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Arab Spring — chief consequence?

Fall 2011 The Definition

Arab Spring — chief consequence?

Arab SpringNader Hashemi

Shortly after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, wrote a column entitled: “Mubarak’s departure thwarted Israeli strike on Iran.” His argument was that the Arab Spring had transformed the geopolitics of the Middle East, ushering “in a new era of uncertainty for the entire region, and for Israel in particular.” His observation is an astute one, as it both draws attention to linkages between different conflicts in the Middle East and highlights how the Arab Spring has forced a reassessment of the national security priorities of countries across the region. The Arab Spring has also overturned a binary view of the political divisions in the Middle East. Long-standing assumptions about a regional order defined by a pro-Western ‘moderate Arab’ and Israeli bloc versus an anti-Western axis comprised of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah/Hamas is analytically distorting today. What the Arab Spring has done is help to clarify what Middle East scholars have known for a long time: that the fundamental political chasm in the Middle East is not between pro-Western and anti-Western forces, nor between Shi’a and Sunni or Arab and Jew, but rather that it is the enormous gulf that separates authoritarian regimes from the people over whom they rule.

The principal near-term consequence of the Arab Spring, therefore, is that a new global spotlight has been directed at dictatorial regimes. All of these regimes are now scrambling to buy off popular discontent with salary increases, new state subsidy packages and fake promises of political reform. Simultaneously, new recognition has been given to democratic movements and the aspirations of millions of Arab and Muslims who seek hurriya (political freedom), adala ijtima’iyya (social justice) and karama (dignity). Prior to the Arab Spring, it was long assumed that the voice of people of the region did not matter in terms of Western policy. There was a tacit assumption that this voice was too fractured, too politically immature (or incoherent) or too radical to be taken seriously.

Similarly, there was an erroneous assumption that the Arab authoritarian order was there to stay. In the same way that, a decade ago, longstanding dictators in Jordan, Morocco and Syria passed their thrones onto their sons, it was widely thought (and in some political circles, hoped) that the same process would follow in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and beyond. This assumption no longer applies, as a new generation of Arabs and Muslims politically assert themselves, and as the old political order gradually recedes. A new one is emerging on the horizon, where the theme of democracy is now at the centre of the politics of the region.

» Nader Hashemi teaches Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His latest book is The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2011).

Akbar S. Ahmed

The Arab Spring has both short-term and long-term implications. Both are enormous. Both are historic. For the first time ever, there is a genuine revolution reverberating throughout the Arab world. We have, of course, seen mass movements in the Muslim world before – take Iran, for example, in 1979, and South Asia at the creation of Pakistan in 1947. But here, for the first time, we have seen a region-wide people’s uprising taking place. It has been encouraging for three reasons. First, it was led by young people – idealists – many of them skillfully utilizing social media and technology. Second, there was relatively little violence used by those in revolt. Third, the quick successes in Tunisia and Egypt spread like wildfire throughout the region. Almost overnight, similar movements in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain emerged. Of course, we saw problems, as those countries possess a more entrenched ruling class. Thus, where the end of Mubarak came within mere weeks, it took months and months before Gaddafi was finally removed. So, in the short-term, we have witnessed unprecedented change, which serves as a symbol of hope for a better, more egalitarian world to come. In the long-term, there is a looming question mark. Inevitably, the Arab world will get there – and it must bear the burden of its growing pains under the lens of modern times. The world – and specifically the US – must step back to see the situation clearly, and at that point unambiguously declare that it stands behind those who believe in democracy and human rights. America cannot afford to vacillate on these values.

» Akbar S. Ahmed, a former High Commissioner of Pakistan to the UK, is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, DC, the Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the US Naval Academcy, and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (Brookings Institution Press, 2010).

Joel Beinin

Arab autocracies and monarchies backed by the US are no longer stable political forms. Arabs have disproved that they have any cultural propensity for autocracy, and raised their political voices in several different registers. Even if it is not fully realized, popular sovereignty with a certain pan-Arab cultural dimension has become the regional ideal. In Tunisia and Egypt, autocracy will not return. But the extent to which former ruling classes, leading personnel and also practices of the ministries of interior (the police) and justice, and the internal security apparatus will be purged is uncertain. Although autocrats have been removed, there has been no bona fide revolution (yet). Surprisingly, the demise of the Gaddafi regime in Libya has been the only proper Arab revolution to date – insofar as much of the old state apparatus has been destroyed, and must now be rebuilt.

Although the army may continue to be the final arbiter of politics in Egypt – as it has been since 1952 – old and new political forces – Islamists, liberals, leftists of various sorts, and repackaged elements of the old regime – will have more room to manoeuvre in parliament and the public arena than under the Mubarak regime. The first new institution to emerge after January 2011 was the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions – the first federation independent of the state since 1957. (There were three independent unions before 2011.) It has 90 affiliates and over 250,000 members, and it is growing rapidly. Its continued success may set limitations on Egypt’s neoliberal economic project. The Tunisian General Union of Labour has also grown rapidly this year.

Anxieties about the future of US-backed Arab authoritarianism will diminish US regional political clout. This will mean less capacity to cajole Arab states into accepting the manifestly unjust Palestinian-Israeli peace that the Netanyahu government envisions, and no capacity to move Israel toward accepting the international consensus on resolving the conflict. The ‘peace process’ – on life support for a decade – is likely dead. No Egyptian government likely to be formed after the parliamentary elections this fall will seek a diplomatic or military confrontation with Israel or the US. Egypt will remain a member of the pro-American Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian-Israeli axis. But it will no longer be a reliable ‘yes man.’ Its foreign policy is already reflecting popular sentiment somewhat more than Mubarak’s did. This has enhanced Iran’s regional influence. Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces permitted two Iranian warships to traverse the Suez Canal in February, and also proclaimed that Egypt will re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran.

Of course, Iran’s regional stature would be somewhat diminished by the collapse of Syria’s Assad regime. But this would probably not affect Iran’s relationship with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Continuing unrest in Bahrain and potentially among Shi’a in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia may or may not benefit Iran, as Arab Shi’a tend to look to Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani – not Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – for religious guidance.

» Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University. He was formerly the Director of Middle East Studies and Professor of History at the American University in Cairo.

Rebecca C. Lunnon

For Southeast Asia, as for many other parts of the world, the principal near-term consequence of the Arab Spring is economic. Political unrest has contributed substantially to rising oil prices, which in turn have affected global food and commodity prices. Large segments of Southeast Asian populations are finding it harder to make ends meet. The unrest in the Middle East and North Africa poses particular economic and unemployment consequences for Southeast Asian countries, as they rely more heavily than countries in most other regions on remittances from their nationals employed overseas. Southeast Asian nationals working in the Middle East and North Africa have lost their employment and income: they are now returning to Southeast Asia and attempting to resettle – with little possibility of easily finding employment at home. With approximately 3 percent of GDP being contributed by Filipinos registered as working in the areas affected by unrest, the Philippines is perhaps most affected in all of Southeast Asia. Indeed, a significant number of Filipinos work overseas without registration, and so lost remittances may well be even greater than currently estimated.

» Rebecca C. Lunnon is a research analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and a research assistant at the Asian Law Centre of the University of Melbourne.

Alon Ben-Meir

The ‘Arab Spring’ was coined to suggest the advent of a new era of awakening that would engulf the Arab world and harbinger new socio-economic and political order. Whereas a few lessons can be learned from what has already emerged since the first uprising in Tunisia last January, the only certainty that can be deduced from the uprisings in various Arab countries is that the Arab world will never be the same again. Current Arab governments, be they dictatorial, autocratic, monarchies or military, may survive a few more years or even another generation. But eventually they will either be forced to introduce meaningful socio-economic, political and educational reforms, granting the people their birth right to be free, or be ousted disgracefully and often violently from power. The notion advanced by some scholars, including George Friedman, that the Arab Spring is some kind of mass delusion, “[j]ust demonstration accompanied by slaughter and extraordinarily vacuous observers” is flawed. The Tunisian, Mohammed Bouazizi who burned himself opted to die with dignity rather than continue to live and suffer the daily indignities and inconsequential life. When he braved self-immolation, he called with his last breath on his generation to stand up against the ruthlessness of his and other Arab tyrants that treat their citizens like subjects, only to serve their lust for power and riches. It is that message that empowered the Egyptians, Yemenis, Libyans, Syrians and others to protest and to die to reverse the injustices and disdain. It is that message that will outlive the stubborn and kleptocratic Arab leaders, and it is that message that will continue to resonate for many years to come and bestow the ultimate power upon the people.

The Arab Spring will sadly turn into a long and cruel winter. The lack of traditional liberalism, the tribes’ power, the elites’ control of businesses, the hold on power by ethnic minorities, the high rank military personnel that cling to power, the religious divide and Islamic extremism will make the transformation in the Arab world slow, bloody, and filled with hurdles. Some Arab tyrants may succeed to subdue popular resistance, but it will take tremendous violence to achieve that. In turn, this will over time engender even greater public repulsion and violent resistance. Once the protesters shed their fear and are ready to die for the cause they believe in, no tyrant can survive a popular and sustained revolt. Libya demonstrates how dangerous a change in governance can be and what lesson the rest of the Arab states can derive. The Arab uprising must be seen as an integral part of a world in transformation. The technological and the information revolutions that spurs globalization and interconnectedness between cultures make it impossible for Arab and non-Arab tyrants alike to rule for life while subjugating their people to a life of servitude with no prospect to ever taste the sweetness of freedom.

» Alon Ben-Meir is a Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Saeb El Kasm

The Arab Spring has the potential to change the existing landscape in the Middle East by replacing coercive authoritarian regimes with sovereign states rooted in the democratic spirit. Given the proper impetus and direction, the shackles of the old exploitative order can be replaced with a political space respectful of popular participation, comfortable with the pluralism of civic engagement, and mindful of the importance of governmental accountability. The collapse of traditional authoritarian structures now creates a democratic opening for public debate and a platform for intellectual discourse that can favour the greatest untapped resource in the Middle East: an increasingly tech-savvy, energized and, to be sure, young population.

The next phases of the Arab Spring in pioneering Tunisia and Egypt are likely to be fraught with economic dislocation, increasing political upheaval, and a structural redefinition of Arab governance. Moving ahead, pragmatism based on the rule of law ought to be the guiding force that translates the revolutionary fervour of the last several months into concrete policies that bring about political freedom and inclusive economic growth.

Building a functional democracy in Egypt (the political and cultural leviathan) will have profound implications for long-term regional stability, growth and social justice. Consequently, enshrining emerging constitutions with a strong sense of political pluralism will be critical to empowering a fertile citizen-based politics. The ripple effects of a democratic Egypt could also potentially propel the resilient petro-dollar Gulf states and monarchies toward a path of genuine reform.

For the foreseeable future, post-authoritarian Arab Spring countries in transition will continue to grapple with a range of sociopolitical crises ranging from economic shocks to the dilemmas of constitutional and electoral reform. Counter-revolutions, sectarianism and the consolidation of Islamist power remain distinct possibilities – each bringing further uncertainty and unintended consequences. One thing, however, is certain: the Arab Spring has irrevocably altered the face of the Middle East, providing a prime opportunity to positively re-engineer formerly malfunctioning governance structures.

» Saeb El Kasm is an anti-corruption consultant. He has taught Middle East political and legal reform at the University of California, Irvine.


(The Canadian Press / Tara Todras-Whitehill / AP)

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