There's no going back

Regardless of how firm its grip on power may be, no Arab government will be immune to some degree of meaningful change.

Bahrain protests 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Bahrain protests 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The breathtaking developments in the Arab world seem to have taken many parties by surprise, and speculations about what the Middle East will look like in the future run the gamut. There are those who argue that revolutions against dictatorships, even when they succeed, do not guarantee lasting democratic political reforms – many former Soviet republics (especially those with Islamic roots) offer glaring examples.
There are those who assert that any reforms the Arab regimes are ultimately willing to undertake will be superficial, varying in degree and duration and designed only to pacify the revolutionaries. Others suggest that entrenched constituencies, such as the military and Islamic organizations, remain determined to shape events according to their political agendas, and that the only certainty is, in fact, uncertainty.
These arguments and others bear a degree of cogency that cannot readily be dismissed. That said, there are certain conditions created by the uprisings that will remain constant and will impact each Arab country differently. Moreover, regardless of how firm its grip on power may be, no Arab government will be immune to some degree of meaningful change. But the sooner they understand the potency and long-lasting implications of these new conditions, the less blood will be shed and the smoother and more peaceful the transition will be.
1. Those who never expected Arab youth to rise against their authoritarian governments were proven wrong. The Arab youth of today is different. This new generation has been exposed to the world; they have risen against oppression, deprivation and stagnation, and they no longer want to live in submission to corrupt despots. To assume that Arab youth will indefinitely remain subjugated to the whims of ruthless rulers is nothing short of an insult to a people who have contributed so much to civilization.
No Arab government, however oppressive, will ever be in a position to completely shut down its youth’s access to the outside world and stifle its yearning for freedom. Regardless of how youth uprisings fluctuate in intensity, they are not a passing phenomenon. They will last for years and wind down only when Arab regimes deliver on promises for constructive and permanent political and economic reforms.
2. Current Arab regimes must remember that the uprisings are an indigenous movement; they were neither instigated by outside powers or groups, as some Arab leaders alluded, nor did the revolutionaries need to blame outside entities for their plight. The youths have pointed their fingers at the failure of their own governments. The rebelling youths refuse to be distracted by the old contrived excuses that suggest anarchy will dominate should the current leaders be ousted from power.
Gone are the days when ruthless Arab leaders could ride the storm of public discontent by blaming Israel or the US or former colonial powers for their miserable existence. The people want their leaders to focus on addressing their grievances in earnest and not look for scapegoats.
3. The Arab uprising represents only the beginning of a continuing wave of instability and will not subside by temporary measures or by bribing the public. The latest example is Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s $37 billion welfare package for Saudi citizens and a 15 percent raise for government employees. Another is the Bahraini government’s payment of $2,650 to each family to buy its silence. These are examples of just another delusional approach these governments take in their hapless effort to quell public demands for freedom and equality.
The Arab regimes must realize that the public does not want handouts, it wants a voice. It wants to be heard, because it has the inherent right to be heard. It wants to live in dignity and refuses to settle for the government’s disingenuous display of caring. Where were these “leaders” when the people were quietly seething in discontent?
4. While political reforms are critical, they can be sustained only if they are accompanied by economic development that can begin to provide immediate relief to the multitudes in need of basic commodities.
Egypt offers a case in point.
Following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the revolutionaries would not settle for mere promises of better days to come. During the continuing demonstrations throughout the Arab world, revolutionaries are calling for economic relief; they want food, jobs, health care and education. Freedom alone will not put food on their tables; they want food and freedom, not freedom without food.
The labor unrest has one thing in common: The workers want better wages and immediate relief from the economic hardships they have suffered for years.
Indeed, it was deprivation and economic inequality even more than political freedom that led to the uprisings.
For this reason, unless the military, which is now the governing authority, undertakes major economic development programs, the alternative will be much more limited political reforms, a stagnant economy and little change, leading to continuing unrest.
THERE IS no cure-all that fits the needs for change in different Arab states. The rulers of the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco will undoubtedly struggle to keep their throne, but in the end they will be forced to choose a constitutional monarchy. Other countries like Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt may have to choose a republican form of government with powerful elected legislators led by a prime minister, with a strong military behind the scenes to guard against abuses of power.
Still others like Libya, Yemen and Sudan may end up dominated by a military clique for a number of years in an effort to reconcile different tribal demands while promoting some political and economic reforms. Syria may succeed in heading off uprisings by initiating some political and economic reforms. Lebanon will remain a sectarian tinderbox, while the Palestinians will be emboldened to rise up in an effort to end the occupation and will continue to use international forums to bring pressure to bear on Israel.
Generally speaking, the transition in the Arab monarchies will be more peaceful than in other states, but most will experience various degrees of violence.
Regardless of the kind of government Arab states end up with, adherence to basic human rights and the removal of all emergency laws will be central to a more peaceful transition. No government will be exempt from these requirements.
The Arab world will continue to undergo changes of historic proportions led by determined youth committed to liberate itself from darkness and despair. Every regime must either heed its public’s yearning for greater freedom and economic development, or be toppled as ruthlessly as it has governed.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.