Is Arab Spring wishful thinking?

Egyptian protesters shout slogans as they call for democratic reforms and a speedy trial of former President Hosni Mubarak after Friday prayers in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Egypt, Friday, June 10, 2011. The Arabic on banner reads:" The constitution, try the assassin, beware of the conspiracy, Egypt is in danger." (AP Photo/Grace Kassab)   | Photo Credit: Grace Kassab

The expectations and hopes engendered by the events in Tunisia and Egypt at the beginning of the second decade of this century for an Arab Spring sprouting in the Arab world have turned out to be based on wishful thinking rather than on a careful assessment of the specific characteristics of each Arab country as well as of the vested interests of some external powers which wish to see change in a particular direction. Only Tunisia and Egypt have succeeded in overthrowing the previous regimes but even there, we have to wait to see what exactly will take their place. So far, the military in both countries remains all powerful; however, there is reason to hope that eventually, governments with the genuine participation of the peoples will emerge, at least in the short term. If the new governments in Tunis and Cairo, especially the latter given Egypt's crucial role in the Arab world, do not manage to tackle at least some of the problems such as corruption, high prices, and unemployment, the fate of democracy will hang in the balance.

In the rest of the Arab world, churning is on, but an extremely violent one, not at all ideal for preparing the soil for the seeds of democracy. Three countries — Libya, Syria and Yemen — seem to be competing with one another in terms of the blood of civilians that is being shed in the name of change and reform. In all three, extra-regional powers are significantly involved militarily as well as diplomatically, though the nature and extent of such interference vary. Economic, strategic and energy interests are at stake.

Libya has turned out to be the cry of despair for those who have committed their armed personnel, scarce financial resources and, more importantly, prestige in the outcome of the situation there. The conflict has gone on for longer than anyone expected and is costing the western nations more than they would really care to spend. Having pushed through Resolution 1973 with the help of the Arab League, they had calculated a quick and low-cost operation. Like in Afghanistan, Nato cannot afford to pull out without being able to claim victory. Two or three factors have frustrated their plans — Muammar Qadhafi's stubborn refusal to disappear from the scene, the absence of an identifiable and credible alternative leadership, and the continued loyalty of many African states to Mr. Qadhafi. Mr. Qadhafi is no doubt counting on the fatigue — financial and military — factor weakening public support for the Nato operation. Nato strikes killing civilians will further erode support and provide more propaganda ammunition to Mr. Qadhafi.

According to the present reckoning, the civil war and the de facto division of the country, with massive external involvement, are likely to continue well beyond the three-month extension that Nato has given to its operation. It is also noteworthy that the western media which, at one time, were worried about al-Qaeda having resurfaced in Libya, have now completely ignored this phenomenon — one wonders why. The Africans have become ever more sceptical of western countries since the latter have given up even the pretence of their motivation in intervening in Libya and have made it clear, in words and deeds, that what they are after is regime change in Tripoli. While many countries may not be fond of Mr. Qadhafi, very few would want to associate themselves openly with the goal of regime change anywhere. The international community at large also finds it difficult to understand the need for Nato to destroy the entire infrastructure of Libya, since the Security Council had authorised use of force only to protect civilian lives.

Syria is a much more important regional power. A lot rides on the outcome of what is going on there — the strategic relationship between Syria and Iran, the situation in Lebanon including in particular the status of the Hizbullah, the fate of Hamas whose leadership is based in Damascus as well as the larger question of Shia-Sunni tensions. (The ruling Alawites are a sub-sect of Shias whereas the majority population is Sunni.)

Most important, there is the Israeli-Syria question. Israel is reportedly not in favour of toppling the Assad regime. It is not clear why. Perhaps because the alternative could be a fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood government. On the whole, however, the western powers would welcome a change in Damascus, though its leaders have refrained from admitting it publicly; breaking the Syria-Iran axis would be a tremendous achievement. Again, it is precisely this barely concealed desire for regime change which most non-western countries find difficult to reconcile with. There are credible reports suggesting that the Assad regime enjoys considerable support among the people. The protesters in Syria, taking a cue from the rebels in Libya, have formed a ‘national' committee which is the best way to get political and financial support from the West.

Yemen, in many ways, is the most complicated situation. It is infested with the maximum external interference — Saudi Arabia, U.S., Iran, GCC and assorted countries. At one time, its long-serving President had accepted the principle of resigning and leaving, but since seems to have changed his mind. The injuries he suffered in an attack on his compound and consequent flight to Saudi Arabia have paradoxically given him time to consolidate his position and strengthen his support base in Yemen. The south wants to secede and parts of north want to merge with the big northern neighbour, but the latter is not interested, it seems. The Shia-Sunni act is also being played out there. Al-Qaeda was reported to have captured a town, Zinjibar, in the south, but it was suspected to be a diabolical move of the President who, thereby, calculated to win the sympathy of the Americans. The latter are exploiting the situation and relentlessly bombing suspected concentrations of the al-Qaeda, hoping to eliminate its leadership.

No one is saying a word about the most important country in the region. President Obama exercised admirable skill in avoiding the mention of Saudi Arabia in his speech on the Arab world a few weeks ago. The House of Saud is unhappy with Mr. Obama because he did not defend vigorously enough his, and Saudi, friend Mubarak. The King was also annoyed when the Americans expressed, admittedly not too strongly, reservations about the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. It must be acknowledged that the entire international community has a stake in the stability of the most important oil price stabiliser in the world and that is why nobody, not just the Americans, is saying anything about that country. The people of Saudi Arabia might also be somewhat less enthusiastic about change or reform in their country in view of what is happening in their immediate neighbourhood. However, if genuine democratic movement takes root in the rest of the Arab world — a big ‘if'— the Saudi regime will have to reform at however slow a pace. In the meanwhile, Morocco and Jordan are reported to have been invited to become members of GCC. GCC will have to change its name.

In Bahrain, the king, with Saudi help, has managed to suppress the majority Shia community, at least for the time being, but it has not been silenced forever. The reform movement is alive, though not kicking, at the moment. Since the U.S. has such an enormous stake in and around Bahrain, it will make sure that the king and his entourage, especially the crown prince, will respond positively at least to some of the demands of the protesters if that is the only way to protect its interests. Bahrain presents a fascinating case study where the interests of the dominant regional power, Saudi Arabia, are to some extent in conflict with the interests of the most powerful country in the world, United States.

Overall, the prospects of a meaningful Arab spring do not look bright as of now.

In the circumstances, it makes sense for India to maintain relative silence on the events in West Asia and North Africa and not to identify itself with one or the other side in multilateral institutions. We have substantial interests in the region, going beyond energy sources. The fate of five million Indians employed there is a matter of great importance and concern to us. At the same time, we must take steps to protect our present and future interests in the region. It would be in order for us to express serious concern and distress at the loss of life and property, for example in Libya and Syria. The latter must scrupulously abide by its commitments under the NPT, and we should express hope that at least some aspirations of the people for reform would be satisfied. We must not assume that no change will ever take place in Syria or any other country. At the same time, we should establish contact with the so-called transitional council based in Benghazi. It is more than probable that that group might become better organised under western diplomatic and military guidance and come to at least share power in Tripoli at some time in future. Contacts with them now will stand us in good stead then. We could also activate BRICS and/or IBSA and issue common statements agreed through diplomatic channels.

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