Arab freedom vs geopolitics: a time of risk

The Arab spring of 2011 has entered a new phase. In this period, the emerging dangers to the fulfilment of its promise of transformation include the dynamics of inter-state power in the region, says Tarek Osman.

The Arab political landscape is being redefined. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have toppled presidents, opened the way to constitutional and electoral change, and infused people across the region with hopes of a better future. Even more fundamentally, they and the other unfinished struggles in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere have opened people's minds and created among the Arabs a new sense of political possibility.

This changed reality also creates new alliances and tensions (as witnessed on the streets of Cairo in recent days) that call into question some of the assumptions that have long governed understanding of the region. Such questioning in turn highlights the new fluidity of the middle-east's geopolitics, which includes the potential of a negative as well as positive feedback circuit.

A different pattern

One such enduring assumption is that what many, especially western, observers regard as Arab "liberalism" is the repository of the hopes raised by the Arab spring. What recent events in the region have confirmed is that while most Arab liberals are secularists (in that they reject the establishment of any religious state and refuse religion as the frame of reference for society), many are also ardent social conservatives - and are thus unlikely to play the role of straightforward "modernisers" often assigned to them by their external supporters.

An equivalent assumption is that Arab Islamists form a more or less unified and homogeneous bloc that constitutes a threat to liberalising hopes. This too is overblown: Islamists lack a unifying narrative, are ideologically divided, and increasingly vulnerable to splits across both political lines and personal interests.

The political trajectories of both these groups may thus prove to be very different from the expectations that have built up around them. Islamists, for example, will almost certainly become the largest single component of post-election parliaments in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Libya, and Morocco. Yet they will be representing middle and lower-middle class voters who are aspirant and ambitious, supportive of economic growth, as well as conservative and pious. This will favour Islamist tendencies that are perceived to be moderate (albeit with a religious frame of reference), pragmatic, and development-oriented.

The corollary is that more radical Islamist (such as Salafist) groups will increasingly be marginalised; some may react by moving to the centre. There may well be coalitions between established Islamic-oriented parties with popular mandates and secularists with solid economic track-records.  

A new narrative

This fluidity will also be apparent in the region’s overall political dynamics, whose interplay will in time almost certainly give rise to a new Arab narrative. The crucial element in this change is that the process will grow out of emerging Arab realities - a contrast with the situation since the mid-1970s, when the four players that have shaped the middle-east’s geopolitical agenda were external:

* In the period after the fall of Arab nationalism and the rise of petrodollar-power (from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s), the United States established a pax Americana whose Arab pillars were Saudi Arabia and Egypt

* In the 1980s, post-revolutionary Iran extended its influence to the Gulf and inspired both ideas and opposition movements across the Arab world (especially in the Levant and Egypt)

* In the 1990s, following a series of developments - the war of 1991 to liberate Kuwait, the Madrid peace conference and ensuing regional realignment, and the signing of the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) - Israel, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, put forward its vision of an economically integrated middle east

* In the 2000s, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP tried to fill the regional vacuum by invoking the Ottoman heritage and modern experience as a model to be emulated.

The pax Americana, Iranian expansionism, and the Israel-integrated middle east all failed. The jury is still out on the viability of Turkish ambitions in the region.

These cases, however, underline the fact for these thirty-five years the Arabs lacked their own narrative. Egypt, initially under Anwar Sadat (1970-81) and later Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), chose to withdraw and become a pliable ally of the United States; Saudi Arabia was primarily concerned to preserve the status quo across the region and stifle any force of political creativity and change; Syria, historically a support-base for Egypt-centred Islamic and pan-Arab projects, had no capacity to lead a new macro-Arab narrative (and under the leadership of a sectarian-familial regime, its ruling powers were concerned more with survival than any serious regional role).

The situation in the Arab Maghreb compounded geographic distance with political isolation. Libya was in the wilderness under the rule of an unstable man; Tunisia was always too small to have any regional impact, save in presenting an example of social progress; Algeria was held back by a militarist regime disconnected from its people; and Morocco was embroiled in reconciling its monarchical system with the demands of modern governance.

