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.

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