Ahram (Egypt) - Year of the Arabs
Ahram (Egypt) -
Monday, 02 January 2012
Year of the Arabs
The Arab Spring brought about the fall of regimes in three Arab countries. But how deep is the change at the regional level and beyond?
Amira Howeidy, Monday 2 Jan 2012
A Yemeni shows her fist sporting the flags of Arab countries to have seen revolts
Nothing in the history of the Arabs comes close to matching the quintessential changes that consumed every day of 2011. The previously unimaginable materialised as the dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were ousted in three consecutive popular revolutions, with momentum spilling across the Maghreb, through the Gulf and into the Levant.
In October, Tunisia elected an assembly -- dominated by Islamists -- that appointed a new government in December and elected a president, Munsif El-Marzouqi, thus replacing Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali's ruling elite. In Egypt, the election process is more complicated and stretches over a long period of time. Ongoing general elections, also featuring an Islamist ascendance, will form a complete parliament with its upper and lower houses in March, followed by presidential elections in June. Meanwhile, the military -- the command of which, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was appointed by Hosni Mubarak -- remains the de facto ruler.
Contrary to Libya, which completely obliterated Muammar Gaddafi's regime, both Tunisia and Egypt, the least bloody revolutions, have yet to replace or reform their systems, from corrupt security apparatuses and state-run media, to tainted judiciaries. It begs the question as to how much change is in effect, despite the toppling of the regime's head. On the other hand, the "Arab Spring" domino effect slowed down in Yemen and proved complicated and dangerous in Syria. With this in mind, should the loss of momentum in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain and Oman raise concerns expressed in commentaries, and more so in the Arab street, on the size, scope and nature of the change at hand?
In Israel, where the Arab revolutions resonated mostly with anxiety, the view is clear: a new Middle East is emerging. It is, in the words of Mark Heller, a senior fellow at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), "undeniably new and different". But because the situation is fluid all over the region, few other things are clear, Heller writes in INSS's annual Strategic Survey of Israel, beyond the fact that Arab public opinion can no longer be ignored or stifled by repressive means. Where that leads to, he argues, is impossible to predict.
To Palestinian strategic expert and historian Bashir Nafi, the answer is both simple and complex: it lies in Egypt. Its future, transformation and change are "central for the process of change in the whole Arab world," he said in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. If Egypt succeeds, he says, even the countries that didn't experience a revolution will be influenced to change peacefully. Likewise, if Egypt falters in its transformation, "everything in the region will revert to what it was and even worse. We'll have worse than Bin Ali in Tunisia and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen."
THE NEW ARAB ORDER: Nafi, who is a scholar in Islamic history and author of several books on modern Islamic thought and Arab nationalism, toured the countries of the Arab revolution from the onset of the uprisings and is a frequent traveller across the region. He recently returned from Istanbul where Libya's National Transitional Council chief, Mustafa Abdel-Gelil, was visiting too. The Libyan leader formally requested from Ankara that it assists in the rebuilding of both the security apparatus and the military in Libya. "He didn't ask France, he went for Turkey," says Nafi. His point is that despite foreign military intervention in Libya in March, Libyans won't give the West -- mainly France and Italy -- a large share in the new Libya or its economy, at least not the share they imagined when calculating the decision to interfere militarily to bring down Gaddafi.
Libya isn't the new Iraq and the Middle East, while still starting a process of transformation, isn't the same anymore either. There are signs that the Pax Americana might be waning, as the price of Washington's direct involvement in the turbulent Middle East, including its occupation of Iraq for eight years, proved too costly (with a bill of more than $800 billion) for its interests in the region and poor economy at home. It is telling that the US decided to withdraw its troops from Iraq on 16 December.
With the exception of Libya and Yemen, the absence of an American "role" in events is significant. Heller, too, concludes that there is little apart from wishful thinking to sustain "grandiose generalisation that foreign, especially Western, and especially American, policy is the critical factor in determining the outcome of the struggles for the future of the Middle East."
Nafi suggests a novel view of the United States' new priorities: "The balance of power in the world is changing," and in the next few years the priorities of the West will shift from the Middle East to South East Asia. For one thing, it will have to concentrate on the rise of China because this is about the West's position in the world. On the other hand, the US administration appears to avoid taking a position against the Arab people, he says, after realising that the popular uprisings are very serious. This is why Nafi thinks "the West" isn't against democratic transformation in the region as long as it doesn't directly threaten its interests and lead to escalating conflict with Israel. "Except for the Israeli issue, everything else is negotiable."
