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Volume 5 Issue 07 | July 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

The Good, the Bad and the Uncertain
--Syeed Ahamed
The Labyrinth of Budgets and Finances -- Ziauddin Choudhury
The Proposed Budget for FY 2011-12: Our hopes and fears
---- Syed Fattahul Alim
Budget 2011-12: The Long View
-- Jyoti Rahman
The Economics of Our Loins
-- Farah Mehreen Ahmad
Rumanas, and Why they Stay
-- Hana Shams Ahmed
Photo Feature: People, People, Everywhere . . .
The People Problem
-- Dr. Mohammad Mainul Islam

Back to Black
-- Shahana Siddiqui

Spring Forward: The 'Arab Spring' and the opportunities ahead
-- Naseef Sami

From the Failure of bin Laden's Ideology, a New Way Forward
-- Samier Mansur

Khwaja Gul-e-Nur and Luce Irrigary: Can the 'Woman' be a Subject without Cultural Specificity?
A Walk through Downtown Srinagar
-- Shivam Vij


Forum Home

Spring Forward: The 'Arab Spring' and the opportunities ahead

NASEEF SAMI suggests ways for all parties to make the best of the Arab revolutions of 2011.

The Middle East is in the midst of an unprecedented popular revolt that spans several nations, and both its nature and its scope promise to bring in changes to a region that has long been stagnant in political and social development. Despite drastic changes in governments from the end of the colonial era straight through to the late 1970s, large-scale political and societal development has been severely stunted. Elite minorities, whether royal or military dynasties, have controlled the state politics and purses, and relied for decades on either ruthlessly suppressing populist movements or simply bribing them with the massive wealth that oil had provided them.

The recent turmoil and revolution in the region, dubbed the so-called 'Arab Spring', has been subject to much analysis and speculation. The most hopeful of these centre on the birth of true Arab democracies that would be friendly to the Western powers and tap the strength of their large youth population to fuel economic and social growth on a regional scale. The most pessimistic envision the entrenched power players simply replacing a tyrant for a façade of representative government while, in actuality, continuing with business as usual. On the American perspective, there also lies a real fear of the rise of radical Islamist regimes and the future relations with Israel that these nascent and yet to be established nations may have.

In truth, there is definitely a serious challenge being presented to the regional balance of power, but there is also plenty of evidence that traditional ties will trump any hopes of a new, progressive bloc in the regional geo-politic. Still, opportunity remains ripe to sow the seeds of a true non-aligned movement in the region that could substantially and permanently change the regional dynamic away from the grinding, repressive sectarian and Israel-centric exchange into one of true regional co-operation and stability -- to the benefit of all parties.


From Pan-Arabism to a cold war
With the fall of Nasser, failed regional economic policies and the repeated defeats of Arab nations at the hands of a resurgent Israel, the grandiose plans of a Pan-Arab movement fell apart in the late 1970s. Since then, two distinct forces, led by Iran and Saudi Arabia have controlled the Arab equation in the regional balance of power. The two sides have assembled loosely allied camps. Iran holds in its sway Syria and the militant Arab groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories; in the Saudi sphere are the Sunni Muslim-led Gulf monarchies, (until recently) Egypt, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah. The Saudi camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel. The Iranian grouping thrives on its reputation in the region as a defender of the faith, defiant and belligerent against the hated West and Israel.

There has long been bad blood between the Saudis and Iran. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim kingdom of ethnic Arabs, Iran a Shiite Islamic republic populated by ethnic Persians. Shiites first broke with Sunnis over the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the year 632; Sunnis have regarded them as a heretical sect ever since. Arabs and Persians, along with many others, have vied for the land and resources of the Middle East for almost as long.

Both nations have been content to fight with proxies, both militarily, and more significantly, religiously. For example, when Iran funds and opens Shiite madrassas in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia is quick to follow with armies of Salafist preachers, and vice versa. Using their considerable economic strength, both nations have sought to establish either Sunni or Shiite dominance across the Islamic diaspora.

Most recently, the two sides have had tense exchanges over the Bahrain uprisings, with the Saudis accusing Iran of fomenting revolution in their neighbouring ally and supplying their monarchist friends with the muscle power to repress popular Shiite revolt, and Iran darkly threatening repercussions for this interference.

These ugly sectarian trends, especially with the wounds of Iraq's rebirth still fresh in the regional imagination, threaten to dangerously destabilise an already fragile region. However, the instability and change also provides an opening for a new category of nations to provide leadership.

A return to relevance
An erstwhile major player in this cold war, Egypt, had fallen to the wayside in recent times. This regional leader's influence has waned since its prominence under Nasser's regime. However, its size and history all but ensure its future importance in the region, and Mubarak's fall has opened up an opportunity for Egypt to play a leadership role in the region once again.

The unique circumstances of Egypt's revolution propelled by an upwardly mobile and young demographic holds the promise of drastic foreign policy changes. A progressive Egypt could easily take the lead in establishing a non-aligned bloc of nations who reject the Saudi-Iran/Sunni-Shiite centric cold war and embrace political, social and economic reforms. These in turn would provide further ammunition to the frustrated underclass in both of the above nations and further the inevitable fall of both regimes.

