The new phase of the Arab Spring
What began as a movement devoid of any structure and fueled mainly by long standing anger and frustration of the people has transformed itself into a larger question of society-state relations in the Arab World.
The Arab Spring, which started as a revolt against the decades’ long tyranny of autocratic rulers and their inefficient social, political and economic practices, has matured into a larger ideological debate of the ideal way forward for the Arab world.
The flow of the Arab Spring movement has been unpredictable. Like any other movement, the Arab Spring too has experienced several phases as different country-specific consequences tend to influence the larger narrative of the struggle. If the initial ambiguity of the demands was not enough to cause confusion, several other issues are causing their share of havoc in the region. No doubt, the fall of the rulers has created a leadership and security deficit; it has also raised issues like rise of Islamism and sectarian violence.
Countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen are facing problems in their post-revolutionary transition; Syria has been engulfed in an ongoing bloody civil war and the fate of GCC countries remains uncertain.
Although it is difficult to perceive the final outcome of the movement, an assessment of the situation in the countries that have already experienced the Arab Spring, the countries that are currently engulfed in it and those countries that have until now been mostly immune by it but are threatened by its spread, can give us an idea of where the Middle-East is headed.
While the world was in awe of the power of the Arab people, it wasn’t soon before the illusions of their success began to surface. This was not a question mark on the power of the people; rather what became evident was that while the movement was successful in overthrowing the decade’s long regimes, the reasons for which the regimes were thrown away were far from achieved.
Thus what played out was a scenario as follows: the people’s anger that resulted from high unemployment, rising inflation, corruption, lack of freedom of speech and political freedom made way for the Arab Spring which was seen as an opportunity by forces against the regimes or the status quo to capture power. Thus, they gained most from the movement, while the real issues faced by the people still persist.
This is evident from the fact that Egypt is now witnessing its second wave of protests even after Mubarak’s ouster and subsequent elections. Fed up with the Muslim Brotherhood who seized power through elections but failed to deliver its mandate for economic and political reforms, the people are now protesting against him. Unfortunately, unlike the first time, the second round of protests at Tahrir Square has turned significantly ruthless and violent as the military has taken matters into its own hand, furthering the people from their dream of a secular, democratic society.
Similarly, Tunisia has also experienced a second wave of protests that is bloodier compared to the first one. The current Islamist led government that was formed after elections in which the ruling Ennahda party seized power in coalition with centre-left and left parties, failed to deliver.
The government has been accused of curtailing civil liberties and furthering the Islamist agenda while failing to cure the economy. Already struggling with transition and a crippling economy, the country slipped into protests again in July when opposition leader Mohammad Brahmi was assassinated by extremist Islamists, furthering public anger against the Islamist Ennahda party for not being able to contain anti-secular forces.
The uprisings against Qaddafi’s regime triggered a Western intervention by NATO that drove the Libyan leader out of power. Although the protestors got more than they bargained for following his death, the country is at a loss date till date. The so called ‘New Libya’ is far from delivering democracy as promised. Local militias operate in small areas all over Libya and invite more and more foreign intervention in the form of arms supplies and politics. Libya is yet to get out of conflict in its entirety as the people still don’t enjoy any economic benefits.
Syria has been the worst hit by the Arab Spring. It has always been internationally isolated and politically unstable, mainly because it is home to a diverse set of ethnic groups being ruled by a minority Alawite family, but the conflict has put Syria in the middle of a full blown civil war where security forces loyal to the regime are crushing anti-government protests brutally.
However, the West is particularly interested in managing the conflict because Syria shares a border with Israel and openly supports Hamas and Lebanon, something that can have larger ramifications for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus the case of Syria is the best example of mismanagement as sectarian violence and rise of extremism has resulted from the call of the people for basic economic and political rights.
Unlike the above, the experiences of Yemen and Morocco were comparatively successful.
As civil unrest in the Arab world moves toward violent conflict against its authoritarian regimes, the fate of the Middle-Eastern monarchies remains the most serious question. Thus far, the monarchies have more or less remained immune to the unrest resulting from the Arab Spring, but have felt its impact nevertheless. As a result, since 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have responded to the challenge with several economic policies. Although the policies differ from country to country, they all aim to avoid potential social unrest.
As the Arab Spring movement has entered its second year it has undergone several phases. The context within which the movement began in the first place was completely different from the current situation. The process has become much more violent as several issues have sprung along the course of the spring.
To begin with, the most noticeable characteristic of the Arab Spring was the fact that it was youth driven. The tech-savvy yet unemployed youth caught the old, despotic leaders off guard at a time when they felt most secure. Thus the random outburst of frustration and desperation turned into a spontaneous movement which gained structure as it spread.
Secondly, the movement was devoid of any leadership in the beginning. The Islamists that have now gained a foothold have only been able to do so because they cashed in on the protests. The Muslim Brotherhood was in the opposition during Mubarak’s reign, the Tunisian Renaissance party was banned but partially tolerated and Libya didn’t have any political parties as the salafists shunned political life altogether.
The overthrowing of authoritarian leaders created a leadership vacuum which was filled by Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and salafists in Tunisia. Consequently, the demands for political and economic rights by the protestors were met in part by providing limited democracy and electoral reforms.
However, with the meager development of political and economic reforms in these countries, the anger has surfaced yet again. While the
Arab Spring managed to give an unprecedented boost to moderate Islamist parties who went on to win the elections, their electoral triumph sparked off a strong reaction from the secular groups.
Thus, protests against the Islamist governments have shown the limits of Islam in power, questioning the compatibility of Islam with democracy.
The ongoing war in Syria has managed to exaggerate the sectarian driven tensions in the Arab world. The movement is being perpetuated by those whose interests lie in sectarian division of the pan-Arab society. Protests in Kuwait and the ongoing civil war in Syria are largely being fumed by the issue of sectarianism. This is further dividing the region and religion and perpetuating instability.
In addition, the extremist forces like the Al-Qaeda are gaining momentum because of such developments and are increasing their violent operations in the region, further adding to the security deficit. Borders of North African states that were once controlled by forceful authority are now open to assorted militants who are a constant scare. The foiled terrorist incident in Jordon, bombings in Bahrain and calls by the Al-Qaeda to start a revolution are some examples.
The threat of terror defeats the purpose of the protests and feeds the monarchs’ narrative of these movements being driven primarily by extremists.
While the dictators confronted the rebellions in isolation, the monarch have cooperated with one another to prevent the uprisings from spreading in their kingdoms. Though wisdom suggests that these countries are relatively safe for the time being as they have the support of the West and are rich, but the evolution of the movement suggests that the Arab world is headed to a complete melt down as the conflicts get bloody and radicalized.
Lastly, the Western world and particularly the USA have proved to be troublemaker in the region. Their policy of supporting the protests where it suits their interests and condemning the protests where it doesn’t has done no good to the region. This has been evident in Syria, where the West is equally to blame for the continued civil war.
If Islam is here to stay in the political evolution of the Arab world, then the West doesn’t have much to offer in an ideological debate for the future of the Arab world simply because the Islamists refuse to accept democracy and the West refuses the efficiency of any other form of governance.
In any case most of the direct involvement of the West in Middle-Eastern matters only makes the situation worse. They are committing the same blunder in their policy toward Syria.
In Syria, the Western policy has gone terribly wrong simply because they have never had any previous relations with the government or its people and have acted primarily to secure its interests in the proxy war against Russia and Iran.
As far as their strategic interests to secure a safe passage for their oil exports is concerned, they are supporting the status-quo in the region till their troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan and they have become completely self-reliant in oil production.