Changing Geographies: The Domino “Theory” and the Arab “Spring”

Written By: HJdeblij - Jul• 28•11

War, it has often been said, has a way of teaching geography. Countries and provinces formerly obscure in the public eye suddenly become household names. Television news reports show maps of remote locales where conflict rages and lives are lost. ‘Embedded’ journalists familiarize viewers with the streets of Saigon and Sarajevo, Baghdad and Kabul. New geographic shorthand (remember the ‘Sunni Triangle’ of Iraq?) comes into vogue. Old ideas get resurrected. During the Indochina War, a heated debate centered on the so-called Domino Theory. A communist victory in Vietnam, according to this notion, would threaten and eventually topple governments in neighboring Southeast Asian countries, a contagion that would threaten the anti-communist containment policy that was at the heart of American Cold-War strategy.

While the Domino Theory may not deserve to be called ‘theory’ – it has more hypothetical than theoretical qualities – it was never difficult to cite examples of its apparent validity. Its simplest definition holds that destabilization from any cause in one country may result in the collapse of order in a neighboring country, triggering a chain of events that can affect a series of contiguous states in turn. The initial destabilization might be the result of external intervention or internal disarray, but its consequences spread beyond the affected state’s borders. A recent manifestation of it was the civil war in Rwanda, which spread into the neighboring Congo (with consequences for Angola) and also affected Burundi and Uganda. In the Congo, then named Zaire and ruled by a ruthless dictator, this led to a struggle for power that ended dictatorial rule but achieved only partial reform at a cost of millions – yes, millions – of lives.

A key geographic element of the Domino Theory is contiguity: a ‘spillover’ effect that crosses borders and infects neighbors. But today, dominoes can fall without this proximity factor. The current regional manifestation of disorder called the Arab Spring originated in Tunisia, wedged between Algeria and Libya on Africa’s Mediterranean coast. When the first massive and deadly protests erupted there in mid-December 2010 and the corrupt government was toppled a month later, it was easy to envisage a domino effect in always-tense Algeria and autocratic Libya. But no such thing happened – at least not immediately. Indeed, the next Arab state where significant public protests against the established order arose was Jordan, where King Abdullah II dismissed his cabinet, promised elections, and replaced his prime minister, managing (perhaps temporarily) to diffuse public anger.

Jordan is not a neighbor of Tunisia, and neither was the next domino to fall. The Arab Spring now reached the heart of the Arab world, Egypt, in late January 2011, making Cairo’s Tahrir Square a global symbol for Arab public protest. Between January 25 and the day the Mubarak government fell, on February 11, more than 800 people died. Egypt in many ways is the Arab world’s leading state, and the protests there galvanized the region. Massive and violent demonstrations began in Yemen on January 27, in Bahrain on February 14, in western Libya on February 16 and in Syria on March 15. Look at the map, and it is clear that something other than proximity was driving the process, which affected even ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

That other factor, of course, is the Internet. True, television images broadcast by Al-Jazeera and other networks disseminated the realities of the seminal Tunisian uprising visually, but the involvement of millions of protesters and their organized and largely orderly demonstrations resulted from the capacities of Facebook and Twitter and other connective options to appeal to the young generation that drives the Arab Spring today. The Internet rendered the Domino Theory irrelevant – except to entrenched, sclerotic rulers who tried to support each other and even intervened on their mutual behalf, as the Saudi Arabian regime did by sending troops into (neighboring) Bahrain to help crush the protests. The Internet did what the domino effect could not: regionally disseminate public anger and civic energy and facilitate their coordinated expression.

Whether a new regional geography will emerge from the Arab Spring is as yet unclear. At the time of writing, the protesters are back in Tahrir Square, united in their disappointment with the pace of reform but divided by their diverse and sometimes conflicting objectives. But even if Tahrir Square becomes the Arab world’s Tienanmen Square, it will forever symbolize the power of technology to challenge the barriers of geography.

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