Mar 15 2012
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A region transformed?
Over a year since Tunisia's awakening, the Arab World faces a critical juncture. How far have ensuing events affected the order of the region? And can an examination of the social, political, intellectual and economic forces of change that are shaping the region provide a caveat to it's future?
The Arab World has experienced a number of shifts and shocks since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the Great War. It has never been immune to moments of change, but such moments while transformational at the time have often failed to take root in the sands of the region.
The Moroccan scholar Abdallah Loroui observes that the Arab World's experience can be divided into four distinct phases.The first period (1850-1914) is The Nahda, the Arab Renaissance, when the Arab World attempted to modernize and adopt Western technology and innovation. The second period (1914-1950) represented the struggle for independence as the region confronted both the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the development of the modern state system in the Middle East under colonial rule. The third period (1950-1967) marked the "unionist movement" as both Nasser of Egypt and the Ba'ath party in Syria struggled to create an Arab national state.
The fourth period (after 1967), where Loroui's analysis ends, is a period of " moral crisis"- the search for a new identity after the defeat of the Arab nationalist states in their war with Israel. Building on Loroui's analysis, Fouad Ajamai in The Arab Predicament argues that the period after 1973 marked the struggle to de-radicalize Arab politics and to construct a stable state system in the region.
The Arab Awakenings of 2011 have caused a systemic rupture- the forces that underlined the regional system after 1973 became unsettled - and a new regional order has been born on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, and Damascus. This new order is yet to be fully reconciled, but it's critical to examine its development and trajectory to understand the implications it has for the future of the region.
Louroui bore witness to the Arab world at a critical juncture in 1967. This piece has a similar goal. It attempts to determine what impact the Arab Awakenings will have on the regional order in the Arab world.
A Once-Enduring Order: Authoritarian Stability from 1973-2011
Unlike the Arab world before 1967, the post-1973 regional order largely weathered the many storms it experienced. The result was stability, but a stability based on authoritarian control. By the end of the first decade of this century, the stability underpinned by these (now-decaying) regimes was what constituted 'regional order'.
A convenient marriage formed between the international system and the sub-state system of the Middle East. Policymakers in Washington, Paris, London, Moscow, and Beijing and international bankers in Washington and New York could rely on these authoritarian spaces to maintain the status quo and ensure their interests in oil and security, without intervening in the societies themselves.
Despite witnessing a revolution in Iran in 1979, few leaders took the political undercurrents seriously. The great democratic awakenings in Europe of the 1980s and 1990s were dismissed as anomalies of the West.
Leaders often enshrined their authoritarian legitimacy by relying on the region's decades old strife with Israel, the threat of terrorism, and Iran (the region's main bogeyman after 1979). Even though states such as Egypt were at an institutional failure level by most international standards (every UNDP report for the past decade has made this clear), the regimes used their militaries and their Mukhabarat to contain any opposition.
Many commentators on the region stressed for years that the region itself would ultimately reach its breaking point internally. An institutional wasteland could not sustain regimes such as those of Ben Ali or Mubarak indefinitely.
Surprisingly, one act of self-immolation in Tunisia set off a storm in the Arab world. Even though Arab nationalism had largely gathered dust in the region after 1973, Arabism shined through surprisingly on the political front after the fall of Ben Ali. It helped magnify the long simmering dissension in other Arab countries from Syria to Yemen, and propel the Arab Awakenings forwards.
Revolutions Old and New
As the Arab Awakenings swept the region in 2011, noted commentators sought to portray this as a moment of Arab 'awakening' after decades of sleepy acceptance of entrenched and decaying authoritarianism. It was a moment the Arab World reached somewhat belatedly, twenty years after the birth of new democracies in Eastern Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Beginning in the 1970s, decades of resistance that swept the region. It began with the resurgence of political Islam as the means of dissent in authoritarian spaces from Cairo to Algiers. Unlike that resistance, the current disturbances have more Generation Y characteristics. The old, tested method of resistance favored by Islamist groups involved the use of dissent and terror to break open the political space within the Arab world.
Importantly, the old methods of resistance were distinct from the leftist and nationalist oppositions, which often operated in governments as the sanctioned opposition. Neither this accepted opposition nor the Islamist opposition were able to shake the decaying authoritarian system going into the first decade of the millennium.
A burgeoning Generation Y--largely drawn from the middle class--has coordinated protests in major cities via Twitter and Facebook. This took their regimes by surprise.
