Evaluation Network
    I think the article missed out on the people. The people who have started this 'movement'? What do they want? What resources or competencies do they have to realize their dreams? Do they have leadership from among themselves? Of course, we know that one leadership gap was filled out by Mr. ElBaradei in Egypt, what about the others? What is the global thinking of the international community?
    Perhaps, a more in-depth people focused search is needed to understand these issue. I have my own version of answers but would like to hear more authentic voices.
    • Anonymous
    I was surprised to see this article at HBS vs the school of government. Nonetheless, I am glad to see discourse on the subject. It will be interesting to see how things play out in the different countries. Specifically, will the new rulers / leaders be radically different than the others. I believe many of the countries caught up in the uprising are US friendly. Will they be that way in the future? Look at what happened in Lebanon. I'm not sure anyone wanted Hezbollah to take over leadership there. Who knows what leaders or unsavory characters might come to power in the other countries.

    The other comment I will make is about the uprising of democracy in the affected countries. Clearly 2.0 social media has played a role, but very few have openly discussed whether the last Bush in his attack on Iraq has a had any impact. Was the war launched by Bush a tipping point? I for one did not support the rationale behind the war, but I do wonder about the impact of his actions on the what is currently taking place. Might be Bush at the ranch thinking "I told you so"?
    • pius fred
    • student, Abia state university,Nigeria
    I will like to ask how this wind of change in the middle East and North Africa impact on the rest of Africa where democracy is not been practice and where the government so to say is not responsive