Arab Spring could turn into a cruel winter

There is no political panacea for Arab states to espouse, but certain measures could shorten the revolutionary process.

Clashes in Tahrir Square, Feb 2011 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem )
Clashes in Tahrir Square, Feb 2011 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem )
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 and Shiites.
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 power.
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.
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). 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.
First, 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 debating society.
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.
Second, 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 coherent policy.
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 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.
Fourth, 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.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.