Having lost their fear of rulers, people will insist on good governance, accountability and responsibility
Immensely unpredictable, which is also their sheer glory, the post-2010 Arab uprisings that will most likely expand to other countries and stretch over the course of the next decade, will literally change the Arab world as we know it. Over the course of a very short period of time, the confusion that reigned as dictatorships fell, enhanced prospects for equally epochal changes elsewhere.
Naturally, internal, regional, and international responses were fine-tuned, ostensibly to protect intrinsic interests but, in reality, to feign understanding when the opposite was closer to the truth. Initial panic led to utter dejection, as well as envy, concluding that fresh paradigms-ranging from sectarian takeovers to the spectre of total collapse – would gradually tame Arab public opinion.
While few analysts anticipated the epochal changes that unraveled and continue to upset the regional balance of power, conspiracy theorists revisited the stale hypothesis that pretended the region was subjected to a Henry Kissinger-inspired, or plotted, division. This oft-cited hypothesis, whose alleged objective was to increase the number of statelets defined along sectarian lines, was not a fresh plan. If Paris and London schemed to divide the remnants of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, and literally redrew the map of the Middle East through the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, a 2012 parallel was nothing but the product of vivid imaginations. Still, proponents argued that a new ‘Yalta Conference’ for the Middle East was apparently held in secret between Russia, China, France, Britain and America, to update sinister plots that would further partition to conquer.
Equally confused political and religious authorities voiced similar perspectives to help redefine Arab grievances. Some saw the Yemeni case as a relatively peaceful interim solution while others vehemently opposed any compromises with dictators willing to spread havoc for the sake of power. One advanced the contemporary Turkish secularising paradigm as a model worthy of emulation. Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bisharah Boutros Al Rai, a cleric who seldom misses the opportunity to miss an opportunity, asserted that “the Turkish Muslim … state separates religion and state completely, respects all religions, practices religious freedom and follows a democratic system,” which apparently were qualifications for post-uprising entities.
Article continues below
Irrespective of conspiracy theories or wishful thinking models, what can be safely predicted for 2020?
First, it should be clear that Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria will now go through a protracted period of dramatic changes, which will take years to unravel. Few can determine what types of governments will emerge to replace fallen or threatened dictators although aspects of freedom and democracy ought not be ruled out.
Cynics, or those who prefer that Arabs wallow in ignorance and backwardness, will hark that freedom and democracy were “premature” in these countries although this was both unfair and wrong.
Second, waves of genuine political changes might also visit North African and the Gulf states, though rulers in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Oman, among others, took preventive measures to implement indigenous calls for reforms.
To be sure, ‘European Enlightenment’ might not descend on the conservative monarchies or several of the more heavily populated countries that confronted serious economic challenges (Algeria and Iraq in particular), but neither have these states remained idle. On the contrary, GCC rulers mobilised existing institutions to reignite the engines of change, precisely to avoid potential calamities, and it was to their credit that tangible transformations were initiated to meet local needs.
It was critical to note that many Arab leaders were increasingly aware that clinging to power by all means, as is the case in Damascus, was no longer an effective or a legitimate method to rule. Most comprehended the simple fact that an effective leader, in the true sense of the word, could not placate citizens by inventing myriad excuses or introducing cosmetic reforms. A few were even wary of so-called international allies whose interests coincided on several security features but whose commitments to Arab welfare was tangential at best.
In Syria’s case, Russian cynicism and western sarcasm coincided, which was duly noted everywhere. Indeed, Moscow’s strategic goals concentrated on their last Arab stronghold along with the sale of weapons, while western powers called for the removal of dictators without lifting a finger. Both applied unique standards and both sides telegraphed that Syrian lives were not worthy, or as worthy, as Libyan ones. Both sides shed crocodile tears about Arab Christians though discussions with religious extremists continued unabated.
All of these foreign schemes skirted fundamental transformations that each and every Arab society is now experiencing. To be sure, their outcomes are not clear, nor easy to understand. Yet, based on frequent visits to several Arab countries during the past year, as well as hundreds of conversations with people from all walks of life, one cannot but be optimistic. When a high-ranking Saudi minister acknowledges that Riyadh ought to follow-up on King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz’s March 2011 reform initiatives, or when a Tunisian writer insists that the Muslim Brotherhood be given an opportunity to display their prowess, both illustrate the type of mobilisation heretofore unfamiliar in Arab societies. Likewise, when a barber investigates methods to mobilise 100,000 Lebanese citizens to cast blank ballots in the upcoming 2013 parliamentary elections, or when an Egyptian dancer insists on her right to earn a living and feed her children, one can identify dramatic levels of awareness.
Beyond anecdotal evidence, chances are excellent that Arab citizens will insist on better systems of government than available today, even if few can predict with any certainty how they will be ruled by 2020. Nevertheless, those who assume that conspiracy theories or secularising paradigms might cut the mustard are bound to be disappointed, for these are no longer effective customs. It behooves alert authorities, both Arab and non-Arab, to watch reinvigorated societies where the fear factor is history, and where accountability, responsibility, and popular demands for genuine transformations, are all real. Even if the price to pay is far greater than many realise.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.