Saturday, June 25, 2011

What The Arab Revolts Leave Unanswered

By Rami G. Khouri
My pleasure at speaking this week in Ottawa at a gathering at the International Development Research Center of Canada was compounded by the very thoughtful questions and comments that members of the audience offered.
The audience raised new questions in my mind about what is likely or possibly may occur in the Arab region, as the current citizen revolt moves into its seventh month. The issues they raised revolved around the reality that there is no certain outcome to the developments in assorted Arab countries. While I and many other Arab citizens feel that the wave of democratic transformations will continue to wash across most of the region, sweeping away old and young autocrats and opening the door to new democracies, this is by no means certain.
Economic pressures, for one, could easily create such immense stresses on families that many Arabs who celebrated the Tunisian and Egyptian regime changes may welcome the return of strongmen who restrict citizens’ powers but provide more jobs. I doubt this will happen, but we can never rule it out. The demands of children’s stomachs crying out for food that many families cannot afford to buy are immensely powerful drivers of political behavior.
Another threat that some audience members raised was related to the potential break-up of some countries into smaller units that could be more easily controlled by regional or foreign powers. The first Arab revolt against the Ottomans around a century ago occurred simultaneously with the Sykes-Picot accord, by which France and Great Britain carved up the Arab east into smaller units that were put under the rule of locally chosen leaders whom the Europeans knew they could trust. It is possible that the current transformations might result in security vacuums that local parties or foreign powers could exploit to fragment some Arab states into smaller units that would then be more reliant on foreign support or protection.
Sudan has already split into northern and southern states, while Yemen, Iraq and possibly a few others are similarly susceptible to subdivision into smaller statelets. This raises difficult issues about the inviolability of the current Arab borders that the retreating Europeans created last century. I thought the secession of South Sudan was a perfectly acceptable development, if it reflected the will of the people of the south, and was not imposed on them. The operative principle in such possible developments is whether change reflects the consent of the governed and represents the will of the majority, while protecting the rights of minorities. If Yemenis decide to split again into two or even three states, and this reflects the free will of the Yemeni people, they should be allowed to do so without external interference.
There is nothing sacred or permanent about the borders of any country, especially Arab countries that were mostly created by the handiwork of European colonial officers. Countries evolve and sometimes change shape as a routine historical process. If some Arabs decide they are uncomfortable with their existing state boundaries and they wish to break away and form a separate country, that should always be an option. After all, the world mostly rejoiced when the former Soviet Union and its empire collapsed and some of its constituent republics fragmented into smaller units, notably Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
We should be prepared to deal with the specter of existing Arab countries that reconfigure their frontiers and populations while they are reconfiguring their political governance systems.
Another point that was raised in several different forms related to how the current Arab revolt would affect relations with major Western countries, especially since many Western powers actively supported the Arab autocrats who are now being challenged and, in some cases, removed from office. Would newly liberated Arab citizenries seek revenge against Western powers?
My impression is that this will depend on the new policies that these Western powers adopt, rather than on what they did in the past. Most Arabs are critical of Western powers because they unquestioningly back Israel or support Arab autocrats. Should those policies be moderated and replaced by more even-handed postures toward the Middle East, newly liberated Arab citizens would probably be too busy building their new countries to allow themselves to be distracted by lingering resentments from the past.
What is the single most important development that could trigger regime change in some countries now facing domestic challenges and unrest, one person asked? Three reasons come to mind: economic collapse could do so; or key figures in the military and security agencies could stop protecting the regime; or strategically placed commercial, tribal, sectarian and business leaders in society could decide that the current course was disastrous and, in consequence, could bring about the fall of the regime.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 25/06/2011

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