Dec 15th 2011

The Arab Spring: Could Turn into a Long Cruel Winter

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Due to a host of common denominators in the Arab world including the lack of traditional liberalism, the tribes' power, the elites' control of business, the hold on power by ethnic minorities, the military that cling to power, and the religious divide and Islamic extremism, the Arab Spring could sadly turn into a long and cruel winter. These factors are making the transformation into a more reformist governance, slow, filled with hurdles and punctuated with intense bloodshed. At the same time, each Arab country differs characteristically from one another on other dimensions including: history and culture, demographic composition, the role of the military, resources, and geostrategic situations. This combination of commonality and uniqueness has had, and will continue to have, significant impacts on how the uprising in each Arab country evolves and what kind of political order might eventually emerge.

To illustrate how complex this transformational period is, a brief review of the Arab countries that have made (or are in the midst of) revolutionary change is in order. In Bahrain, the subdued protest in the country following the Saudi intervention is misleading. The fundamental problem is that the Sunni royal family, which has been in power for more than 200 years, is not willing to relinquish any of its powers to the predominantly Shiite Muslim population through significant constitutional reforms. This has been further aggravated by the fact that the royal family sees Iran's hand in the disturbances and is terrified by the prospect of an increased Iranian meddling in its internal affairs. What happens in Bahrain is also of great concern to the rest of the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia which explains its direct interference in Bahrain to quell the uprising with American nodding, (Bahrain is the home of the US fifth fleet). Though the commission of an inquiry report (which has recently came out) condemned the brutal treatment of the protesters, the official response was generally muted and only nominal changes were leveled against some in the security apparatus - all of which is likely to feed greater resentment toward the state which Iran is likely to encourage. The cycle of unrest interspersed with violence is prone to continue until both sides agree on a new political formula that must be acceptable to the rest of the Gulf States, as that would directly and indirectly impact their political system.

In Syria, where another religious minority - the Alawites - rules over the Sunni majority, the prospect of sectarian violence is looming large on the horizon. The mass killing of civilians by government forces and members of the Alawite community led to a significant military defection and they are now fighting back under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. Moreover, by rejecting the Arab League's (LAS) initiative to end the violence, President Assad has probably lost the last opportunity for a peaceful exit, causing both the LAS and Turkey to boycott his regime politically and economically. Uncontained, such a situation could probably turn into another post-Saddam Iraq, where vendetta has prevailed between the Sunnis and Shiites, especially at a time when Syria has become the battleground between Iran and Turkey who are determined to shape the outcome of the upheaval in Syria to safeguard their national security interests and regional ambitions.

Even in those countries where the Arab Spring has already toppled the regime, the real challenges for a new political order has begun. In Tunisia, the victory by the Islamist party, Ennahda, in the parliamentary elections of October raises questions about whether or not the Islamists will remain true to the secular foundation of Tunisia. Conflict between the religious and the secular forces could well turn into violence. The Islamists have already started flexing their muscles - from attack on a secular TV channel premises in the capital, Tunis, by Salafi groups protesting against the broadcasted content to the occupation of a university campus by another Islamic group demanding segregation of the sexes in class and the right for female students to wear neqab, a full-face veil. The secular forces have staged counter protests outside the interim parliament over how big a role Islam should play in society. It remains to be seen, however, if Tunisia's general Western orientation and fear of a counter-revolutionary movement inhibits the ruling Party, Ennahda, from compromising its commitment to maintain a democratic form of government.

Egypt is faced with the dual challenge of chaos and sectarian and ideological divisions. Many Egyptians would agree that their country is already in a state of chaos with the collapse of the police force, the unprecedented rise in the crime rate, the endless strikes by professionals, the continuing conflict between Muslims and Copts and the still uncertain "road map" for a transition of power from the military to a civilian government. The current turmoil is the product of two ongoing parallel conflicts, one between Islamist and liberal forces over the nature of the future civilian government, and another between both of them and the military council over the status of the army in post-Mubarak Egypt. The fact that the Islamic forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafist have secured almost a two-thirds majority in the new parliament sends alarming signs that the Islamic forces could win in both conflicts, turning Egypt either into an Iran-like theocracy or, if a friction emerges, into a Pakistan-like failed state. The saving grace here is that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists do not see eye-to-eye and the Brotherhood, thinking in the long-term, will end up making a deal with the military and form a government with some of the secular parties to keep the young, secular Egyptian happy. This cozy arrangement, however, will endure only as long as the Brotherhood keeps its commitment to constitutional democracy and the prerogatives that the military can exercise to safe-guard the democratic nature of the state and its national security.