It was one thing to have the status quo opposition come out and demand change, because they could often be contained with various sticks and carrots. But it was a wholly different challenge when those who they least expected--the educated, younger generation--demanded a change to the status quo. In many of the uprisings, the regimes could not offer any incentive to stay within the status quo.
As a result, nationalist regimes in North Africa and the Levant struggled to counter this groundswell in their countries. Leaders such as Mubarak and Ben Ali, who relied for their legitimacy on the vague support of their people, found themselves in positions none of their predecessors had faced.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt's key thinkers on the left and a long-standing member of the opposition, noted the uniqueness of this moment of Arab Awakenings. "It was just like--how do you say--the Day of Judgment," Mr. Ibrahim emphasizes. "The way the Day of Judgment is described in our scripture, in the Quran, is where you have all of humanity in one place. And nobody recognizes anybody else, just faces . . . faces."
Acknowledging the transformational effect of Generation Y, Ibrahim notes that "to give credit where it is due, the younger generation was more innovative and far more clever than we were by using the technology at their disposal. These guys discovered the tools that could not be combated by the government."
In Search of New Ideas in a Sea of Uncertainty
Despite the initial changes of figures at the top, the ideology that was embodied in the Arab Awakenings largely has not hit the Arab states. New, democratic regimes have not replaced Mubarak or Ben Ali or Ali Abdullah Saleh; instead, fragile and largely authoritarian regimes have come to power. The institutional fragility is still there, and old political mechanisms have taken over from Generation Y. Freedom House's annual report in 2011 concluded that despite these changes in the Arab world, it continues to remain un-free.
Libya and Syria are gripped by internal chaos. These states are (arguably) more unstable, more violent and repressive towards their people, than the states that existed before the Arab Awakenings.
If these regimes fail to address the core economic questions and institutional challenges that accompanied this demand for democratic change, further domestic instability will undoubtedly shake the regional order further.
The effect of the Arab Awakenings may not be as immediate as many observers might have hoped. But it has broken the regional and international assumption that the people of these states do not need a voice in their governance, and a continued failure to address economic and institutional challenges within these states will almost certainly bring people out to the street again. That is no small accomplishment.
The domestic space within these states will shape the regional order more so than at any time since the consolidation of authoritarianism in the 1970s. This arena will also be critical for the future stability and security of the region.
There has been an overwhelming awakening on the streets of the Arab world. In spite of this--and unlike in the earlier revolutionary period in 1967--few intellectuals in the Arab world, have attempted to give a direction and a vision to the future of the Arab world.
"Previously, everything was reduced to the exterior: are you pro- or anti-American, what is the role of Israel, and so on," said Hazem Saghieh, the political editor of Al-Hayat newspaper, in an interview with The New York Times. "This revolution is entirely different."
This revolution at the moment is primarily driven by short-term goals, without taking in account the larger questions of how these societies will be shaped. Twitter is an excellent forum for rallying people, but its 160-character limit is no means for articulating a vision or a direction.
Calls for freedom, democracy, and justice--as articulated by the Muslim Brotherhood or by the liberal left in Egypt or the blogger in Syria--have resonance, but alone they will not overcome the cold realities of the region. Institutional and economic stagnation and sectarianism cannot be overcome with pure ideology. Without concrete theories, the Arab Awakening's vision of the Arab world beyond the curtain of authoritarianism will never come to realization.
The Rise of Islamist Politics and the Decline of American influence
At the very start of the Arab Awakenings Henry Kissinger said, " don't have any specific nightmares, but I could imagine a growing irrelevancy of the United States in the region."
Despite America's stalled attempts to negotiate an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict after 1973, the regional order itself had largely remained stable. After Egypt was brought out of conflict with Israel in 1979 and a cease-fire with Syria was secured in 1975, Israel faced no real threat of imminent war with its neighbors. The regional order that held from 1973 to 2011 ensured America's interests and Israel's security. It is no surprise, then, that Jerusalem has been so reticent about welcoming the Arab Awakenings.
The boundaries of the enlarged Israeli state after 1967 remained intact, and the civil war in Lebanon was largely contained within the state. Even the deadliest conflict in the Middle East, the Iran-Iraq War after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, failed to shift the balance of power in the region. Attempts by Arab leaders--most notably Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1990--to shift the balance of power failed miserably.
The recent changes have also created a space for a middle class to develop in states across the Arab world, and for stability and security to exist despite the lack of democracy. Notably, this regional order ensured that the Gulf States developed into models of economic development and progress in the region. Innovation and entrepreneurship in the Gulf has enabled the Middle East to be a center of global commerce and not solely the heart of the global energy market. Even with tensions and wars in the region, the Gulf States have largely remained stable and secure.
