The Arab World into the Unknown
The Arab World into the Unknown
Is the Middle East’s Makeover a Mirage?
Is the Middle East’s Makeover a Mirage?
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 17 minutes

The Arab World into the Unknown

Two and a half years ago, Arab countries were abuzz with interesting conversations. Rich and poor, old and young, villager and urbanite, Islamist and secular all had their own take on the bewildering turmoil of the uprisings they were caught up in. They tended to be aware of the risks, hopeful that change was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial, and proud that the region could awaken and, after centuries of foreign interference, set its own agenda. Opinions were also invariably sophisticated, with people speaking profoundly about societies they thought they knew and had started to reassess. 

This was a refreshing change from the pre-2011 tune of impotence. The region at that point, as its inhabitants saw it, was hostage to ossified regimes, intractable conflicts, worn-out narratives, and crumbling economies – not to mention Western hypocrisy, and schizophrenia, about urging client regimes to reform. Sterile agitation on the regional or international front, notably around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, distracted from thorough stagnation in domestic politics. Commentary was a cyclical run through the latest episode of violence, round of sanctions, realignment of alliances, or half-hearted diplomatic ventures. Uninspiring solutions to lingering problems left citizens reluctant to choose, among players in this game, the lesser of evils. Standing up to the US (like firebrand Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or surviving an Israeli assault (as Hezbollah did in 2006 and Hamas in 2009) could certainly make you popular beyond your traditional base, but not for long. 

Less than three years after popular protests streaked across the Arab world, conversations appear to have come full circle. Optimism that societies in the region could no longer be ignored and would bring about change has reverted to doom and gloom. Outside observers have jumped from one label to the next: Arab spring to Islamist autumn to reactionary winter. All-too often, local residents view protests as a conspiracy, a naïve illusion or an ill-fated hope at best. Many see a stark choice between a failing old order and hegemonic Islamist rule—or war, as in Syria. Opinions are generally crude, aggressively intolerant and more rigid than ever. Interlocutors sport surprisingly definite conclusions about their home-region, no matter how fluid and contradictory the current trends actually are. 

If commentary appears the same, events on the ground are not.  On a domestic level, the region’s people remain more assertive than ever. Dissidents, both Muslim Brothers and liberals, have shown they won’t give up in Egypt, where they have spoken out against new laws banning protests and constitutional drafts allowing military trial of civilians. Syrians, despite the chaos in their country, talk openly about what they want, challenging both the regime and the opposition. Tunisia remains a place where parties are being forced to seek some sort of compromise. The environment in which this is happening has been transformed, too. 

At a regional level, Iran has assumed a more overtly sectarian policy, which Tehran had hitherto tried to avoid; the so-called ”axis of resistance” to Israel is detached from any major Palestinian faction; Saudi Arabia has opened a front not only against Shiites, but Salafi Jihadis and Muslim Brothers, leaving it largely divorced from the Islamist scene it aspires to lead; Syria is no longer a player but an arena for others to compete in; Israel is only rarely accused of joining the scrum. The most noticeable change to the international environment is the US’ relationship with the Arab world. Rather than grab on and take advantage of change of the sort the US has long called for, the superpower has focused on negotiations with Iran and a push at the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, leading to strange shifts in its links with the region. It failed to define its interests in the Syrian context, missing out on what for decades was considered the prize of all regional struggles. It has allowed its relations to wane with its principal Arab partners, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It has moved towards rapprochement with Iran, a foe since 1979. All told, the Arab world is still at the start of a period of domestic, regional and international flux.

Rising costs of instability and stability

It is easy to understand why people feel that the revolutions have changed nothing. Today the region’s inhabitants find themselves in a worsening predicament. The costs of the last three years of tumult are real and rising. This explains why they put faith in narratives that rationalise events in ways that do not do justice to the scale and persistent nature of change, but provide psychological comfort. Old thought patterns offer the poise that events have shaken. Change in itself is now seen as a risk not worth taking while stability and security have become the number one goal. But, this, the only thing the old order had to offer, is now unattainable: Egypt continues to impose a curfew in the Sinai as its army deals with a low-level insurgency. Libya is growing more lawless by the day, as the recent kidnapping of the prime minister and deadly clashes in the centre of Tripoli and Benghazi showed. Nostalgia for the days of repressive regimes has surged, nowhere more so than in Cairo where general Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief and minister of defence, is heralded as the demi-god of “a Pharoahnic people”. In other places such as Saudi Arabia, Gaza or Jordan, citizens resign themselves to their current rulers.

This has led the Arab people’s desire for dignity and feeling of empowerment to turn into a sense of apathy. Political actors have fallen back on behaviours that are caricatures of their pre-2011 policies. In Algeria, the regime meets creeping threats and rising expectations with nothing less than the political embalmment of ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is set to run for a fourth term in April despite being incapacitated by a stroke last year. The Syrian regime, which now rules over rubble, has nothing else to offer than more Bashar al-Assad. Hizbollah will do anything to save him in the name of fighting Israel, even if every measure it takes actually weakens it on that front. Saudi Arabia is throwing money at problems in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere. Israel and the PLO have another go with a peace process that is along predictably unworkable lines. Egypt is desperately trying to revive the spirit of the 1952 military coup that founded the Republic, although the social contract it embodied has fallen apart. 

Radical change has proven prohibitively costly in numerous ways: bloodletting, social breakdown, economic slump, eroding institutions, fading borders, plummeting morale. Many of the problems that originally fuelled the uprisings, such as unemployment, rapid and haphazard urbanisation, a widespread sense of disenfranchisement and humiliation, distrust in the political establishment and unaccountable security services have paradoxically been exacerbated as a result of the turmoil they originally triggered. But the unambitious aim is to preserve the status quo and muddle through—uninspiring as well as increasingly high-priced, albeit in the longer-term.

Much-needed, cautious reform programs embarked on before the uprisings are today being reversed. Some countries are enlarging their creaking bureaucracies to buy social peace. As investments generally decline, the informal sector is playing an ever-growing role compared to the formal across the region. Those countries that are doing better, at least in terms of stability, such as Algeria or some of the Gulf monarchies, are resorting to well-oiled bad practices—populist redistribution, subsidies and cash hand-outs that do little to redress the underlying issues. For example, when the uprisings of 2011 got underway, rather than give more political space to opposition parties that pose little threat to those in power, the Algerian government raised salaries and launched a program to give money to anyone under 35 with a business plan, or the appearances thereof.

Tentative political openings, as occurred in Morocco and Jordan, have all but been aborted now that the fear of collapse appears sufficient to hold countries together. Virtually everywhere, the stability agenda is empowering security apparatuses whose behaviour has, on the whole, worsened. They are bolstered by a popular desire for stability that depressingly echoes the argument long used by the region’s dictators. Tellingly, 2013 saw much worse repression of dissent than 2011 did. And Syria, ominously, tells everyone that no amount of violence against one's citizens is beyond the pale.

So the region has not changed quite as much as we expected. Underlying structures remain and in some cases negative features of these societies have been reinforced. These include stale political cultures that continue to decay; corrupt and brutal security forces; conflicts between rural and urban populations, the capital and provinces, rich and poor, religious and secular, old and young, not to forget sects, tribes, ethnicities and parochial identities. Women have not gained despite playing a vital role in all the uprisings. All told, the "youth revolutions" are in part giving rise to a new wave of talented people leaving in despair, exacerbating the region’s brain drain. The pre-existing trend of Christians departing from the Middle East has picked up pace. Geopolitical strategies are shifting, but remain more of an obstacle to change than a vector of transformation, continuing to act as a distraction or excuse for those threatened by any alternative to the old status-quo. 

The change that was

The Arab world is paying the price for a wretched twentieth century; obstacles are deeply entrenched in the region’s history and geography. The last century started with an appetite for revival, emancipation, empowerment and modernity similar to what we witnessed in 2011. But Western imperialism would have it otherwise, with European powers and the US saddling the Middle East with their proxies and clients. Through support to the Zionist vision of building a national state in Palestine, it led to a parachuted "Jewish issue" after centuries of relatively functional religious coexistence (albeit one in which a Jewish aspiration to found a nation could find no expression). Legitimacy in the region became externalised, a function of outside support, regional rivalries and the conflict with Israel rather than stemming from domestic support.

With the mid-century military coups and concomitant emergence of leadership cults centred around a saviour or father of the nation, legitimacy became personalised, creating a troubling political culture that bedevils the region to this day. When wealth flowed from oil, legitimacy was monetised. The growth of Islamist movements as alternatives to failing republics and monarchies gave regimes a domestic threat to play up as they repressed their societies. The century ended in political bankruptcy. Legitimacy boiled down to a threat: the status quo or the promise of chaos. Today Tunisia and Yemen are the only countries where there is any sign of an attempt, however tentative and fragile, to renew the political culture. Elsewhere, that pledge stands fulfilled.

The region’s countries are all struggling to deal with a source of genuine change that is less visible and dramatic but equally as important – and which was happening long-before 2011: the evolution of societies. These societies have modernised remarkably. Over a century, people have moved into cities, improved their levels of education, developed new patterns of consumption, and are connected to the outside world through modern media. Their sense of self is more complex, ambivalent and confused than the peasants and elites of old. We have therefore witnessed some of the same kind of evolutions as elsewhere in the world: the rise of individualism, cynicism vis-à-vis ideologies; and a drift toward identity politics. 

Very little of this change is reflected in the region’s political systems. They offer virtually no representation or redistribution to the broad urban constituencies that emerged from the rural exodus, although this migration erased much of the cognitive and geographical distance that separated them from the elites. As ruling parties decayed, power became vested in ruling families and their minions, floating above the people, rather than rooted in their midst. Regimes both profoundly corrupt and ideologically bankrupt hindered individual fulfilment while outlining no collective ambition. Pluralistic societies where secondary identities were expressed more forcefully as the nation-state concept receded were contained through divide-and-rule tactics, when devolution and regulation were needed. Only the security forces showed any form of modernisation, as technology increased the breadth and depth of their reach. But this only improved the rulers’ ability to dominate and diminished their urge to evolve.

This disconnect is the backdrop to the discontent in 2011 and subsequently. It now has to be addressed both in countries that are undergoing dramatic conflicts and others that have been spared so far. Real stability will only come once that connection is restored, rather than the temporary stability attained by parking tanks in streets on a Friday when protests spill out after Muslim prayers, imposing curfews, repressing dissidents and waving the red flag of impending chaos. Put simply: political systems need to be sufficiently in sync with their own societies. That doesn’t necessarily entail a democratic system, but one that does cater for its people’s needs for participation and redistribution.

But that is more easily said than done. The traditional elites are fearful of change, perhaps now more so than pre-2011, and do not appear to have this in mind. Medium-term survival is trumping long-term vision; their obsession with preserving their ascendency open-endedly is plunging their countries into the abyss. Their best argument is that the emerging elites, who could only be Islamist, are part of the old paradigm and have proven to be as power-hungry and inefficient as their predecessors. The old fallacy of stability is holding back the need for trial and error, however cautious. This bodes badly for the future. Cycles of discontent will likely repeat themselves, with the costs and barriers to change increasing each time.

Chaotic transition within chaotic transition

The transitions are both set amidst and impacting an international setting in flux, which in turn can create further obstacles or allow societies more room to explore. The uprisings suggest the region is being orphaned, thanks to a mixture of the West’s reduced ability to shape events and its lack of desire to do so. NATO’s military intervention in Libya revealed the West’s lack of broad legitimacy and available resources: intervention was limited and Libya has now been left to muddle through. The endless, escalating tragedy in Syria has taken the trend even further. Diplomats have disingenuously focussed on unrealistic goals, calling for al-Assad to step down, or now pushing for peace talks, regardless of whether conditions are propitious or not and without wanting to play any real role in matching the rhetoric with action. It beggars belief that one of the worst conflicts in the region, – one that impacts into many traditional American and European interests – has failed to evoke any credible response, or worse, intelligible policy.

In particular, as said, a fundamental change has occurred in Washington's relations with the region. Thanks to a combination of the trauma of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequent isolationism, the strategic pivot toward Asia, the shale oil and gas revolution that has diminished the relevance of Middle Eastern energy producers, and inward-looking domestic priorities, America is narrowing down its interests in the region. The Obama administration has delineated two areas to put energy into: improving ties with Iran, both toward and through resolution of the dispute over its nuclear capabilities, and another push at the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In pursuing welcome but risky talks the US has shown unusual willingness to ignore Israeli lobbying against engagement with Tehran, as well as consequences for other allies like Saudi Arabia, and the fallout of further Iranian empowerment on places like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. If that trend were to continue, we might expect an American posture in the region that would look as if turned on its head.

The US isn't leaving the region in the sense that it is withdrawing all its assets from it. It will continue to devote considerable resources to securing oil and gas routes, notably in the Gulf, because failing to do so could create instability that would affect the global economy and therefore the US. But it is giving every indication that it seeks to rid itself of most other responsibilities it got entangled in. It is proving as unreliable a partner for its longstanding state allies (dropping President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, criticizing the Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, and now estranging Saudi and Israel) than it has been for its more transitory non-state ones (the Palestinian Authority, March 14 in Lebanon, or the Iraqi tribal "sahwa"). But it has not swapped them for new allies aligned with its interests, i.e. democrats in Egypt, the opposition in Syria. Instead it accepts the status quo—in Egypt’s case, the military.

For now, US aloofness and mixed signals have spelled significant mayhem. Friends are baffled, left to their own devices and having to improvise hectically. A clear example is Syria where the US contracted out to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar the task of dealing with the armed opposition, and now seems keen to withdraw further. Foes such as the Syrian regime, Hizbollah and the Iranian Republican Guards are equally perplexed, tempted to overreach in the absence of a clear US point of reference that has served in recent decades—for better or worse—to structure the regional balance of powers, whether by securing the Gulf, pushing back on Soviet designs, negotiating peace deals with Israel, or containing alleged “rogue” states. New players have jumped into the void, adding to the confusion more than producing decisive outcomes. Syria – which has fallen victim to a mix of Iranian hubris, Saudi adventurism, Qatari ambition, Russian obstructionism and French brinksmanship, not to mention its own leadership and a host of other complicating factors – best encapsulates this state of affairs.

The international environment in which the region is evolving is undergoing a chaotic transition, too. The international order has changed as we move out of the unipolar, post-Cold War world. This has proved an obstacle more than an opportunity. The UN is malfunctioning even by its own standards, as shown clearly over Syria where Russia has not just pre-empted Western interventionism, but vetoed the most benign, humanitarian resolutions. Fragile international norms are eroding, because the Western-dominated international system that articulated them is stalemated. The prohibition of chemical weapons (whose repeated use in Syria ultimately benefited the regime), international humanitarian law, international justice, and concepts like the "responsibility to protect" increasingly appear like losing battles. Regional organisations are largely impotent. Emerging players challenge the existing order but for now do little to build a new one.  

The framework is therefore a mixture of gridlock and vacuum. There are no broadly appealing ideologies, in the east or west. Economically, Western capitalism—a frequent substitute for failing political paradigms—is in crisis. In many quarters, once again apathy towards political engagement is growing, manifested in part by a retrenchment into one’s immediate community, isolationism, or virulent nationalism. People are trying to navigate the economy and society for individual survival rather than big ideas. Democracy is being tested; populism is order of the day. Modernity is bringing an identity crisis to the region as it has elsewhere. The role of Islam, which for a century has been perceived by many thinkers and citizens around the Arab world as a solution to all its ills, remains ill-defined and on trial. As a reaction, in many quarters Islamic ideology is becoming more assertive, less open to change and ever less likely to provide a fruitful structure. 

