Of the many cataclysmic shifts brought about in the Middle East and North Africa by the Arab Spring, perhaps the most significant is the demise of the old notion of “politics-from-above”. In pursuit of its diplomatic objectives, the US used to work around the very centralised nature of the decision-making process in the Arab World. From that perspective, I was not personally surprised to read in a 2007 Wikileaks cable, originating from the US Embassy in Tunis, that contacts with me, at that time, were considered a “key aspect of [the US] freedom agenda”.
I owed that description, not to any real foreign policy or domestic decision-making clout, but to the fact that I occasionally served as interpreter to the former president of Tunisia. The US Embassy simply thought it could count on my “access to the highest levels of the government” to convey messages to an increasingly autistic leadership. That was true on certain occasions, especially when I was able to use that access to push for decisions such as ending incommunicado detention, freeing jailed reporters or allowing some dissidents to return home. More often, however, I could only watch haplessly as things unravelled around me in the wrong direction.
For better or (mostly) for worse, decisions big and small in most of the region used to depend essentially on the whim of Arab leaders. Tunisia was no exception. Election results used to be quite predictable. Autocrats could shift economic systems from socialism to liberalism, or vice versa, overnight, or decide to merge their country with its neighbour. That kind of decision-making model is no longer viable. Rulers in the region must now be much more attentive to domestic public opinion. They have to deal with a younger generation that is better educated and more attuned to global democratic values. The new citizens of the Arab world do not have time for make-believe speeches. They want the real thing and want it now.
What does this mean for the US? New opportunities, but also unprecedented challenges.
Classified US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks have bestowed credibility on the US government by showing it not necessarily on the side of greedy and corrupt rulers. And by taking positions in favour of the Arab Spring uprisings, Washington has gained further mileage in the court of Arab public opinion. The latest Pew global survey reflected a lot of distrust by Tunisians of US policies in the Middle East and the Muslim World. It did, however, reflect support by no less than 60 per cent of the Tunisian population to US democratic ideals. That level of support shoots up to 72 per cent among the under-30.
The bad news for Washington, however, is that this new Arab opinion is likely to be, at least in the short run, even more critical and suspicious of US policies, especially over the Palestinian issue. Anti-Israel forces among Arab elites will be more vocal, will have better ability to get organised and will be able to put both religious sentiment and electoral politics in the service of their cause. The new Arab systems are not likely to try to suppress criticism of the US. Visiting American leaders in the region are likely to be challenged by more aggressive reporters and civil activists. Sanitised departure statements will no longer suffice, even though they were not of much use in any case.
In the long run, however, this new landscape offers the US the advantage of dealing with Arab diplomats who are more in sync with their domestic public opinion. Gone are the days of foreign policy decisions taken by Arab rulers, alone, beyond the realm of accountability. Regional conflicts will not be blown out of proportion by “charismatic” leaders. International issues will no more be the sole prerogative of any one man.
This new environment offers opportunities and dividends for non-state actors. Outreach programmes by citizen groups interested in world affairs will only gain in pertinence. With the emergence of political discourse from the shadows in the Arab World, Israelis are more likely than ever to be confronted by the breadth of the chasm which separates them from Arab populations. But they will probably be able to better measure the impact of genuine peace initiatives and the possibility of building bridges across this divide, once fair and durable solutions are reached. In spite of the controversy over anti-Jewish slogans attributed to fringe groups, there is already an unprecedented legislative debate in Tunisia about the constitutional and political rights of the country’s Jewish minority.
Considering the inability of most of us to foresee the outcome of the protest movements which sparked the 2011 revolutions, humility should compel us all to admit that nobody can guess with accuracy what the future holds for this region. The only certainty we can bet on is that the ways of yesteryears are gone.
Oussama Romdhani is the former Tunisian Communication Minister.