A year and a half after the outbreak of the most remarkable transformational movements in the Arab world, mainly in its republics, it is time to make an assessment of the progress so far and the impediments and challenges facing the transformational movements. For starters, these movements are neither revolutions nor a ‘spring'. For the lack of a more catchy description, I call it the Arab uprisings against decades of oppression, authoritarian rule and marginalisation of the masses. These movements have been started by the emboldened masses and organised by intrepid youth; empowered by the soft power of technological advances and social media in a struggle for dignity, justice, accountability and freedom.
2011 was a turning point and will go down as the epic transformational year in Arab politics. It ushered in fundamental and monumental changes. Provided these uprisings come to fruition without adverse and unintended consequences that could degenerate these movements into a winter of discontent. The odds are stacked against such endeavours; if history and past experiences are used as a yardstick. But still, what lies ahead in terms of achieving the intended objectives is formidable and challenging.
2011 has witnessed the toppling and weakening of the most entrenched and oppressive regimes in many Arab republics. These movements have been compared with what happened in Europe in 1848 and 1989.
The major question is will these unique Arab uprisings be the democratic "fourth wave" if we want to use the late Samuel Huntington's jargon, who spoke of three previous democratic waves that swept the world in the past few decades but failed to impact the Arab world? What is ironic about this wave is the flourishing of these movements in the Arab world, while the rest of the world has been experiencing a lull and slowing down of what Huntington had labelled "the Third Wave".
The inexorable march of democracy in the Arab world disproved the old argument that Arab regimes and masses are immune and shielded from the democratic waves. The Arab awakenings for the first time in generations made Arabs believe in themselves and their power of change. For the first time in a millennium Arabs have become an inspirational force not only for themselves but also for the rest of the world — from Russians to Chinese and from "Occupy Wall Street" movement to Malaysia and Myanmar's opposition. That is the new Arab soft power.
What is alarming thus far, in these transformational movements in Arab republics like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, as Lucan Way has argued in his piece Comparing Arab Revolts: The Lesson of 1989, is "there is scant reason to think that new leaders will have an easier time solving the problems of corruption, inflation, and unemployment that helped to spark the protests ... As in much of the former Soviet Union, democracy is likely to be seen by many as synonymous with chaos." A sign of the time is the unfolding shift in the Arab landscape. Major entrenched, authoritarian Arab regimes have been toppled — Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. Bashar Al Assad's regime in Syria has been rattled by the uprising. But there is a lingering fear, notwithstanding these remarkable achievements of the Arab uprisings, that these changes in the Arab world could ultimately produce new authoritarian regimes in the future or lead to unintended consequences.
From what has unfolded in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen and more worryingly in Syria, one has to ask where these uprisings are taking these countries and societies. Tunisia was the exception. Thomas L. Friedman argued convincingly in his New York Times column, "There be Dragon: Tough Second Year for the Arab Spring": "... one has to conclude that the prospects for stable transitions to democracy anytime soon are dimming. It is too early to give up hope, but it is not too early to start worrying."
The real challenge for these states undergoing fundamental changes is the fear of failure, derailing of the revolutionary movements and replacing of order by chaos. At the geo-strategic level, there is fear that these sweeping changes in many Arab countries could have unintended consequences. These sweeping changes could open traditional sectarian and tribal fault lines and transform regional and international rivalries and even spark a kind of cold war as we are witnessing in the course of the Syrian uprising. It is being played out between the West on one side and Russia and China on the other. And through the alliance between the GCC states and Turkey on one hand, and Iran and its proxies, mainly Iraq and Hezbollah, on the other hand.
Moreover, the huge wins by the Islamists who have emerged as the leading political and social force from Morocco to Kuwait is pushing the region towards a clear showdown. It is pitting a resurgent Sunni Islamic movement augmented by ambitious Sunni Turkey and a weakened Shiite Islamic crescent led by Iran and its proxies in the region. Another fault line that is emerging is the tribal infighting in Libya and Yemen.
These dangerous sectarian alignments over Syria and other fault lines are heightening tensions.
The consequences of these developments could cast a shadow over the region. Some Arab writers and analysts have recently "warned of a possibility of a sectarian war in the region ..." If that comes to pass, it could reverse the gains made by these uprisings and push the region into treacherous terrain and uncharted territory, where no one will come out winner.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji