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Governance in the Arab world: history on the run

The hopes that inspired the "Arab spring", of jobs as well as freedom, have hit a rock. But the setbacks since 2011 are part of a wider reordering of the global as well as the Arab landscape. Three years on, Francesc Badia i Dalmases assesses a fluid period.

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
19 February 2014

The epic events which began what came to be known as the "Arab spring" or "Arab awakening" are now three years old. They started with the protests in Tunisia that led to the flight of the country's president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a moment followed by the series of demonstrations in Egypt that would culminate in the resignation of its president, Hosni Mubarak.

The scale of these abrupt transformations in January-February 2011 is indicated by the length of time these leaders had ruled: twenty-three years in Ben Ali's case, twenty-nine in Mubarak's. The pioneering role of Tunisia deserves to be remembered: Ben Ali holds the dubious honour of being the first Arab head of state in modern history to be toppled by a popular rebellion. The Tunisian example was a catalyst in a series of interconnected Arab uprisings that swept away the old status quo in the wider region of the middle east and north Africa (MENA).

The process is ongoing, and there have been many setbacks. What began with an initial wave of hope and civil courage has become bloody, messy and tragic. But these three symptoms also reveal the revolutionary nature of the matter, the fact that great stakes are in play and everything is still unfinished. It is thus too early to envisage in detail the new economic, geopolitical and geostrategic landscape that will emerge in the region; but this makes it even more important to understand the underlying shifts and dynamics that are occurring, in order to make assessments that clarify a complex reality. This article is an intended contribution to that effort.

A three-year cycle

If the "Arab spring" is to prove a genuine "paradigm shift" - using this term in its (non-scientific) sense to denote a fundamental change that requires a new way of reading and interpreting reality - what follows is that a new conceptual framework is needed to make sense of the trends underlying today's volatile conditions and unpredictable events.

The present hard conditions - what could even be described as an "Arab winter" - reflect a three-year trail that has led from revolution, through transition, to consolidation, perhaps ending in counter-revolution (again, with Tunisia a notable and welcome exception). The traditional powers and institutions in the various Arab countries have found it very difficult to influence and channel the people’s aspirations, even to the extent of ensuring stability (which had been the old status quo's most valuable asset). The only thing that appears stable in the region nowadays, it could be said, is instability.

In this perspective, a three-year cycle of turmoil in the region is reaching its end. A revolution which erupted in the name of freedom and dignity, but which fundamentally was inspired by the hope of better economic opportunities, jobs and prospects; has brought about a degree of instability that is undermining the chance of realising these economics-centred hopes. 

On the larger geopolitical level, meanwhile, one thing appears to be certain: the west will have less impact in shaping the Arab world’s future than in decades past. The reasons for this are varied: they include the more complex internal politics of western states, which have been badly affected both by the economic and financial crisis since 2008 and by the costly, inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These factors have resulted in greater caution about foreign-policy entanglements, and this in turn reinforces ongoing changes in the geoeconomic balance of power worldwide. In this fluid situation, neither regional powers nor global institutions appear ready on their own to fill gaps in authority or provide new direction. This means that no one has the full capacity to shape the new order the Arab spring promised and the MENA region greatly needs. In a broader picture, then, the region is witnessing an emerging contest of power in conditions where the west's hegemony no longer applies.

The role of institutions

The regional and global institutions in place, then, are unfitted to deal with the rapid pace of events. Their major mandate is to bring nation-states together to search for international peace and stability and to provide legitimate platforms of dialogue and conflict-resolution beyond national sovereignty; yet they have clearly failed in this mission. The result is a MENA region in confusion, uncertainty, and growing flux.

This too is the result of more than one factor. These include the aforementioned changes in the nature of power worldwide since the 1990s, which have been analysed by a host of analysts (such as Fareed Zakaria, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Moises Naím). The process of what some call “power decay” coincides more recently with the paralysing incapacity of multilateral institutions to cope with an increasingly interconnected, complex, and fast-changing multipolar environment.