In Libya, Qaddafi's rule has come to an end, but the impact of his legacy of starving the people of any semblance of participatory governance will remain in Libya for years to come, with a high probability that it will turn into chaos or a civil war. The National Transitional Council is struggling to navigate power relations between tribes and militias, especially the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), whose members are veterans of the Afghan war who fought alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban. LIFG seems to be the only likely group to be able to garner loyalty in the immature Libyan political landscape. Though defeated, the pro-Qaddafi supporters might not give up the fight, and they may well attempt to destabilize the political process using violence and terror, especially when policing and intelligence-capacity remains too sourly inadequate to safeguard what is left of the state establishments.

Thus, because of the different makeup of their societies there is no political panacea that the Arab states can espouse. There are, however, certain measures that can be adopted by most Arab states with some individualized adjustments to substantially shorten the revolutionary process and reduce the level of friction and violence.

First, the collective actions by the Arab League (LAS) - along the lines of its latest punitive measures against Syria - should be taken against any Arab government that denies its population's demands for reform and resorts to violence to suppress it. This is an unprecedented and welcomed step that augurs well for the Arab states, especially if such consensus becomes institutionalized which would give the League real power instead of being a mere debating society. By taking such measures against Syria in particular, a country that sees itself as the beating-heart of Arab nationalism, the LAS sanctions have become even more significant. For LAS to maintain its credibility and enforcement abilities it must ensure that its sanctions against Syria are genuine and are fully executed and that other Arab states must be expected to deal with their own uprising in a manner consistent with their own collective demands from Syria. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, can play a key role in keeping the Arab League cohesive, strong, and resolute.

Second, since the Islamic parties who have shown significant gains in Tunisia, Morocco and now in Egypt, are slated to play leading roles in future Arab governments, to avoid counter-revolution movements they must remain true to the democratic process that brought them to power. They must remember that the Arab youth have long since rejected Iran's style theocracy and many have died and will continue to die for freedom. That said, democratically based governments and Islam are not contradictory as long as a healthy balance between the two is created. The Turkish model, however imperfect, offers a good start and may be emulated successfully as long as checks and balances continue to govern the political process. Initial signs to this direction have appeared in the three countries, as statements were made by the winning Islamic parties - Egypt's Freedom and Justice, Tunisia's Ennahda, and Morocco's Justice and Development - that they would seek coalitions with the liberal parties, and not with the ultraconservative Salafists. The West has a clear interest in encouraging this approach and allowing it the opportunity to mature into a coherent policy. By being positive in its narration on these Arab states' transitional period and by providing economic assistance which is the key to nurturing democratic reforms, the usurping of the political agenda by Islamic extremist groups which is the recipe for more upheavals will be avoided.

Third, it is necessary to create a transitional government for at least two years composed of non-ideologue professionals to handle all domestic issues, particularly economic development, education, healthcare and infrastructure, and to prepare for a new constitution. Drafting a new constitution is already on the agenda of each governing body, elected or not, in the Arab Spring countries which offers a momentous opportunity to push for lasting reforms, providing religious and ethnic minorities their civil rights, while fully committing said minorities to the nation's unity and laws, even when those are within an Islamic framework. What is important to point out is that, to avoid a "dictatorship of the parliamentary majority," drafting the constitution should be done by a broader national assembly that is representative of each country's population and its political, ethnic, tribal and religious mosaic. Drafting constitutions should also correspond to each country's specific characteristics of Islamic and liberal forces. In Egypt, for instance, the military may have to end up with special status in the new constitution, given the army's role in the success of the revolution but more importantly, in order to maintain the country's cohesiveness, its international commitments, and its national security.

Fourth, Arab states that have not as yet been affected by protest for change, particularly Jordan, Morocco and the Gulf monarchies, will be wise to begin systematic socio-political and economic reforms. The constitutional amendments that King Mohammed VI of Morocco has proposed and approved in a referendum, allowing greater authority to the elected parliament but still within the monarchy offers a good start and could serve as an example for Arab monarchies. The idea here is to direct the pace of change in a way that allows gradual democratization and avoids friction and violence that might emerge out of a sudden, uncontrolled change as happened elsewhere in the Arab world. Every Arab King or Emir can gradually relinquish some of his power to a constructional monarchy where the king or the Emir remains not only the head of the state with the trappings of their positions but remains the Commander-in- Chief of the armed forces and has the final say on all major foreign policy issues. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, is the head of the government with political powers which focus on domestic issues mandated by a popularly-elected parliament. By following this path, current Arab Kings and Emirs can still maintain their hold on power while simultaneously meeting the people's demands which will ease the transition of their countries into the inevitable change that must occur either through violent upheaval or peaceful transition.

The Arab youth has risen and no Arab government or leader can prevent the wave of awakening that will continue to sweep the Arab world. Regardless of the kind of government many Arab states may end up with an adherence to human rights, gradual political reforms that ensure basic freedoms, and a focus on economic development will be central to a more peaceful transition. Otherwise, the Arab Spring could sadly turn into a long and cruel winter.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."