The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the most significant outside intervention in the region since the Second World War, failed to realize the grand dreams of the Bush administration to remake the regional order of the Arab world. Despite the sectarian tensions and fighting, Iraq's internal instability has been contained inside of its borders, at least for now.
Importantly, long-serving Arab leaders such as Hosni Mubarak had guaranteed that regional stability in the Middle East could hold. They had also argued that the region's security could be managed predominantly from within.
The threat of terrorism after 9/11--embodied by the transnational group Al-Qaeda--failed to change the regional order or establish a significant presence in key states like Iraq and Egypt.
The Arab Awakenings have fundamentally changed this regional order. Instead of the military, laypeople are now beginning to drive politics and have the potential to shape the regional order.
Islamist politics is not a new phenomenon in the Middle East. However, the Islamists had never been the predominant political party in power (except for in Gaza and briefly in Algeria). Yet the limited democratic exercises in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco have replaced the military-sponsored, nationalist, secular parties with various incarnations of Islamist politics. While it is too early to tell how these states' policies will change, it is certain to move these states away from their previous default positions on their relationships with Israel and the United States.
The effect will likely be felt the strongest in terms of domestic politics, and it is only natural for their foreign policies to change to better reflect the mood of these new regimes' identities.
These states' economic hardships will likely force them to play by the rules of the international system, at least to some extent. Their predecessors also played by these rules. The system is too entrenched to be ignored, even if the new generation decries their predecessors' proclivity to accept Western aid and investment).
The military will continue to play a role in ensuring stability in these states; this should partially maintain the status quo in the regional order. Egypt is perhaps the best example, where the military has given itself a permanent position in post-revolutionary Egypt. In post-revolution Yemen, the Saleh family--once the ruling family--still controls the military.
These new circumstances present the United States with a more complex and uncertain regional environment. America's interests will likely be harder to secure, even if these states rely on the US still for military and economic aid. Even with Obama's pledge to help the new democracies, the budget cuts in Washington resulted in a financial commitment less than $1 billion. This is too small an amount for states that desperately need a commitment on the scale of the Marshall Plan. If these states cannot rely on the US for their future economic security, they will likely look towards rising powers such as China and India.
Arab states will also unlikely toe the same line as the US in terms of policy towards Israel. Nor will they be as accommodating to US security goals in the region. Tensions will invariably rise between the US and these new regimes about their policies: the trial of American NGOs has already given us an example.
A post-American Middle East will be one where regional order will likely be less certain due to the more fragile nature of the regimes, but the states will unlikely play by drastically differently rules.
Iran and its Broken Axis
Iran's recently strengthened position--built up after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003--has largely been undermined by its response to the Arab Spring. Even before the Arab Awakenings, however, Tehran has never accrued much influence in the Arab world beyond Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Tehran's reluctance to support democratic movements--one cannot forget their response to the Green Movement--has not made Iran popular with the Arab public. Iran had a decent amount of political leverage when it came to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but with the focus now shifting to democratic change, Iran has been unable to sufficiently readjust its focus.
The tension created by mogwama and mumana (resistance and defiance) isat the heart of Iran's strategic position in the Middle East. The idea linked Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran together, even at their breaking point. If Bashar Al-Assad were to fall, the relationship between Syria and Iran will be markedly different: Tehran would loose its main ally in the Arab world.
Tied to their relationship with Syria is their relationship with Hezbollah: Syria is their main conduit in arming Hezbollah. Changes in Damascus would invariably weaken their leverage on Hezbollah, and Iraq would be left as the only state where Iran had any significant influence in the Arab world.
Gains made by Iran in the Levant since its revolution in 1979 will be pushed back further as its influence on Hamas declines. The announcement of Khaled Meshal's resignation as leader of Hamas--and the group's search to find a new headquarters--invariably means that Hamas' form of resistance to Israel will not be sustainable.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is the only potential friend to this axis of mogwama and mumana. So far, however, the Brotherhood has shown that it is willing to play by the military's rules. It is therefore unlikely that Egypt will tilt away from its current relationship with the moderate states in the region and with the United States to form a deep friendship with Tehran.
Iran will then likely focus on influencing the Gulf, even though it has failed to play an effective role since 1979. Despite all of the discussion of a 'Cold War' between the Arabs and the Persians, Iran is not in a position to win such a war now. The geopolitical map for Iran has changed with the Arab Awakenings.