The United Nations too has faced increasing difficulty over the last decade in brokering and getting endorsement of relevant multilateral agreements. "Global governance" has become ever more intricate with the emergence of many ad hoc pragmatic government networks and coalitions dealing with individual issues; in many cases these have made the UN system look irrelevant, if not redundant. In a “G-Zero world” characterised by a lack of global governance - where, as Ian Bremmer puts it, "nobody is driving the bus” as “every nation [is] for itself” - there is a proliferation of "coalitions of the willing". The latter, though, are far from stable, often dysfunctional, and lack fundamental legitimacy. At the same time, where MENA is concerned, the increasing complexity of many global-governance issues has brought new actors (especially the Gulf Cooperation Council states) to participate in the region's intergovernmental dynamics.

These changes affected the west’s role and reputation with regard to the Arab uprisings. Its long-standing ambivalence in supporting democracy in the MENA region was confirmed, leading to further questioning of the credibility of (still) western-dominated intergovernmental institutions, some of which had already turned into dinosaurs. After all, most of the autocratic regimes besieged by the protests (Libya and, to an extent, Syria excepted) had benefited from western backing, and this legacy has damaged the west's credibility and legitimacy.

In a similar way, regional institutions such as the Arab League had also lost credibility because of their tendency to act more as autocratic clubs than as functioning intergovernmental bodies. Now, though, the Arab League has become more active - for example, it backed the intervention in Libya, overcoming opposition from Algeria and Syria, and suspended Syria’s membership at the start of the current civil war. The Arab League remains a relevant regional actor that could play a significant role, if only as a forum where different visions about the future of the region can be discussed; whether it can be more than this remains to be seen. 

The old international order in the MENA region seems to be over. A model dominated by strong western powers (the United States, Britain and France) exerting their influence in bilateral relations, whose main preoccupations were energy security, maritime trade-routes and arms deals rather than sustainable economic development, human rights and democracy, no longer applies. Several new actors have become engaged (including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran), while the UN and other regional and global institutions appear to be losing ground. Public opinion, both Arab and western, is subjecting state policies in the region to increased scrutiny, and must also be considered a new actor. Amid all this, there is a real need for instruments and institutions that can help the transitions to protect the Arab people's rights and interests.

The structural problems

The three-year cycle that has produced political tension, violence and social unrest in the Arab world is also a surface expression of the structural problems facing the MENA region. Again, these are at once economic, geopolitical and geostrategic.

Where the economy is concerned, the aftermath of the foreign-debt crisis and liquidity crunch of the 1980s was a period of macroeconomic stability in the MENA region underpinned by the open-market policies fostered by the IMF and the World Bank (free trade, deregulation, floating exchange-rates and privatisation of state monopolies  - the policy core of the "Washington consensus"). But at a microeconomic level unemployment, poverty, and economic inequality - along with systemic corruption - have all risen. The financial crisis of 2008 had an added negative effect, for it led to a sharp downturn in MENA’s essential trade markets (mainly in the US and the European Union), a plunge in sovereign capital funds, a plummeting of remittances, and a contraction of inward foreign direct investment.

In turn this brought a key factor into play in late 2010 alongside the fundamental claim of political freedoms and personal dignity: a food- and energy-price crisis, which contributed to the riots that ignited the Arab spring. Even the region's oil-rich countries that have been largely able to buy social peace at the cost of massive consumer subsidies may find that this is unsustainable in the mid-to-long term; from Iran, Oman and Bahrain to Algeria, Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and even Qatar.

The geopolitical problems of the region are also profound. The MENA region remains vital to many states, located as it is astride one of the world’s most important trade routes, and hosting more than 50% of the world’s conventional oil reserves and 42% of conventional gas reserves. It is also the southern neighbourhood of the European Union, forming what the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) officially calls a “political and security front". The Mediterranean and the middle east have vital implications for the EU’s border security; the concerns range from international terrorism, crime and smuggling, to refugees and illegal immigration (the drowning of hundreds of would-be immigrants near the Italian island of Lampedusa in early October 2013, many likely the victims of human-trafficking networks) starkly revealed the scale of the issue). Any persistent geopolitical instability in the region has negative effects, including social insecurity and potential violence, and increased volatility in international trade and oil-supply routes and prices, which in turn impact badly on populations. 

