An Arab world in ruins or a new regional beginning?

Analysis: It is clear that the Middle East will go through years of instability.

The Arab world of tomorrow will be very different from what we knew. After decades of oppression, Arab masses are on the move.
They have discovered that they can change their fate. Not all regimes will crumble, but they all will have to implement substantial reforms and allow a measure of freedom of expression as well as greater respect for human rights.
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This does not mean that the core elements which characterized the political, economic, social and religious framework of Arab nations will disappear overnight. These nations will have to overcome the legacy of centuries of backwardness and fight beliefs and faiths which have molded them since the dawn of Islam.
Will revolutions free them from tribal and client systems which still prevail in Arab societies? Will discrimination and oppression against women cease? What about the high percentage of the population which is partially or totally illiterate? It is doubtful that they can take a meaningful role in shaping democratic values or initiate economic progress.
Many questions and too few answers. It is unfortunately clear that the Middle East will go through years of instability before the new regimes can find the right balance between the demands of the emerging political forces and those of traditional Arab societies.
The revolutions are far from over and the masses will fill the streets time and time again to protest measures taken by the new regimes or the reforms instituted by the old regimes which survived. Radical elements will try to divert these multitudes to their own ends and thus hijack the revolutions. Such is the way of popular revolutions until they peak and die. Look at the path taken by the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution.
However, through this fog of uncertainty a few facts have emerged. The first is that the Palestinian issue had no part in getting the masses into the streets. Here and there opposition forces tried – and are still trying – to get the people to demonstrate against Israel because of the intifada or the wars against Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, but with very little success.
The Israeli question, used for decades by Arab rulers to focus their peoples’ attention away from their sorry economic state, is now revealed for what it was: just a ploy. A similar conclusion can be drawn on the subject of radical Islam on both of its main aspects, the jihadist organizations and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Neither was able to inflame the masses and lead them to topple the regimes.
Al-Qaida and its offshoot jihadist organizations did manage to conduct countless terror attacks in Arab countries and carried out extensive campaigns of incitement through the Internet, in the mosques and with the help of satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera, but all they could achieve was to recruit a few thousand youths. Al-Qaida and the like were never an alternative to the regimes in Arab countries, with the possible exception of Somalia, where the central government was toppled years ago and anarchy now reigns.
The most they could do was to whip the crowds into a frenzy against the West following the publication of the Muhammad drawings in a Danish newspaper.
The Muslim Brotherhood, active for decades in Arab countries, is working openly to create an Islamic regime and is regarded as a permanent threat in the Arab world. Yet it has failed – up to now – to achieve its goal. It was for economic reasons that in Egypt and Tunisia students and unemployed belonging to the lower middle classes started to demonstrate.
The Muslim Brothers did not join them at first, thinking, wrongly as it turned out, that the demonstrations would fail and taking part in them would not further their objectives. They realized their mistake fairly quickly and did join the protesters, but kept a low profile.
On the other hand, the fact that the movement’s foremost theologian, Yusuf al- Qaradawi, was allowed to conduct Friday prayers in Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands had gathered, testified to the fact that the Brothers had been busy behind the scenes. They now have representatives on the committee that was set up to amend the constitution, and they have managed to block the cancellation of Article 2, which states that Islam is the country’s religion and that Shari’a is the principal source of law. In other words, the Army Supreme Council had decided to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards the Muslim Brothers – having come to the conclusion that they constituted a well-organized political force, but also that for the present Egyptians on the whole wanted to preserve the Islamic nature of their country.
In Tunisia, though the leader of the Brotherhood, Rashid Ghannushi, came home after 20 years in exile, the organization does not seem to play a meaningful role in the ongoing revolution. It is probably due to the success of president Habib Bourguiba and his successor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in curtailing the movement, which led to an increased Western influence.
The exact opposite has occurred in Jordan, where the Brothers are the main force against the regime, though at the moment King Abdullah’s throne appears secure enough. Regarding Libya the situation is unclear but it does seem that Islamists make up one of the strongest elements against Muammar Gaddafi.
What is no less interesting is that the Muslim Brothers themselves are affected by the currents washing over the Arab world. In Egypt, a group of young bloggers who are members of the movement are calling for a demonstration on March 17 in front of the Brothers’ Cairo offices. They demand the resignation of the group’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, who was elected barely a year ago, the dissolution of all the movement institutions, and free and transparent elections.
These are extreme demands striking at the heart of the Brotherhood and they could not have been formulated even a month ago; the bloggers affirm that no fewer than 30,000 members have voiced their support and will demonstrate.
Brotherhood official leaders, for their part, protest that the movement is united behind them and that they are pursuing their efforts to set up a “democratic country on the basis of the Shari’a.”
They intend to form a political party which shall be called “Freedom and Justice,” a satellite television channel as well as daily and weekly newspapers. In other words, they want to be an influential part of the process.
The Brotherhood has always been known for its unswerving, dogmatic positions on theological matters; at this stage it is not clear what the winds of change will bring to the almost century-old movement.
There are therefore a great number of unknowns in the unrest spreading over the Arab world. Will Islamists succeed in setting up “moderate” Islamic political parties, and how “moderate” would they really be? And what will happen in Saudi Arabia? The king is 87; he is just back from the United States and Morocco after a difficult surgery for a slipped disc. He immediately ordered to give every family $500, a move seen as trying to placate the people ahead of trouble, but which falls woefully short. Saudi Arabia is not better prepared against revolutions than other Arab countries. Most of the huge oil revenues go to the 20,000 princes who lord them over the masses. Poverty and unemployment are rife and the extravagant lifestyle and corruption of the rulers is a source of powerful resentment.
The Shi’ite minority suffers from oppression and discrimination; it is to be found in the east of the country – where most oil reserves are situated – close to Bahrain, a kingdom where the Shi’ite majority is trying to overthrow the Sunni royal family. Will Saudi King Abdullah be wise enough to give up some of his privileges to pacify both the masses and the Shi’ite minority? He has made in the past a few minor reforms in the field of education, but nothing to deal with the real problems.
He undoubtedly worries about events in Bahrain, Yemen and Oman – his nearest neighbors suffering from the same ills. On the other hand, he may be relying on the traditional alliance between the royal family and the Wahabi religious establishment, though that alliance may falter in front of an Egyptian-style revolution. For the moment the kingdom welcomes fallen dictators such as Ben Ali and has offered sanctuary to Mubarak.
President Barack Obama’s most recent declaration about welcoming changes within existing regimes is being seen as tacit support for the embattled oil-rich kingdoms.
When all is said and done, the main question today is how, and in what measure, if at all, can Islamic tradition and Arab nationalism be reconciled with democracy and equality.
In the meantime, it does seem as if the issues which dominated both the Arab world and the West in recent years – the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and radical Islam – no longer occupy center stage. Arab masses above all want better economic and social conditions.
Finally, Iran appears to be the main beneficiary of the turmoil, since its strongest opponents, the so-called pragmatic rulers, are busy with their internal problems – which some say Iran has actively promoted.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt and a fellow at The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.