And yet Israel is a major issue in the Middle East, as Nafi who as a Palestinian was raised in the Diaspora knows all to well. He concedes that the ascendance of Egypt has implications for the strategic balance of power in the region.
SYRIA: While the emphasis on Egypt in determining the future of the Arab Spring is shared by many, Syria's long and difficult uprising is another decisive element in the region's transformation because it's a key country for the Middle East. "If you decide things in Syria you can decide things in Lebanon, partially in Jordan and Iraq, and in the Palestinian arena. And you're going to influence Saudi Arabia as well. This is a country which, although isn't very big, always exercised great influence in its surroundings," says Nafi. Approximately 5,000 people have been killed during the nine-month-old uprising in Syria, as the Bashar Al-Assad regime fights for its life, despite Arab and international condemnation, pressure and sanctions.
Because Syria is complicated, foreign intervention isn't an option since the conflict isn't just between the people and the Al-Assad regime. Says Nafi: in Syria it's not only Saudi Arabia and the United States that are involved; there is also Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, in addition to the strategic alliance between Syria and Iran. "Iran isn't going to turn its back to Syria very easily and the huge borders between Turkey and Syria means that Turkey isn't going to let others intervene or decide the future of Syria without it."
What makes Syria so complex is the sectarianism of the Alawite regime. While Nafi's assessment is that the regime will be removed, perhaps in six months or a year, he fears the process itself. "It will be messy and maybe, I'm not really sure, civil war isn't avoidable. Unless Al-Assad negotiates a peaceful and rational transformation of power, but that doesn't seem to be the case."
CHANGING THE SYSTEM: The entire Arab scene is perhaps reminiscent of the early 1990s when change was sweeping Eastern Europe. There were doubts back then on whether the changes were reversible or inexorable.
Nafi concludes that the progress of the Arab revolutions won't happen in "one straight line". There are common features between all the countries of the Arab Spring, not least that they're all Arab and share similar histories. The ruling classes are similar, but there are also very distinctive features that make generalisation of their dynamics a wrong point of departure. While Libya experienced radical change with the uprooting of the system, Egypt fears chaos. The Egyptian regime was overthrown but the state didn't collapse. "This is not a complete revolution when the upper stratum of the regime is removed and then the ethos, the values, the rules, the laws that control this massive body are still in place," he says. "In Libya everything is gone: the state, the bureaucracy, the army, police, security service. The country is being rebuilt from scratch." To make the revolution an "irreversible affair", he added, the state needs to reform "very profoundly". This appears to be happening by smooth transition in Tunisia, but is unclear in Egypt.
THE NEW ARABISM: Missing from the Arab Spring debate is the element of Arabism involved beyond the slogan, "Al-shaab yourid esqat al-nizam" (The people want to bring down the regime) that echoed from the Maghreb to the Gulf. Most Western -- particularly Israeli -- readings of the Arab revolutions reflect a general consensus on the absence of anti-American and anti-Israeli motivations in the revolts. These and even most Arab analyses might be understating the factor of "Arabness" in the uprisings.
Much of the focus has been on how the revolutions will or won't lead to prosperous democracies. Missing from the debate, as Rabab El-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, points out is that the unfolding process combines, in addition to democratisation, two other important elements: "Arabness" and "politics-from-below". Indeed, the roots of the earlier waves of mobilisation can be traced to the Arab solidarity movement -- in the Maghreb and particularly Egypt -- with the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000.
Today, the uprisings are "reinventing 'Arab' national identity" in new ways, according to El-Mahdi. This new collective identity is not being "forged from above, as in the heydays of state nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, but rather from 'below' and in opposition to the hegemonic grand narratives and governing dynamics of the ruling elite." Unlike earlier intellectual and political attempts of creating "Arabism" in support of regimes seeking to build hegemonic consent for their rule, she says, this time it was used by the masses against the regimes. "It was levelled at regimes as the 'common enemy' and by a majority of people -- under the age of 30 -- who did not live through the rise and fall of Arab state nationalism."
These young masses are unwittingly cultivating a new sense of solidarity "that is taking away regimes' monopoly over defining the 'nation', the 'enemy' and accordingly 'national interests' and 'identity'," El-Mahdi says. "This change of dynamics not only opens the door for new democratised 'Arabism', but also means that the new democratic regimes being established will not be able to evade questions of imperialism and international intervention in the region."