Iran's only saving grace would be the survival of the Assad regime. If Syria were to survive under Assad, it will be partly due to Tehran. This would give Iran a powerful voice in the Levant. While the balance of power in the Iranian-Syrian relationship has shifted increasingly towards Iran, the Assads' survival would certainly enshrine Iran as the predominant partner in the relationship.
Currently, Iran's main ability to affect the regional order is through their nuclear weapons program. If Iran announced that it had a nuclear weapon, the counter-reaction by Arab states would likely make the regional order even more unstable. The spread of nuclear weapons at a time when there is a global trend towards disarmament would have profound implications on the region's security--and global security.
A New Era of Arab Co-Dependence and New Actors
While these governments may not become the democratic ideals that many in Generation Y had hoped for, they will be uniquely born out of the region. One major advantages is that these new governments will no longer carry the luggage of colonialism or Western intervention. Importantly, this year marks the first time in almost a decade that there is no Western military occupation in the region.
The change of governments in the region has removed the Arab-Israeli conflict and terrorism from being the center of public discussion. The states themselves are now the focus of dialogue and debate. Such conversation is crucial to future success and development in the region.
As these countries rebuild and rethink their economic relationships, an opportunity has opened for new outside actors to engage with the region--notably India and China. This interaction invariably will change the region from being predominantly a Western area of interaction to one that reflects the geographical position between east and west.
In his insightful work, Moonsoon, Robert Kaplan argues that the Indian Ocean will be the centre of power competition and influence in the 21st century, as China and India continue to rise. The Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, is primed to play a crucial role in this new area of competition. The Gulf's long-standing trade links with the Indian Ocean will give the region a central role.
Finally, the Arab Awakenings mark the continued rise of Turkey. Under Recip Erdogan and the AKP, Turkey has been transformed as a model of what states in the Arab world could become, and has been one of the most critical and active voices in the Arab world since the Arab Awakenings. Turkey's strong economics, Islamic-secular identity, and democratic system offer a path forward for these states in transition.
A More Diverse, More Functional Order
The Arab world after the Arab Awakenings is certainly not as predictable or stable as it once was. Fortunately, diversity and uncertainty in themselves provide opportunities for a more stable--and indeed more functional--region.
The ancien régimes of Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Tunisia were bound to break at some stage: fragile authoritarian regimes are not a recipe for long-term regional stability.
In the short term, if the right questions are asked and addressed, the region could become strengthened by the Arab Awakenings. Saad Eddin Ibrahim envisions an Egyptian political system modeled on the US system: "I am more interested in having the kind of presidential campaign similar to what you have here or in western Europe ... That's part of creating or socializing our people into pluralism--to see it at work, to have debates, to have a free media."
If these states revert to the economic and institutional position which existed before the Arab Awakenings, in the long-term the region will hollow itself out even further, eventually becoming brittle and breaking.
In his final article in the New York Times, Anthony Shadid raises a critical note about the future of the Arab world after the Arab Awakenings: the gap between theory and the reality. He juxtaposes the dreams of a democratic Middle East with the practical exercise of government once in power. Shadid writes, "If the revolts that swept the Middle East a year ago were the coming of age of youths determined to imagine another future for the Arab world, the aftermath that has brought elections in Egypt and Tunisia and the prospect of decisive Islamist influence in Morocco, Libya and, perhaps, Syria is the moment of another, older generation."
One of Shadid's final conversations was with Said Ferjani, a Tunisian Islamist in exile in London. In an earlier conversation with Shadid, Ferjani stated emphatically, "I can tell you one thing, we now have a golden opportunity . . . in this golden opportunity, I'm not interested in control. I'm interested in delivering the best charismatic system, a charismatic, democratic system. This is my dream."
Ferjani, now in power in Tunisia, has changed his tone. Reacting to criticisms on the street from those who want a more secular Tunisia, he said, "We don't fear freedom of expression, but we cannot allow disorder. People have to be responsible. They have to know there is law and order."
Hopefully, Ferjani and his generation can transcend the ease of authoritarianism, or this new order will not be as profoundly different as one once imagined. If the older generation is unwilling to address the tensions within their societies, they will be not so markedly different from the leaders they ousted.
Andrew Bowen is a regular contributing editor for The Majalla. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and regularly writes, teaches, and consults on Middle Eastern politics and American foreign policy. His work primarily focuses on the regional and international politics of the Levant, but he frequently comments on the international relations of the Gulf and American national security policy. Based in London, originally from the United States, he frequently travels to the Middle East and the United States.
© Copyright Zawya. All Rights Reserved.
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