Monday, June 13, 2011

Where Is ‘Arab Spring’ Headed?

Abdullah Al Shayji writes: The main achievement so far has been the smashing of the psychological fear factor which has haunted generations 

In a region known for chronic instability and plagued for generations by autocratic rule and fragile political systems, it is hoped that the ongoing Arab Spring could be the remedy. But there is fear that this is easier said than done, and could be no more than wishful thinking. I hope I am wrong.

For after six months of the most poignant and unprecedented changes in Arab states and societies, which have rocked long-held beliefs, it is time to take stock of the situation. Some of the facts are obvious. What is happening is not revolution in the classic sense of the term. Revolution, by definition, is a total uprooting of an existing regime. Wikipedia defines revolution as "a fundamental change in power or organisational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time ... Revolutions have occurred through human history and vary widely in terms of methods, duration, and motivating ideology. Their results include major changes in culture, economy and socio-political institutions".
Given this definition, what we have on our hands are not revolutions as we Arabs are fond of labelling them, but rather a major readjustment and realignment of what has been an awkward and unsustainable order which has prevailed for too long. This order has been called the ‘Arab exceptionalism' in which Arabs are seen as not being capable of reform and change when it comes to democracy, accountability, rule of law and peaceful and periodic transfer of power.

Now is the time for the Arab Spring to usher in what could be lasting change in the vicious cycle of stagnation. The uprisings took many in the region and beyond by surprise. They broke many taboos, changed many realities and seem to be setting in motion what is hoped will be irreversible gains sparked by decades of marginalisation, degradation and absolute rule by repressive and corrupt regimes. Everyone is hoping the existing order will come to an end. Thus the main achievement for the time-being has been the smashing of the psychological fear factor, which has haunted and gripped many generations and cowed them into submission.
Although all Arab uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt and from Syria to Yemen and Libya espouse peaceful and orderly change, two paradigms of change are emerging in these societies. The first is the semi-peaceful change with accepted collateral damage in the case of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Both autocratic leaders, Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali and Hosni Mubarak, were toppled in a relatively short time, but with the military and security junta still in power, with the main structure and personalities of the previous regimes intact. Now these two countries are going through the hard phase of consolidating power, of tinkering with the constitution to write off the legacy of the past. This painful phase is critical, as there are fears of a reversing of the gains, the iron-fisted military apparatus ruling through military tribunals and denying the right to demonstrations and freedom of expression.

Counter-revolutionary movement
Tunisia postponed its constitutional assembly elections to autumn, and Egypt civil societies and political parties are split over the need for a new constitution to be in place before the parliamentary and presidential elections take place. In the meantime, both countries endure disorder, chaos and economic pains. There are much lowered expectations for economic growth and rising unemployment and inflation in both countries. There are genuine fears today in these two societies about the hijacking these uprisings through counter-movements.

The second paradigm of change is the violent and bloody one. That is the case in Libya, Syria and Yemen, with attempts at change being countered by excessive use of force. This could lead not only to chaos and disorder, but also to civil wars, fragmentations and dismemberment of these countries and societies.
Libya has been witnessing for the past four months a bloody counter-revolutionary movement which has led to a stalemate, with thousands dead, and many more injured. Nato has just extended its military campaign until next September. Libya's heavy-handed approach seems to have encouraged the Yemeni and Syrian regimes. At the same time, the West's fear of another Libya-style debacle is dissuading any serious discussion of repeating the Libyan campaign in Syria and Yemen, thus emboldening both regimes — especially the one in Damascus, which believes it is the guarantor of stability in the region — to carry on with their brutality and oppression.

In the Yemeni case things are murky, after the assassination attempt on the President Ali Abdullah Saleh who is being treated in Saudi Arabia. GCC neighbours have a major stake in Yemen's stability. Jonathan Ruhe, in the National Interest, argues: "Post-Saleh Yemen would likely be even less stable, thus increasing the potential for a Byzantine civil war stretching from Sana'a to the hinterland."
Even Tony Blair, the Middle East quartet envoy, is arguing now that the Arab Spring is negatively impacting the peace process because it is making Israel worry about the potential of instability, especially with the major shifts and changes in Egypt. There is also fear of chaos and the ‘Islamist menace', which is a worrisome prospect.

In the final analysis, uprisings and revolutions are judged by the end results. There is genuine fear that the Arab Spring is turning towards a hot summer or even frigid winter.
Given this, we who live here and are impacted by what is unfolding in our region, have the right to ask where is the Arab Spring taking us. It is in our interests to achieve change through peaceful and orderly means. This will instil confidence in our ability to bring about change and will convince our detractors that Arabs, like all other societies who yearn for freedom, are capable of bringing about change and are not an exception.

-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 13/06/2011
-Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University

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