After the Arab Spring

Print edition : December 23, 2016

A poster of Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi among debris left from a protest camp at Nahda Square at Giza in Cairo on August 15, 2013. Photo: AP

Outside a polling station in Tunis on October 23, 2011. Tunisians turned out in numbers for their first free elections, basking in pride in their status as democratic trailblazers nine months after the toppling of a dictator sparked the Arab Spring. Photo: AFP

A well-timed effort at explaining why the dreams of the Arab Spring were crushed and why the West Asia and North Africa region is now experiencing such disorder and destruction.

SIX years after the Arab Spring first heralded the agitated demands for wide-ranging political reforms, the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region is convulsed in conflicts that have destroyed state order, strengthened vicious authoritarian regimes, unleashed the forces of sectarianism and jehad, placed major regional entities at the edge of war, and pulled in major powers which are shaping a new Cold War. These six years have seen the deaths of a few hundred thousand people, the displacement of millions, the destruction of historic cities, and extremist elements indulging in vile and violent acts not seen in a thousand years.

Contemporary West Asia is a well-timed effort at explaining why the dreams of the Arab Spring were crushed and why the region is now experiencing such disorder and destruction. The book has a useful overview, essays on the themes that are defining contemporary West Asian politics—Islamism, sectarianism and big power politics—and papers examining the situation in different countries, so that no WANA nation struggling with domestic and regional challenges is excluded from the discussion.

The Arab Spring was the most significant development in West Asia in a hundred years. In fact, during those heady days the Arab people attempted to overturn the legacy of the last century, which had institutionalised authoritarian rule under Western tutelage, mired the Arab people in military defeat and economic failure, and placed their polities on the wrong side of every issue that defines contemporary human achievement—participatory political systems, freedom, human rights, gender sensitivity and accommodation of minorities. The agitations for change demanded the removal of autocrats and the reform of the monarchies so that the Arabs would no longer be “exceptional” in the global firmament of human dignity.

While the uprisings touched almost every Arab country and led to the fall of at least four tyrants, the dissent was quickly and effectively quelled: Tunisia, where it all started, is the only country where the tyrant has been replaced by a transparent, accountable and accommodative order; everywhere else, authoritarian rule has been reinforced with even greater force as terrified regimes seek to strengthen themselves with occasionally cooptive but usually coercive policies to extinguish from the minds of their oppressed citizens all aspirations for change.

There are regional ramifications as well, since the fallout of the Arab Spring has given fresh resonance to old fault lines, so that mobilisations of support to redress strategic vulnerabilities are being done in ways that revive the sectarian divide and make it central to the shaping of contemporary competitions, which is further reinforced by the depredations of the jehadi militants that target the Shias with greater venom than they do regional state authorities. In fact, in several instances, the latter have made jehad their partner in their confrontations against regional enemies.

Challenges of modernism

In their introduction, the two erudite editors see the ongoing developments in West Asia as contentions between the pulls of tradition and modernity, which in the Arab context, also takes the shape of a conflict between group loyalties and individual aspirations. To complicate the scenario, West Asia has also experienced the failure of the “secular” framework in the domestic order, accompanied by repeated economic failures.

As in other traditional societies that experienced imperial subjugation, “modernity” in West Asia was generally viewed as the product of defeat at the hands of Western powers, and hence, its appeal was largely superficial and restricted to a small elite. In response to the crisis engendered by colonial domination, most Arabs fell back into their traditional moorings that, emerging from their own heritage, were believed to be more “authentic”. Several valiant reformers, such as Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohammed Abduh and Rashid Reda, did make efforts to reconcile the Islamic precepts of their people with the political precepts of a modern political order. But their projects failed in the face of the reality of colonial occupation and the submissive regimes the colonial masters put in place across WANA, and the West-dominated authoritarian regimes that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Arab tyrants camouflaged their rule with “secular” appeals to nationalism and pan-Arabism, but they made little impression on the Arab masses, who saw these as concepts embedded in foreign influence that were promoted by tyrants to win favour with their Western clients. Not surprisingly, the Arab people found far greater comfort in their traditional identities that prioritised their tribal and clan identities. The editors Sujata Ashwarya and Mujib Alam explain it thus: “Lack of democratic governance thwarted the development of civic culture: since the state and government were ‘not theirs’, the people invested precious little in incorporating ideas handed over to them by state authorities.”

They also accurately describe the resistance of Arabs to their regimes’ “modernisation” projects thus: “The model of progress offered by secular modernisers failed to ameliorate the poverty of the masses…. Beset with external and internal conflicts, secular regimes remained fastidiously authoritarian and refused to risk policy measures that could affect real developmental transformation.”

It is from this quagmire that political Islam emerged: it was the only opposition force against the Arab tyrants; it was also the only movement that worked among the poor and the disadvantaged, those excluded from the crony capitalism of their rulers. It is the “authentic” origin of this movement and its grass-roots organisation and record of service that propelled Islamist parties to power in the first flush of the Arab Spring and not just the religiosity of Arabs, as the editors contend. They have, however, succinctly set out the imperatives of the Arab reform agenda: freedom and constitutionalism in the political sphere, dismantling of crony capitalism in the economic area, and widespread social reform, particularly expansion of women’s participation in public spaces.

Sectarianism ascendant

The rest of the book looks at the sources of conflict in WANA and the situation in specific countries. The narrative is not reassuring. Sectarianism, which had never been a major divisive force in modern Arab politics, is now a central influence. In his essay, Fouad Kadhem, a researcher based in London, has provided an excellent historical and doctrinal account of this deep fissure in Islam, pointing out that in a Muslim kingdom, oppression of one sect or the other took place only when rulers with a narrow view of their faith were in power: this was true when the Shiite Safavids ruled Iran as also the policies the Ottomans followed in their empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

However, he correctly emphasises that the Safavids stressed their Shia identity primarily to set the Persians apart from the Turks as part of their ongoing political competitions with the Ottomans. In fact, in the face of the depredations of the Wahhabi fanatics from Najd in the 18th and 19th centuries, Shia and Sunni ulema jointly urged the Ottoman ruler to confront this predatory force.

In the 20th century, sectarian identity was frequently superseded by a “secular” identity when Arab intellectuals and political activists joined nationalist or ideological groupings, such as the Baath or communist parties, even as Palestine brought all Arabs together in support of a shared national cause.

Much of this has now been swept away by the deliberate introduction by the United States of sectarian identity as the defining feature of the Iraqi political order after its 2003 invasion. Viewing Shia empowerment in Iraq as beneficial to Iran, Saudi Arabia has embarked on policies that directly confront Iranian “hegemony” in West Asia, shaping what Kadhem calls the “globalising of sectarianism”. In this context, the shared space between the two sects is disappearing, while the political divide between them is getting dominated by extremists on both sides who are competing “to dominate the political landscape in the war of images, words and actions”.

Contradicting this trend, the Shia movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has evolved from a hard doctrinaire and political protest movement to a political party seeking to play a prominent role in Lebanon’s contentious confessional politics. Starting with accepting full Iranian dominance, doctrinal and political, Hezbollah, as the Lebanese academic Joseph Alagha puts it, now “seems to shift within the parameters of pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism, while maintaining its Lebanese identity at the centre”. But the entry of Hezbollah into the Syrian conflict from May 2013 has changed the regional scenario: Hezbollah is now an integral part of the sectarian conflict being waged in Syria. More seriously, this has also brought the sectarian divide into Lebanon itself, with various jehadi groups in Syria carrying out terrorist acts in that fragile nation.

Iraq and Syria disintegrate

Sujata Ashwarya, in her essay, discusses the sectarian narrative in Iraq. She examines the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in response to the sectarian politics deliberately shaped by the U.S. during its occupation, but holds the policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as being primarily responsible for the rise of the “Islamic State”, or ISIS. She sees the present Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, as a “conciliatory figure” who is seeking to shape a united and pluralistic Iraq that would accommodate both Sunnis and Kurds in the Shia-led political order. She correctly sees bridging the sectarian divide as a daunting challenge: government actions after Mosul has been “liberated” will tell us what the territorial and political shape of Iraq will be.

Syria figures prominently in the book: Shweta Desai looks at the origins and expansion of the insurgency in that country, while Sukalpa Chakrabarti examines the role of the big powers in the conflict. Shweta Desai notes how the interventions of regional powers in Syria transformed a domestic movement for reform into a conflictual situation that has jehadi forces at its centre, the Salafi militia backed by Saudi Arabia, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra and the ISIS. The conflict has wreaked havoc across Syria, with the number of dead creeping towards the half-million figure, with no sign of compromise from any side.

Sukalpa Chakrabarti explains the circumstances that have brought the U.S. and Russia as key players in the Syrian cauldron. She sees the U.S.’ role as a continuation of the Carter Doctrine of 1980 in terms of which the U.S. committed itself to using military force to ensure its control over the region’s oil resources and their free movement. Russia, on the other hand, rejects externally sponsored regime change through violent means and is therefore committed to safeguarding the Bashar al-Assad regime.

She also notes that while the Gulf Arab regimes and their Western allies continue to prioritise regime change in Damascus, it is Russia that is robustly fighting the ISIS. She refers to the U.S.-Russian diplomatic cooperation to end the conflict as “superficial”, but recognises that this is the only initiative that will ultimately bring peace to Syria. She calls for a “grand strategy” to pull all the contending parties together based on “partnerships” rather than “Cold War constructs”, but it is doubtful that anyone is listening.

Turkey in West Asia

Two Turkish scholars have provided good essays on their country’s role in West Asian affairs. The one by Alper Dede traces the history of the Islamist movement in Turkey, while the other, by Ismail Yaylaci, discusses “democracy” as a factor in Turkey’s engagement with Arab countries before and after the Arab Spring. Dede notes that Islamist parties faced serious difficulties in expanding their role and space in Turkey’s political order that was constitutionally secular, a commitment that through much of the 20th century was rigorously enforced by the armed forces, which would intervene forcefully whenever they thought that the secular order was being threatened by Islamist influences.

Still, Islamists overcame all odds to emerge triumphant in 2002, and then initiated their policy of “zero-problems neighbourhood policy” when they set up a series of positive engagements with the Arab countries of West Asia. It would have been interesting if Dede had explained the factors that led to the steady emasculation of the armed forces in Turkey, so that by 2002 they just could not prevent or dilute the democratic accession to power of the Freedom and Justice Party (AKP, in its Turkish acronym), with its Islamist vision and agenda.

The Arab Spring led to suggestions from some quarters, Turkish and Arab, that Turkey could be a “role model” for Arab dissidents pursuing reform, but they withered away as the Arab Spring was destroyed by Arab regimes. Later, the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan intervened in Arab affairs on a more doctrinaire basis, first, by backing the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and then distancing Turkey from the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government after the coup. Second, more seriously, Erdogan backed the Islamist forces promoted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to overthrow Assad. Thus, he allowed thousands of young people to enter Syria from Turkey, most of whom joined jehadi groups, including the ISIS.

Yaylaci’s paper begins with an apparent contradiction: he asserts that the AKP, in its dealings with West Asian countries, “always adopted a discourse of change in regional politics”, but in the next sentence says: “AKP’s discourse of transformation was gradual and evolutionary, which was in favour of leaving the existing autocratic regimes intact.” Yaylaci is at pains to clarify that, unlike the Western countries whose democracy projects were both instrumental and selective, that is, they were advocated selectively to subserve Western interests, Turkey supported “home-grown” democracy in West Asia: hence, it was such a strong supporter of the Arab Spring agitations, which its then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu viewed as “standing on the right side of history”.