In geostrategic terms too, the MENA region remains central both to the west and to the Asia-Pacific powers that are already the biggest importers of oil and LNG from the region (even if the latter's lack of interest in addressing its problems is discouraging). Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain a great concern for both the west and Israel, though the Geneva P5+1 interim agreements and the more positive stance of Iran's president, Hassan Rowhani, are more promising; at the same time, a final, stable deal with the ayatollahs’ regime would not be welcomed in Israel's militarised and nationalistic society, with potentially destabilising consequences. Saudi Arabia too could scupper a conclusive deal with Rowhani’s administration. Nonetheless, the nuclear issue appears to have gained momentum and an agreement could yet represent a true game-changer for years to come.

In addition, the current US initiative to revive the dilapidated Oslo peace process between Israelis and Palestinians has a modest prospect of progress in achieving long-term solutions, hitherto blocked by several factors, including Israel’s immovable denial of concessions.  Even in this generations-long conflict, the changing geostrategic scenario in the region might play an unexpected role in catalysing a “two-state solution”.

A fluid realignment of regional powers is also taking place in the wake of events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. The Shi’a vs. Sunni cleavages and their political manipulation add further complexity to the alignment of states within the region and with their foreign patrons. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for instance, elderly and well-armed allies of the west, hold very different positions on a number of hot issues. Qatar appears to have an agenda of its own; whilst Iraq’s post-war wounds remain wide open; sectarian violence casts a long shadow over the whole region, including Lebanon, which in turn increases Iran’s profound hostility to the Saudis. 

A broad "powerlessness"

Overall, then, the MENA region is undergoing a profound transformation whose pace and logic go well beyond the traditional international instruments available. The classic external powers are losing their pre-eminence and capacity to shape events. In this light the US-Russia cooperation over Syria can be seen as a late, even the last, example of a classic power-game between these big players (although the situation appears out of control even for them). Furthermore, establishing the democracy that was ostensibly the Arab spring movements' ultimate goal will at best be a long and often painful process. The components of democracy, after all - such as independent institutions, separation of powers, and respect for minorities - are far from being achieved; the authorities in place to guarantee them are often new and inexperienced; and there are many competing aspirations that are often regarded as more important (economic progress, overall security, and social peace), meaning that democracy is neglected.  

“Powerlessness” is indeed the reality when the UN, the Arab League, the African Union, or the Gulf Cooperation Council are confronted with the brutal reality of current and latent civil wars, be these in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq or Syria. None of these institutions is powerful enough to implement decisions and enforce agreements. The traditional major powers can still broker ad hoc solutions (such as chemical-weapons’ disarmament in Syria or the current nuclear talks with Iran), but the role of regional and multilateral organisations is much diminished (beyond providing the international legal framework). As problems escalate and become intertwined - from state weakness and extreme political polarisation to religious and generational divides, innovation is ever more crucial.

The reality today, then, is also the difficulty these institutions face in identifying reliable and stable interlocutors able to implement transformational policies and enforce agreements. Their attempts to work with local civil-society organisations and NGOs have had poor returns; most western foreign aid has been suspended; backroom deals will do little to fill the gap until stability is regained and a new status quo is put in place. The welcome development of a new Arab political citizenry opens a window of opportunity, but its fragility and increasing exposure to brutal repression is very worrying.

An immediate security problem that no one has the answer to is the scattering of militants and jihadi fighters through a region of increasingly porous borders, and the morphing of Al-Qaida into a nebula of cells proliferating in a decentralised and highly distributed network. This has done much to revive the post-cold-war military dictum: “We have slain the dragon, but we are now living in an environment full of poisonous snakes”. Just as these fighters discover fertile ground in the region, so some young activists disenchanted by the slow tempo and contradictory nature of the democratic process fostered by the “Arab spring” may also be tempted. The withering of central authority and its incapacity to guarantee a monopoly of violence has also allowed diverse militias to fill the vacuum in states such as Libya.

The ongoing reshuffle of the geopolitical and geostrategic landscape in the MENA region poses vital questions: what will the new Arab order that must eventually emerge from the revolution look like, and will it be capable of providing economic prosperity and a better, open future for its people? Behind these are even deeper questions: will the current transitions finally gain momentum and succeed, and has the moment really come when the Arab world will shape its own destiny? All remain unanswered. Three years on from the "Arab spring", history in the MENA region is on the run.

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