The changes underway in all these areas and components are the crucible for the growth of the new Arab narrative. Most likely the latter will replicate the pattern of its predecessors in being based in Egypt and supported by broad publics in the more populous Arab countries; and be a composite that draws on the rich Arab political heritage of the 20th century. Whatever its precise shape, it will be bottom-up rather than dictated by regimes and imposed from above. For the rules of the political game will demand that Arabs' new self-understanding embodies the aspirations of the great majority of citizens rather than the interest of privileged elites or the ideologies of the marginalised.

It is likely too that the new narrative will take Egypt, and its wide support-base in the Arab world, away from the American alliance in the middle east. Egyptian foreign policy will increasingly pursue its own strategic interests in the Levant, Iraq, north Africa, and the Gulf, a process that will bring it into conflict (albeit gradually) with America’s strategic objectives in the region.

From this will follow a political confrontation between Egypt and Israel. On every major geostrategic topic in the middle east - the future of the Palestinians, the Golan heights, the Jordan river water dispute, the combustible situation in Lebanon - Egypt's interests clash with Israel’s. The wisdom gained from more than sixty years of experience of war and peace may work against escalation; but a political struggle over specific objectives and operational milestones is unavoidable.

A clash of ideas, values and worldviews between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is also probable. Jordan and Bahrain may prove flashpoints in the collision. It will be exacerbated by generational change and increasing political fluidity within the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia has always found internal transitions difficult; the civil war of 1865-90 and the turbulent transfer of power from King Saud to King Faisal in the early 1960s are examples. The coming years will be similarly testing for Riyadh, especially if the new Cairo-centred and bottom-up Arab narrative proves attractive to the kingdom’s disenfranchised lower middle classes.

A new middle east

The Arab awakening has opened the way to cooperation between states such as Egypt and Tunisia, and Turkey. But in the longer run these states will be more likely to want to keep their distance from Ankara, as the differences between them become apparent. These include variable social development, the contrasting experience of Arab and Turkish Islamists, and different views of the state.

The AKP’s assertiveness against Israel should also prove less appealing to Arab nationalists as the gulf between their inheritance and Turkey's works itself out. Moreover, the AKP will at some point will lose power as a result of classic party fatigue. Even if the Arab-Turkish honeymoon extends itself, political changes on both sides will turn any intimacy into at best a pragmatic relationship.

The Arabs’ relations with Iran will continue to be problematic. The hostility toward the Islamic republic from Mubarak’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and most Gulf monarchies reflected their position as parts of the pax Americana in the region. But Arab antipathy to Iran and any large role in the region has deep historical and cultural contexts that even the end of American hegemony will not change; even more so if Iran, as can be expected, continues to be active in Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon.

The possible tensions and confrontations involving the new Arab states with their neighbours and regional rivals, as well as in the domestic arena, could yet entrench military establishments and weaken moderate forces and political pluralism. Again, the violent events in Cairo are symptomatic of the dangers. If as a result the Arab spring is consumed and the democratic energies of those who made it happen diverted, the story of 2011 will look very different to how it has been told so far. In any event, the interplay of states and domestic upheavals, and the evolution of a new Arab narrative, will continue to be central in shaping the future.

About the author

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of the international bestseller, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010) and has published articles on Egypt and the Middle East in leading international newspapers.

Read On

Tarek Osman, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)

Alison Pargeter, The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (Saqi, 2010)

Bruce K Rutherford, Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam and Democracy in the Arab World (Princeton University Press, 2008)

Cairo Review of Global Affairs

Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Harvard University Press, 2003)

Cairo Review of Global Affairs

AhramOnline

Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton University Press, 2005)

Al-bab

Revolution in the Arab World (Foreign Policy, 2011)

Brian Whitaker, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East (Saqi, 2009)

Olivier Roy, Whatever Happened to the Islamists? (C Hurst, 2009)

Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot, A History of Egypt: From the Arab Conquest to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2007)

Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)

More On

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)