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 clings to power, the
religious divide and Islamic extremism, the Arab Spring could sadly turn into a
long and cruel winter.
At the same time, each Arab country differs some
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
influence on how the uprising in each Arab country evolves and what kind of
political order might eventually emerge.
Take Bahrain, for
example. There, the fundamental problem is that the Sunni royal family is
unwilling to relinquish any of its powers to the predominantly Shiite population
through significant constitutional reforms. Furthermore, the royal family sees
Iran’s hand in the disturbances.
What happens in Bahrain is also of great
concern to the rest of the Gulf, and especially to Saudi Arabia, which explains
Riyadh’s direct interference in Bahrain. Though the commission of an inquiry
report condemned the brutal treatment of the protesters, the official response
was generally muted and only nominal changes were leveled against some members
of the security apparatus. 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.
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 squandered his last
opportunity for a peaceful exit. Uncontained, the situation in Syria could turn
into another post-Saddam Iraq, where vendetta has prevailed between the Sunnis
In Tunisia, the parliamentary victory by the Islamist
Ennahda party raises questions about whether or not the Islamists will remain
true to the secular foundation of Tunisia. The Islamists have already started
flexing their muscles – one Salafi group attacked a secular TV channel premises
in the capital, Tunis; another group did the same while demanding segregation of
the sexes in class.
At the same time, 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 if the fear of a counter- revolutionary movement
will prevent the ruling party 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 endless strikes by professionals, the continuing conflict
between Muslims and Copts and the still uncertain “road map” for a transition of
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 ultra-conservative Salafists have nearly
secured a two-thirds majority in the new parliament sends alarming signs that
Islamic forces could win in both conflicts.
If there is a saving grace
here it is this: The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists do not see eye-to-eye
and the Brotherhood, thinking in the long-term, may end up making a deal with
the military and form a government with some of the secular parties.
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). The 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.
ALTHOUGH THERE is no
political panacea for Arab states to espouse, there are certain measures that
can be adopted by most Arab states with some adjustments to shorten the
revolutionary process and reduce the level of friction and violence.
, collective actions by the Arab League should be taken against any Arab
government that denies popular demands for reform and resorts to violence to
suppress it. This is an unprecedented and welcome ste, and if it were
institutionalized it would give the League real power instead of being a mere
In light of the fact that Syria sees itself as the
beating- heart of Arab nationalism, the League sanctions have become even more
significant. Now, to maintain its credibility, the organization must
ensure that other Arab states will be expected to deal with their own uprisings
in a manner consistent with their collective demands from Syria.
since Islamic parties are slated to play leading roles in future Arab
governments, to avoid counter-revolution movements they must remain true to the
democratic processes that brought them to power. They must remember that
Arab youth have long since rejected Iran-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. Initial indications have appeared in 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
ultrac-onservative Salafists. The West has a clear interest in
encouraging this approach and giving it the opportunity to mature into a
, 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 and
healthcare, and to prepare for a new constitution. Drafting a new constitution
is already on the agenda for each governing body in the Arab Spring countries.
This offers a momentous opportunity to push for lasting reforms, ensuring civil
rights for religious and ethnic minorities while fully committing said
minorities to the nation’s unity and laws. 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.
, Arab states that have not as yet been affected by protest for change,
particularly Jordan, Morocco and the Gulf monarchies, would be wise to begin
systematic socio-political and economic reforms. The idea here is to direct the
pace of change in a way that allows gradual democratization and avoids the
friction and violence that might emerge out of sudden, uncontrolled change as
happened elsewhere in the Arab world.
Every Arab King or Emir can
gradually relinquish some power, remaining head of state and retaining the
trappings of their positions, control of the armed forces and the final say on
major foreign policy issues. Prime ministers, on the other hand, should be heads
of government with political powers that focus on domestic issues mandated by
popularly- elected parliaments.
The Arab youth have risen up, and no
government can prevent the wave of awakening that will continue to sweep the
Arab world. Regardless of what kind of new governance emerges, adherence
to human rights, gradual political reforms that ensure basic freedoms and
economic development will be central to a more peaceful transition. Otherwise,
the Arab Spring could sadly turn into a long and cruel winter.
is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at
NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.