|Volume 5 Issue 07 | July 2011|
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Naseef Sami is a student of International Relations and Mass Media at The New School (college) in New York, USA.
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