The Obama administration is under pressure to end its alleged frustration about Washington’s putative setbacks to promote “democracy” in the Arab World. Likewise, astute observers lament wasted efforts by the Putin government to recapture the influence of the Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century, as Moscow salvages what is left of its position. At a time when the ongoing Syrian civil war evolves into a full-fledged sectarian ethnic cleansing, when US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov focus on the destruction of chemical weapons in Damascus, one wonders why is everyone so utterly confused about the future of the Arab world?
When Barack Obama spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in 2011, he set the bar quite high, as he expressed isolationist preferences over interventionist sentiments. Just a few months into the so-called Arab Spring, the American president concluded that it was “a time of extraordinary transformation,” even going so far as to declare: “Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way that they will be,” buoyed by the extraordinary changes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, as Washington watched from afar. Obama was his usual “Mr Cautious,” apparently pragmatic enough to realise that progress could be reversed and that societies could come apart. In 2011 and 2012, he spoke of “freedom, dignity and security,” though the savagery in Syria changed the rhetoric into “convulsions [that] ... laid bare deep divisions within societies,” by 2013.
Cynics now bemoan that there is little freedom, dignity or security in the Arab world on account of the military coup in Egypt, renewed militia activities in Libya and, sadly, because of the calamities in Syria. Detractors with skewed outlooks of everything Arab mistakenly conclude that Saudi Arabia is about to implode and conservative Arab Gulf monarchies submit to stricter rules. They insist that Iraq and Lebanon toy with sectarian tensions, Jordan and Algeria wallow in uncertainty, Tunisia and Yemen fall in political stalemates and Morocco returns to its usual state of indifference. Even Palestine’s fate, despite fresh efforts to rekindle the peace process, looks bleak.
Misanthropists even pontificate that no one should be surprised by impossible transitions, not only because of the resilience of sitting regimes, but also due to alleged Arab traditions of solid authoritarianism. Besides its ugly feature that Arabs cannot possibly stand against both, few note the role played by global obstructionist powers whose own interests stand in direct contradiction to those of the masses.
Still, America’s utterly confused positions vis-a-vis extremist Islamists and Russia’s equally bewildered approaches with respect to its own Muslim population, led both to recalibrate whatever visions the two leading powers harboured towards the Muslim world. Under the guise of strategic national interests, which meant different things to different protagonists, Washington and Moscow recalculated military presences in the region too.
Yet, and for the first time in a long time, Arabs display little interest in American doublespeak, even if the vast majority of Arabs continue to admire America’s now increasingly theoretical support for liberty. Likewise, Arab leaders have little interest in American advice, especially after Washington dismissed friendly governments’ concerns, many of which now prefer to go their own ways to protect core interests instead of relying exclusively on the US for help.
Similarly, while Putin pretends that Russia can act as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world, mediate in Iraq, Libya and now in Syria — all to advance the Kremlin’s regional strategy — Moscow is oblivious to the fact that few Arabs welcome such assistance. In fact, Moscow’s strictly pro-Bashar Al Assad policies is met with near-absolute Arab criticisms, which seriously erode Russia’s long-term positions. It may be safe to state that the only remaining Russian ally in the Arab world today is the truncated Baath regime in Damascus.
Consequently, and much like Washington, Moscow neglects evolving conditions on the ground, preferring instead to preserve familiar Cold War traditions. Instead of deepening their cooperation with those who seek freedom, both countries “work” with extremist forces — the Islamist and authoritarian versions — ostensibly because of parliamentary or presidential elections, which crush revolutionary movements in the name of security.
Under the circumstances, the utter confusion displayed by the two major powers is unbecoming and it behoves decision-makers in Washington and Moscow to change course to ensure that the Arab quest for genuine freedoms are part and parcel of their policies as well. Whatever cynics claim today, the post-2011 Arab revolutions have already accomplished significant victories: They overturned dictatorships and, even more amazing in the Egyptian case, toppled an extremist religious government. Of course, the military replacement in Cairo — a scenario that could repeat itself in Damascus — is not an ideal solution, but surely is better than the one feigning equality under the guise of religiosity.
Of course, the current confusion settled in because many wished to advance democracy, or stand by dictators, neither of which should be a priority. Rather, supporting democratisation, encouraging political freedoms and, more important, insisting on human rights should — if only to limit the mystification.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the recently published Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (London: Routledge, 2013).