In theory the flux offers opportunities. In practice it is difficult to minimise the costs and optimise the benefits. Of course revolutionary change everywhere is messy and takes time, and is unclear at the point of change whether it will succeed. Reading a book on the French revolution while sitting in today's Arab world is an eerie experience: almost everything seems contemporary and familiar, over two centuries later and in a very different part of the world. In both cases, and unlike revolutionary episodes in Russia or China, the confusion is made worse since there is no clear narrative, model, or vision. Most people know what they want freedom from—oppression in one form or another—but not what positive attributes that freedom should have. 

May good things come to those who wait

But the authoritarianism and malaise of the current period is not the same as that prior to 2011. First, the region has an unprecedented level of awareness. Although its people do not feel able to change anything, all that is changing is doing so in visible ways.  The utter incompetence of traditional elites, the vacuity of promises of reform, the final collapse of long-eroding social contracts, the pluralistic nature of societies, the exclusionary character of their political representatives and sectarian instincts are just some of the things on display. People feel confused mostly because they do not want to see realities, not because the region remains as opaque as it once was. Issues are discussed openly, if aggressively. In this sense, a public space has appeared and widened; and no amount of repression seems to be bringing it to a close.

Second, the silver lining to the many low- and high-intensity conflicts is that many of them, suppressed for years if not decades, had to play out. Not all will find solutions, let alone lasting ones, but some will. This may offer a refreshing departure from an increasingly intricate and intractable set of deadlocks the region has hitherto found itself hostage to.

Third, in this context, the challenging, slowly and painfully, of all the old narratives—pan-Arabist, nationalist, various shades of Islamism, anti-imperialism, “the resistance”—is ultimately positive because none of them work. They are used reflexively to fill a vacuum, to cover up for a lack of program, vision or ethic, and they are constantly belied and undermined by reality. Events, in a sense, are calling every narrative's bluff. 

Fourth, the region is emerging from a century in which a succession of European imperialism, the Cold War and US hegemony denied it any genuine opportunity to define its own future. It is only just beginning to realise it will have to sort out many of its problems by itself. In 2010 US soft and hard power had reached its nadir after a decade of disastrous war on terror. Foreign interference has left a legacy that will continue to bear down, and meddling from outside will not end entirely, but the trend points toward a more autonomous Arab world. There again, this promises to be slow and painful, but opens up a whole new horizon.

This may be aided by the region’s generational shift. The youth may not always be as reformist as one would like to think of them—the Lebanese ability to follow in their forebear’ petty footsteps is a sad reminder of that. But today’s generation was born as all political systems essentially went bankrupt and is coming to age in an era when certitudes are being challenged and undone. These young men and women often have a strikingly different outlook to their parents. For one thing, the political culture that plagues the region has less of a hold over them. Their vague, multiple, nihilistic but powerful aspirations drove the uprisings although they couldn't ultimately guide them. Just as the legacy of existing political structures and cultures won't soon be swept away, this generational shift will only slowly come to bear. For now, those who have more to lose than to gain remain an obstacle to change, but that will not last forever.

Finally, the contagious effect of outrage, as displayed in 2011, may have a hidden corollary: the contagious effect of success. Although each and every country is profoundly different, we have witnessed the region's startling ability to function as an integrated space as protests swept from one country to the next. Starved of achievements and doubting itself, it wouldn’t necessarily take much to be reenergised collectively, if one or the other paths taken individually showed signs of tangible success.

That, of course, is the optimistic view. Until then, for those living through the tumult, it is all about surviving to see another, more hopeful day.

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