Mar 16th 2011

The Arab Uprising

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

Conditions that will dominate future discourse:
Promoting democratic reforms in Egypt and throughout the Arab world is critical under any circumstances and no effort should be spared by the indigenous people-in partnership with their governments whenever possible-to bring about political reforms consistent with their aspirations. Foreign governments and human rights organizations can and should provide assistance only as requested, bearing in mind three critical requirements to lasting reforms: Since the governance and traditions of each Arab state differ, there is no single template of political reforms applicable to all. Rapid reforms without transitional periods to allow for the development of civil society and secular political parties could lead to further destabilization. And finally, political reforms are not sustainable-and might even backfire-unless they are concurrently accompanied by substantial economic development programs that can provide immediate benefits.

No single template for reforms, but many common denominators:
The breathtaking developments in the Arab world seem to have taken many parties by surprise, and speculations about how the Middle East will look in the future run the gamut. There are those who argue that revolutions against dictatorships, even when they succeed, do not guarantee lasting democratic political reforms-many former Soviet Republics (especially those with Islamic roots) offer glaring examples, such Turkmenistan under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Uzbekistan under President Islam Karimov, or Tajikistan under President Emomali Rahmon. These and others have become a one-man rule, stifling political freedom while often applying ruthless methods to maintain their grip on power. Others contend that regardless of how the events unfold, the Arab world will continue to undergo transformational changes of historic proportions, and that Arab governments have no choice but to heed their public's yearning for greater freedoms. And then there are those who assert that any reforms the Arab regimes are ultimately willing to undertake will be superficial, varying in degree and duration, and designed to pacify the revolutionaries. They insist that entrenched constituencies such as the military and Islamic organizations in the region remain determined to shape events according to their political agendas, and that the only certainty about the future is, in fact, uncertainty.

These arguments and others bear a degree of cogency that cannot readily be dismissed. That said, there are certain conditions created by the uprisings that will remain constant and will impact each Arab country differently. Moreover, regardless of how firm their grip on power may be today, no Arab government will be immune to some degree of meaningful change. But the sooner they understand the potency and long-lasting implications of these new conditions, the less blood will be shed and the smoother and more peaceful the transitional period will be.

Those who never expected Arab youth to rise against their authoritarian governments were proven wrong. The Arab youth of today is not the same youth of a generation ago. This new generation has been exposed to the world at large; they have risen against oppression, deprivation and stagnation, and they no longer want to live in submission to corrupt leaders and governments. To assume that Arab youth will indefinitely remain subjugated to them is nothing short of an insult to a people who have contributed so much to civilization and enlightenment. No Arab government, however oppressive, will ever be in a position to completely shut down their youth's access to the outside world and stifle their yearning for freedom. Regardless of how youth uprisings fluctuate in intensity, they are not a passing phenomenon. They will last for years and wind down only when Arab regimes commit to and deliver on promises for constructive and permanent political and economic reforms regardless of how long that might take.

The current Arab regimes must also remember that the youth uprisings are an indigenous movement; they were neither instigated by outside powers or groups, as some Arab leaders alluded, nor did the revolutionaries need to blame outside entities for their plight. The youth have pointed their fingers at the failure of their own governments. The revolting youth refuse to be distracted by the old empty slogans and contrived excuses that suggest chaos will dominate in the absence of the current leaders should they be ousted from power. Gone are the days when Arab leaders could ride the storm of public discontent by blaming Israel or the United States or former colonial powers for their trying existence. The people want their leaders to focus instead on addressing their grievances in earnest and not look for scapegoats, which brought more deprivation and despair to their people.

In addition, the Arab uprising still represents only the beginning of a continuing wave of instability that is sweeping the region and will not subside by temporary economic measures. The latest example is Saudi Arabian King Abdullah's $37 billion welfare package for Saudi citizens and a 15 percent raise for government employees. Another is the Bahraini government's payment in the sum of $2,650 to each family to buy their compliance and silence. These are examples of an unsustainable approach governments take in their effort to quell public demands for greater freedom and social equality. The Arab regimes must realize that the public does not want handouts, they want a voice. They want to be heard, because they have the inherent right to be heard. They want to live in dignity and will undoubtedly refuse to settle for their government's recent reactionary display of pursuing social justice.

There is no cure-all that will fit the needs for change in different Arab states. Monarchs and Emirs, the rulers of the Gulf States, Jordan and Morocco will undoubtedly face serious challenges, but in the end-however many years that might take-they will be forced to accept, or will evolve toward (through expanded and successful democratic sustainable development programs), a constitutional monarchy, or a more highly democratic one. Other countries like Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt may have to choose a republican form of government with powerful elected legislators led by a prime minister, with a strong military behind the scenes to guard against abuses of power. Still others like Libya, Yemen and Sudan may end up dominated by a military clique for a number of years in an effort to reconcile different tribal demands while promoting some political and economic reforms. Syria may succeed to head-off youth uprisings by initiating some political and economic reforms. Lebanon will remain a sectarian tinderbox; while the Palestinians will be emboldened to rise up in an effort to end the Israeli occupation, use international forums to bring pressure to bear on Israel, and build a more self-reliant economy (an important premise in the Fayyad Plan). Generally speaking, the transition in the Arab monarchies will be more peaceful than in other Arab states, but most will experience various degrees of violence. Regardless of the kind of government many Arab states will end up with, adherence to basic human rights and the removal of all emergency laws will be central to a more peaceful transition. No Arab government will be exempt from these requirements.

The Arab world will continue to undergo transformational changes of historic proportions led by determined youth committed to liberate themselves from the shackles of poverty. Every Arab regime must either heed their public's yearning for greater freedoms and economic developments, or likely be fundamentally challenged. Egypt offers a microcosm of the changes that have occurred and the kind of reforms that must be pursued. How the revolution in Egypt further evolves will have a direct and indirect impact on the rest of the Arab states, as Egypt has traditionally been-and will continue to be-the leader of the Arab world.

*A version of this article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 3/11/2011



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