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The Arab revolution: tensions and challenges

The second year of the Arab uprisings opens a complex period in which the potential of the Arab world to move towards democracy and human security will be acutely tested. This makes careful assessment and policymaking by leading actors more essential than ever, says Mariano Aguirre.

Mariano Aguirre
21 December 2011

The first of what proved to be a wave of Arab uprisings was sparked in Tunisia in mid-December 2010. A year on, it is clear that there is no straight route to democracy in the Arab world, and that the political outlook in the region is far more complex than seemed possible at the start of these inspiring events. The war in Libya and the repression in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain are enough to show that resistance from authoritarian governments and the accompanying violence can create many obstacles to linear progress.

The experience of this remarkable year also highlights the dialectic between commonality and particularity in the Arab world. A number of shared resources (such as a sense of Arab identity and a common language, the use of social networks, the role of Al-Jazeera and other transnational media) and problems (such as unemployment, social injustice, frustrated youth, and lack of freedom) ensured that what started in Tunisia and continued in Egypt became an Arab-wide movement in which a "domino effect" was at work. Across the region, the only Arab states not to have witnessed uprisings or mass movements are Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan, as well as Palestine (both the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza).

At the same time, the course of events within each country has to a great extent depended on the existing state model and on internal social dynamics and capabilities. In Tunisia, the trade-union movement played an important role and protests by young people provoked friction between President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the military and the police. In Egypt, the emergence of powerful social mobilisations opened new rifts between President Hosni Mubarak and the armed forces.

In Libya, by contrast, the government’s swift recourse to violence against an opposition lacking in political experience resulted in civil war and Nato military intervention; the legacy includes the challenge of demobilising local militias seeking their share of wealth and power. In Yemen and Syria, clan- and identity-based politics have so far enabled regimes to remain in power in part by spreading fear of sectarian conflict.

Three Arab tensions

At the start of year two of the Arab awakening, three areas of tension are emerging. The first is between supporters of the old regimes (including sections of the armed forces) and advocates of change, and focuses on key elements of the reform process.

The disputes over the Egyptian military's ordering of staged elections and its management of constitutional change is one example; the repeated (but then aborted) resignations of Yemen's president, and the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies' attempts to implement change without affecting their own position are others.

Saudi Arabia is a special case. There, the government's two-pronged approach has seen it distribute more money both domestically and among its neighbours (to help buy off dissent), as well as back Bahrain's repression of protests by sending troops across the causeway connecting the two states. Oman too has pursued a spending stragegy. Even so, there are signs of rebellion in Saudi Arabia as indeed in the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

The second area of tension is between between Islamist and secular organisations in the context of the political transformations underway. This has been especially apparent in the election results in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. The Islamists are grouped into various factions, broadly comprising moderates, conservatives and former radicals; their internal dynamics, their overall relations with non-Islamist parties, and their response to evolving democratic demands will all influence their own development and that of their respective states. The constitutional process will in several countries be key to the establishment of a stable political landscape. In a delicate period, clashes between civic inclusiveness and a sectarianism in which some groups aim in effect to "own" the state are possible, and indeed some governments could foster these.

The third area of tension is the relationship between those involved in the uprisings against repressive regimes and the representatives of institutions (traditional or new). The active participants - including young people, who make up 65% of the region’s population, and especially women - may find themselves excluded from such institutions; while minority groups such as Christians fear that a lack of voice and place in the new system will further jeopardise their situation.

The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the sizeable vote for the Salafist (radical Islamist) Al-Nur party - both from marginalised sectors and from elements of the middle class - ensure that important social, political and judicial issues (such as gender equality, citizenship and the rule of law) will be acutely contested in the political arena.

The fundamentals of democracy require that the Islamists accept the rules of the parliamentary game, civil society and media. They (or those factions that might harbour such ambitions) will thus be unable to impose anything like an Iran-style theocratic regime. In fact, however, the preference of most citizens for the moderate Islamism practised by Turkey is a strong deterrent to any such move. Moreover, the moderate Islamists might find that forming "national unity" alliances with secular liberals is a better route to effective governance and ameliorating Arab societies' huge and damaging inequalities than linking up with the radicals.

For Arab governments need in the second year to concentrate on the big picture: how to improve the conditions of life of citizens. This means meeting demands for democracy, jobs, health, education and an end to corruption, and implementing inclusive policies that avert potential sectarian conflict. In turn, the only way to realise this ambitious agenda is to base policies on knowledge of actual social trends - from demography to industry, migration (internal and external) to research and development, urbanisation to the environment.

Seven western imperatives

But it is not just Arab governments that carry the responsibility of making Arab citizens' lives more secure, free and prosperous. The United States and Europe too, whose actions in the region have often led Arabs to distrust them and their motives, could greatly assist Arab progress if in seven areas they changed their stance:

* They must avoid the temptation to boycott Islamists if the latter win elections and/or come to power, as happened in Algeria (in 1991) and Gaza (in 2006)

* They must avoid supporting corrupt governments in exchange for access to oil and gas, in turn allowing the proceeds to be reinvested or spent (for example, on arms) in the west

* They must implement policies that generate employment and open markets for their products, rather than promote the neo-liberal model that both caused the west's own crisis and failed in the Arab region

* They must curb their zeal for arms-sales to the Arab world

* They must support the establishment of a Palestinian state

* They must avoid an attack on the Arabs' neighbour to the east, Iran, the consequences of which would be disastrous.

A year after a lone street-vendor set fire to himself in Tunisia, the Arab awakening is still only just beginning. It is the work of decades - and if its outcome cannot be predicted, there is no turning back.

This article was translated from Spanish by Marion Marshrons

 

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