However, there is much work to be done to overturn the decades of entrenched foreign policies. While friendly overtures to Iran have made Saudi Arabia nervous, Egypt also remains one of the most economically dependent nations in the region, and much of its rebuilding post-Mubarak continues to be funded by Gulf nations firmly under the Saudi influence. In addition, the most promising channel for this change, the youth, remain woefully unprepared for taking a leadership role in control of their nation. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton so aptly said: “The people who start revolutions may not be the people who actually end up governing countries.” In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, we read an account of her meeting with 20 young activists in Egypt. She recounts with dismay that while the youth complained about how organised the Muslim Brotherhood and the former regime's National Democratic Party were, they had taken no concrete steps of their own to form an umbrella group to represent their concerns and political agenda.

Western nations, particularly through development and democracy NGOs, must foster the growth of these groups in order to change the regional dynamic and Egypt must be convinced of the positive potential in its return to relevance as an entity unaligned to the current balance of power.

Charge of the Turks
The Republic of Turkey remains a good example of how influential a non-aligned state can be in the region. It maintains stable and consistent relations with Israel, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia and has shown an independent streak with regards to all these relationships. However, it has never traditionally held much sway with the larger Arab populace, mostly due to its Ottoman history. However, in the current situation, Turkey should take the lead in taking any newly liberated state under its wing and providing logistical and political support.

Any newly liberated nation, whether Egypt or Tunisia, or hopefully in the near future, Libya or Yemen, will initially focus inwards on rebuilding and national healing, as well as social and political reforms. It is at this time of inward isolation that the potential for creating a non-aligned movement in the region exists, to serve as a counterweight to the sectarian based interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia. These nascent nations will have no stake in the historical acrimony between the two, and Turkey has both the legitimacy (vis-à-vis its relative economic and political stability and freedoms) and clout to counter any attempts from the other two to influence the internal and external growth of these countries.

A non-aligned group of nations, led by Egypt and backed by Turkey, would also provide the more neutral leaning monarchies such as Jordan and the UAE a chance to distance itself from the badly maligned Saudi monarchy and thus assuage its disgruntled populace. Political reforms that would have been unpalatable simply due to Saudi disapproval would now be possible to the admittedly progressive monarchies in both nations.


Israel's golden chance
Israel has been absolutely negligent in its behavior during these popular uprisings. Inasmuch as Turkey gains to establish friendly relations with countries looking inwards and rebuilding, Israel stands to provide itself its ultimate goal -- peace and stability -- by proactively engaging itself with these new governments and opposition movements. It must put aside all concerns, offer tangible concessions on the Palestinian issues as gestures of good faith and show itself as a willing, compromising partner and friend to the region.

Amr Moussa, outgoing secretary of the Arab League and possible front runner for the Egyptian presidency, expressed it quite succinctly: “We want to be a friend of Israel, but it has to have two parties, it is not on Egypt to be a friend. Israel has to be a friend, too.”

By establishing itself as a financial and political friend of the 'Arab Street', and providing concrete steps towards resolving the Palestinian situation, Israel would insure that these new nations and their body politic would be favorable to normalised friendly relations with the country. Moreover, especially as in the case with Egypt, any general move in this direction would insure a domino effect across the Middle East, leaving a belligerent Iran isolated.

However, it doesn't appear that the current Israeli government or even the general electorate is willing to making the necessary sacrifices in order to capitalise on this opportunity. The fear of a democratic system ushering in Islamic regimes seemingly trumps any proactive behaviour in favour of long-term security.

Hezbollah's quandary and existing elite solidarity
Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of the Hezbollah, has denounced Muammar Gaddafi multiple times in the lead up to the enactment of the no-fly zone. Caretaker Foreign Minister of the Lebanese government, Ali Shami, widely viewed as a Hezbollah appointee, even approved the UN Security Council resolution authorising armed action against the Libyan dictator -- remarkable news considering his sponsor's normal attitude to the West and military action. However, when faced with supporting popular uprisings that went against their major backer, Bashar Assad of Syria, Nasrallah has remained quiet, and Lebanon's ambassador to the UN has repeatedly rejected Security Council drafts censuring Syria.

Hezbollah holds a unique place in the Arab imagination, as it can rightfully claim to be the only armed force that has notched a military 'victory' against hated Israel (when Israel pulled out of Southern Lebanon). Associating itself with the repression of the Syrian masses will only hurt it, and it too has an opportunity to embrace the current turmoil to extricate itself from its decades of being a proxy arm of Syria.

However, as with everything in the Middle East, nothing remains easy. The Arab nations have formed a unified front against any Western condemnation of Syria, in a rare moment of solidarity for Saudi Arabia and Iran and their respective proxies. These challenges only heighten the importance of taking advantage of the current opportunities -- the regional elites have put aside even decades old conflicts of interest in order to support the suppression of populist revolt.

The path forward
The populist movements in several Arab countries present a real chance for interested parties to permanently change the stagnant regional balance of power towards a more progressive, stable and free society. Iran's current regime cannot last forever, and while the Saudi monarchy may be deeply entrenched amongst its massive oil reserves, the march of history is inexorably going against them. Progressive, neutral regional leaders such as Turkey need to aggressively market themselves as allies to any new nations that rise from these revolutions. Popular armed movements such as Hezbollah can use this opportunity to free itself of external control. Israel can finally seek to establish their long elusive goal of long-term stability. All of these goals are possible with the establishment of a true non-aligned movement within the Middle East, and this movement must be nurtured by both regional players and international organisations -- even if under the guise of consulting and providing assistance for developing political and economic infrastructure.

Naseef Sami is a student of International Relations and Mass Media at The New School (college) in New York, USA.


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