This vision collapsed quickly: Turkey under Erdogan has not only appeared increasingly authoritarian domestically in its dealings with dissident groups and the Kurds, and is now totally alienated from its earlier ideological partner, the Gulen movement. It is also embroiled militarily in both Iraq and Syria, seeking to stem the tide of the revanchist Kurds who are seeking their moment in history. Turkey has never been so far removed from the idealism of the AKP’s first days in power or more recently, the first weeks of the Arab Spring.

The prospect of reform

The three papers on the Gulf Arab countries, the Saudi political scenario and Yemen suffer from the curse of Indian academic publishing—the considerable time lag between the writing of the paper and its publication. Though no fault of the writers, developments in the last year and a half have rendered the papers out of date.

Priyamvada Sawant’s short essay on the implications of the Arab Spring for the Gulf Arab countries notes the agitations in Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and, more mutedly, in Saudi Arabia, but just does not do justice to this complex subject that now sees Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies engaged in conflict in Syria and Yemen and in confrontation with Iran, while coping with complex domestic political and economic challenges. Her conclusion is particularly weak: she regrets the influence of religion on government and society and advocates promotion of civil society organisations to promote democracy, but does not indicate how this is to be achieved in these traditional societies.

It is a matter of regret that compared with the substantial studies contained in this book, Gulshan Dietl’s six-page piece on Saudi Arabia is so unsatisfactory. First, it has some factual errors: the size of the Saudi royal family is at least 15,000, not 5,000-6,000; the children and grandchildren of King Abdulaziz number about 1,500, not 500. Again, her frequent references to the “Sudairies”, the seven sons of Princess Hessa bint Ahmad Al Sudairy, as a bloc, is outdated: Prince Ahmad was abruptly removed from his post as Defence Minister; Prince Abdul Rehman has been marginalised for a long time; from the next generation, Prince Khalid bin Sultan was removed as Deputy Defence Minister; while Prince Bandar bin Sultan was removed as National Security Adviser. More seriously, with so many important developments taking place in the kingdom and the significant role it is playing in the region, it is regrettable that the country has been given such casual treatment.

The essay on Yemen by Prasanta Pradhan, while also overtaken by rapidly moving events in that country, is good on the domestic and regional factors that have led to the bloody conflict that has overwhelmed that unfortunate nation. However, his presentation would have benefited from a deeper analysis of the Iranian role in Yemen, particularly the charge of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Iran has actively backed the Houthi insurrection, largely based on their sectarian affiliation. And, while he has correctly noted the strong Saudi-Egypt agreement on the Yemen question, it would have completed the story more accurately if he had also noted that Egypt finally did not participate militarily in the Yemen conflict, but only provided some ships to maintain the naval blockade.

Amidst the sense of gloom and pessimism that pervades West Asia, Priya Singh believes that the “victory” of Egypt’s entrenched bureaucracy over the forces of political change is perhaps “temporary” and the compulsions of urgently needed economic reforms will strengthen the push for “comprehensive reforms in the state bureaucracy”. She points out that the Arab Spring in Egypt enabled large sections of the population to experience “however fleetingly, exceptional flashes of emancipation, of unrestrained episodes of self-awareness, self-determination and mutual ‘effervescence’”. This, she argues, has laid the basis for an “active citizenry” in Egypt, which will in time “challenge the capacity of the dictatorial state to govern”, though she warns that this might take a few decades.

This book is a valuable and timely reference source to understand the turbulence that characterises West Asia, where major states are engaged in proxy wars in which millions of people have been killed or displaced, a whole generation of Arabs in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has been reduced to penury, and forces of extremism and sectarianism hold sway across large swathes of the Arab landscape, often with state support.

At the root of this turmoil is the resistance of authoritarian rulers to demands for popular participation in state decision-making, for popular scrutiny of state accounts, and for the ability to hold rulers responsible for their actions and to replace them periodically on the basis of national consensus. This resistance to reform has made the Arab world the last bastion in the world of entrenched tyranny. The editors have done full justice to this complex, even convoluted, narrative.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor