The Middle East faces an existential challenge
Eyad Abu Shakra/Asharq Alawsat
Thursday, 28 Aug, 2014
Many of my friends dislike the term “Arab Spring,” which was created and made famous by the Western media. The oldest “spring” I remember is the “Prague Spring” of 1968, when the then-leader of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubček—a Slovak—led a reformist wave that challenged the traditional communist line Czechoslovakia had followed since the Second World War, particularly that of the Antonín Novotný era between 1953 and 1968. However, after a brief reformist experiment, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague under the banner of the Brezhnev Doctrine, brought down Dubček, replaced him by Dr. Gustáv Husák, and killed off the buds of that spring.
Hopeful of a new reformist wave not unlike that witnessed in Czechoslovakia, the Western media rushed to label the reformist tendency shown by the Chinese leadership headed by Deng Xiaoping between 1977 and 1978 as the “Beijing Spring.” Later on, the groundswell of groups pushing for speedy liberalization alarmed the Chinese government, which ended the occupation of Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing by force, and thus the reform movement was nipped in the bud.
What I intended to illustrate with this historical recollection is to explain that “Arab Spring,” as a term, describes a failed attempt to achieve change, one that failed because the circumstances were not right. In 1968 the Soviet leadership was still vigorous and dynamic, while during 1977–1978 the vast majority of China’s population was still living in remote rural areas, out of touch with the reform-minded urban dwellers who aspired to open up China to Western culture.
In the Arab world change was, indeed, vital. It was not logical to continue to have dynastic regimes that monopolized politics, the economy, and control of the security forces while claiming to be republics that conducted elections and governed through political parties and people’s committees. Some even went so far as to boast that they were ruling in the name of “resistance,” “steadfastness,” and revolutionary struggle—for more than four decades. Thus it was only natural that we were witness to the accumulation of grievances and aspirations for change. The problem, however, was that there were no alternative governments capable of inheriting these so-called “republican monarchies,” regimes which passed their sell-by dates, and were unable to renew themselves or didn’t have an answer to mounting economic problems and deteriorating living standards.
The death of Mohamed Bouazizi—whose suicide started the “Arab Spring”—in Tunisia was largely a protest against his awful living conditions, and was not directly connected to regional or international political issues. The same may also be said about the events that sparked the Syrian uprising, and while in Egypt there were additional sociopolitical elements, in both Yemen and Libya tribal factors played a major role along with the degradation of the state’s institution and the absence of true citizenship.
The only alternative that was ready to take over from the ruling elite in most cases was Political Islam. Why? There are actually several reasons, including the following: Islam is the religion of the vast majority of the Arabs, the Islamist parties and groups were the best organized, they were also the most experienced in clandestine politics, the best financed, and the least tarnished with the corruption that characterized the former ruling elites. Hence, the Islamist groups—in various forms—were able to play an influential role in the transitional period.
However, attempts to reform the countries of the Arab Spring quickly collided with the structural problems that are causing the rapid deterioration we see today, and which may result in either the creation of failed states, international protectorates, or both. Tunisia, thanks to what remains of its strong state structures, trade unions and institutions, as well as healthy social freedoms, has emerged from its “spring” with the fewest losses. Egypt, too, has survived the worst, helped by its centuries-old social cohesion under capable authorities that have ruled efficiently, whether democratically or undemocratically. In this instance its worth mentioning the great national popular leader Saad Zaghloul was in power for less than one year, while the unpopular and anti-Wafd politician Ismail Sidqi served as prime minister for an uninterrupted term of three years during the royalist period.
The situation in both Syria and Yemen is quite different, and is made more complicated and dangerous when the Iranian factor is taken into account. Libya, too, seems to be in deep trouble, and no internal player or faction seems capable of saving it from fragmentation and chaos.
Recently, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem used a press conference in Damascus to announce that his government was ready to join a war against terrorist groups that the Syrian regime and its regional allies have helped create and sponsor, using these groups for their own purposes. His position did not surprise those familiar with the regime’s nature and antics, and its constant attempts—along with those of its regional allies—to exploit sectarian extremism, in order to portray itself as a bulwark against it. Indeed, Western ambassadors in Damascus, as well as their governments, were until recently convinced that the Syrian regime was “secular,” liberal, and a guarantor of ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity in the Middle East, in addition to being a trusted protector of peace on Israel’s northern border. Many Christian church leaders have also helped promote this false impression, and Israel in turn has been happy and reassured that the Golan Heights will remain quiet, as they have since 1974.
On the other hand, it was in the interests of several parties, including the Iraqi leadership, to ignore Damascus’s strong ties with terrorist organizations and its role in facilitating their infiltration of Iraq in order to harass American troops, expedite the US withdrawal, and leave the country under Iranian control.
Today we can see that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is doing what was expected of it, ensuring that the West rehabilitates a murderous regime over the ruins of Syria and Iraq, and maybe even Lebanon too, in the future. Also, we can see how Iran, with Russian support, is benefiting massively from an American president whose top regional priority is an accord with Tehran. These Iranian victories include developments unfolding in Yemen, where the Houthis’ capital, Saada, has become a place where political deals are made.
In short, we are currently facing a truly existential challenge, but I very much doubt we realize it, or are handling it the way we should.