Rarely have the leaders of the Arab world — its rulers, opposition activists, intellectuals, economic planners, bankers, major businessmen — faced so many challenges as in this summer of 2011. Everything is changing before their eyes, both in Arab societies and in the world outside.
Among the host of bewildering problems, two stand out. The way these problems are tackled and resolved will affect the Arab world for decades to come. They demand careful reflection and bold action.
The first and most obvious problem is that posed by the revolutionary wave sweeping across the region. The key question is this: how to make sure that this exercise of ‘people power’ has a positive rather than a negative outcome. In other words, how to make sure that the tremendous energies released by the Arab Spring will lead to a just, stable and prosperous Arab world rather than to violence and chaos.
The second problem relates to the change in American and European strategic priorities. There seems no doubt that the United States and its Western allies are slowly but surely disengaging militarily from the Middle East and Central Asia. The western security umbrella which has been a feature of the region since the Second World War is being gradually withdrawn. This process has already begun in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US bases in the Gulf are also an anachronism, which may not long survive.
The United States is war-weary and bankrupt. Its debts total $14.5 trillion (Dh53.22 trillion) , equal to 100% of its GDP. For it to spend $900 billion on defence and military operations this year is unsustainable. It is disengaging from the Arab and Muslim world in order to focus its energies on China, its global rival. President Barack Obama’s failure to impose a two-state solution on Israel sends a clear signal of American weakness and is a reminder of the extent to which pro-Israeli activists have taken control of America’s Middle East policy. It is sheer folly for the Arabs to depend on the US to solve the Palestine problem.
Twenty years ago, the US deployed 500,000 men to kick Saddam Hussain out of Kuwait. Those days are long past. The Iraq and Afghan wars — both defeats of a sort for the US, in which many terrible crimes were committed — have robbed the Americans of any appetite for Middle Eastern adventures. This means that the US will not attack Iran — even if it reaches a nuclear threshold. But nor will it allow Israel to drag it into war against Tehran — as Israel and its American friends managed to do against Baghdad in 2003. That lesson has been learned.
As far as the Arab Spring is concerned, the situation can be roughly summed up by saying that Tunisia, where the popular uprising started, is ahead of the others in the transition to a more representative system. Because of its large, well-educated middle class, and because of the modernising legacy of former president Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia seems well equipped for institutional change. It could provide a model for other countries.
In Egypt, a peaceful transition may be more difficult to achieve because of Egypt’s own inherent problems: the crippling demographic explosion, the intractable economic problems, the heavy-handed powerful remnants of past military regimes. Yet success in Egypt is essential — for itself and for all the Arabs. Without a strong Egypt — under strong representative management, firmly committed to Arab causes — the whole Arab world will be enfeebled, as the history of the past 30 years has demonstrated.
Libya’s immediate future is, for the moment at least, in the hands of the western powers. They intervened militarily, allegedly to protect Libyan civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s violence but in reality to end his autocratic and cruel regime. This may well prove to be the last armed intervention by the west in an Arab country for the foreseeable future.
More immediately relevant to Arab fortunes is the situation in both Yemen and Syria. A stable Yemen is vital to the security of the Arabian peninsula, and a stable Syria is vital to the security of the eastern Arab world. The loss of life in both these countries is greatly to be regretted. By resorting to violence, the rulers in both countries grossly mismanaged the protest movement. Violence invariably breeds violence. The killing must stop. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now convalescing in Saudi Arabia, will very probably never return to rule in Sana’a. He squandered his reputation and tarnished his legacy by clinging far too long to power. In Syria, the hope is that a National Dialogue, due to be launched this month, will result in the passing — and implementation — of new laws allowing for political parties, freedom of assembly and a free media; the curbing of police brutality; the release of political prisoners and the emergence of a truly independent judiciary. In a word, there has to be a restructuring of the apparatus of power.
In passing judgement on Arab regimes facing popular protests — in Bahrain and Morocco, as well as in the ones mentioned above — we need to remember two lessons from history. The first is that democracy is not built in a day or a year, or even in a generation. In most western countries it has taken 100 or 200 years. A democratic system has to be built brick by brick, beginning with participatory institutions which reflect, respect and defend the rights of ordinary citizens.
The second lesson is that non-violence is a far more effective strategy than force in persuading autocratic regimes to change their ways. The activists of the Arab Spring would be well advised to heed the message of a man like Abdul Gaffar Khan, a former Muslim political and religious leader in the Indian subcontinent who preached non-violent opposition to British rule. He was highly influential, is still revered, and is often compared to Mahatma Gandhi.
The Arabs must take their own destinies in hand. They must look to their own protection. Out of pure self-interest, the oil-rich monarchies must help their poorer brothers. The responsibility of Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s dominant power, is very great. Its prime task must surely be to use its wealth to save the Arab Spring from collapsing into chaos while strengthening its own hand with new alliances. A wide-ranging partnership with Turkey could be of great benefit to the Arabs, as would a sincere dialogue with Iran — a dialogue untainted by sectarian hates and fears.
With the world changing around them, the Arabs need whatever help they can get. They must nurse the Arab Spring to a successful outcome; they must see to their own defence as the western security umbrella is gradually withdrawn; they must protect the Palestine cause from fanatical Israel colonists, far-right politicians and Israel’s powerful friends in the US and they must protect Arab and Muslim interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where American intervention has been disastrous. Quite a programme!
Summer is a time for reflection. Arab leaders — both those in power and those aspiring to power — have a great deal of serious thinking to do.
— Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.