Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Six Months Of Arab Spring
By Hasan Abu Nimah
Monitors of world events tend to put labels on major historic eras. There are countless examples. “The Arab Spring” has been their choice for the series of uprisings now sweeping across several Arab countries.
Just back from a seminar in Rome, where a group of specialists and concerned observers from the region and outside considered various aspects of “Six months after the Arab Spring”, I felt the discussions opened wider avenues of understanding of an Arab era still at its early stages.
Based on the general concept of meeting debates, but not directly linked to the specific agenda items, I thought the following single observation would be of significant relevance.
It relates to the validity of the title, “The Arab Spring”, which was questioned.
It was noted that it cannot be a spring - usually a short season - because it looks like it is due to last for years; and it could not be exclusively Arab, with roles of other major players in the region, Turkey and Iran, and others from outside the region, the United States and the EU, having their direct impact on events.
In the second half of the last century, peoples’ uprisings, or military coups d’état were considered strictly local matters. No other state would intervene in favour of one side until the dispute was settled internally first.
This does not apply any more. What we have been seeing is that there are no internal affairs anymore. What happened in the five hard hit Arab countries is the affair not only of other key players in the region but of the rest of the world as well.
World attention has been growing in a directly proportional manner to the force of the political storm that landed first in Tunis. Events in Tunis took the world by surprise, but they were too fast to settle the conflict in the people’s favour by bringing down the regime of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, away from any significant external intervention; and if regime change in that country was not considered a vital threat to a convenient status quo, what followed in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria was totally different.
Even the Egyptian revolt came too soon for both regional and world attention to grasp the real potential of the political upheaval. Quite complacently, many interested parties preferred to see the rising demands for radical change as manageable and local. It seems that those who realised that the Arabs would one day, after decades of deep slumber, rise with such fearless resolve to fight for their rights, dignity and freedom were a small minority.
Only when the deeply entrenched and strongly supported regime of Hosni Mubarak, in Egypt, crumbled, under the heavy pressure of the unarmed Egyptian people, did the world begin to wake up to the stunning reality. And that required much more than a wait and see attitude. Changes of this magnitude in a region that incubates oil and Israel required urgent action on the part of both external and regional powers, to adapt to the new political product in a manner that would guarantee others’ interests and address their vital concerns.
The heat of the storm was better felt with the uprising in Bahrain. If in Tunis, Egypt, Libya and Yemen there were republican leaders not only unwilling to put a time limit on their decades-long unjustified terms in office, but also harbouring corruption, nepotism, oppressive police control, disregard for their citizens’ rights, squandering of national assets and submitting to foreign powers’ will, Bahrain, on the other hand, was a hereditary monarchy with no time limit on the king’s term in office. The possible fall of a Gulf monarchy was viewed as a dangerous precedent that should be prevented at any cost.
There were other significant factors with respect to Bahrain. One is that it is too close to Saudi Arabia, which did not want this red line to be crossed. The second is that any success that could be accomplished by the mainly Shiite opposition in Bahrain would open the way wide for dangerous intervention from Iran in the name of protecting the Bahraini Shiites. Troops were sent into Bahrain to help suppress the uprising and to prevent further escalation.
The support shown by Arab peoples and Arab states for uprisings in other Arab countries were therefore masked in the case of Bahrain. This may not be the end of the Bahrain story, however, but it managed to keep matters under control for the time being.
The fate of the other three countries currently fighting for regime survival is likely to be determined by internal factors alone.
It was unusual for the Arab League to invite international intervention in Libya after suspending Libya’s league membership. If that, however, was a contravention of the league’s charter, it did, on the other hand, reflect the mood of the Arab masses who did not want Muammar Qadhafi to break the chain of revolutionary victories by defeating his people’s revolt.
Had it not been for the failure of NATO’s diffident military intervention to topple the Libyan dictator so far, the Security Council would not be so cautious with respect to Syria. The UN action in Libya did indeed set a precedent, but it did not prove effective enough to be repeated.
The Syrian regime was actually encouraged to use brutal force against peaceful demands for reform and freedom by so much confused international response to the Syrian regime’s violence. The Security Council has not been able to even issue a condemnation of the mounting atrocities and the migration of over 10,000 people across the border into Turkey. The Syrian leadership must have been comforted by messages from the West that military intervention in Syria was not on the cards. Neither was regime change, as the fear of the unknown tolerated the continuation of the current leadership no matter how disliked. The price of such confusion was paid by more violence and loss of innocent life in many Syrian cities and towns.
The same can be said about Yemen. There were no clearcut attitudes from close-by neighbours or distant allies showing sympathy with the Yemeni legitimate demands for emancipation from the dictatorial, corrupt rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Neither were the Yemeni people left alone to pursue their own reform goals nor was the intervention decisive to cut short a fierce regime war against its people. Saleh was in fact encouraged to play games and to manoeuvre while neighbours’ extended initiatives with superpower support were actually buying the Yemeni leader more time to prolong the agony of his people.
It is neither unusual nor improper for other states to monitor developments across their border with the view of protecting their interests or preventing adverse consequences of turbulent political developments. The case in favour of such “interventionist” attitude is becoming more valid with the inevitable globalisation and the growing interdependence of various world nations. This should, however, be governed by agreed-upon rules as well as by right principles.
Neither the regimes that managed to take over - in Tunis and Egypt - nor the ones on their way are showing any kind of estrangement from the powers that had maintained an uneven, controlled support for their predecessors. The newly emerging regimes cannot exist in isolation. They should, as indeed their tendency seems to be, interact with the world surrounding them. The only possible change, however, is that the new regimes may seek balanced relations amongst equals, where interests would be mutually pursued and observed, where respect and consideration of each side’s concern would be fair and reciprocal.
The space for building even better relations between a reformed Arab world and the West is large and secure. What is needed is objective and mutual understanding of the meaning of the ongoing change. Much of the required understanding, particularly of the legitimate aspirations of the Arab peoples, has been missing for decades. It has always been measured against the specific Israeli positions, no matter how illegal such positions are.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 22/06/2011