TRENDWATCH-I Arab Winter (JANUARY 10, 2013)
This is the first part of a series of articles on last year’s trends that still hold in this year and what possibly they could lead to in the months ahead.
One of the themes that dominated news and analysis worldwide for the whole of 2012 was the Arab Spring – uprisings, mostly successful, in the Arabic-speaking world against the corrupt and oppressive rule of despots across a vast stretch of land comprising more than half a dozen Middle Eastern countries.
Every affected country had certain points in common: rampant corruption in government, rulers (even though they were not monarchs) overstaying their welcome in power for decades; insensitivity to the needs and aspirations of the people; rulers having the image of lackeys of America, EU and Israel, which cut them off from people who saw them representing American-Israeli interests rather than their own.
The major idea behind the Arab Spring was freedom from despotism and ushering in an era of democratic freedom and civil liberties. As most people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen are Muslims, it often meant the creation of a socio-political order which allowed public and private life to be lived according to the tenets of Islam as understood by those societies and the fiqh prevalent there.
To give the devil its due, no despot in the region ever tried to prevent the people from ordering their private lives according to Islam – even including congregational worship – but problem arose when it came to creating an Islamic state and ordering all public life according to a particular understanding of the Shariah. A lot of people in the countries concerned and the world beyond the Middle East hoped that the revolution would bring in the rule of Shariah.
Such hope was only natural as many activists either belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood or some offshoot of the Brotherhood. Salafis, known for their ardent advocacy of an Islamic order (as understood by the doctrinal point of reference provided by Mohammad bin Abdul Wahab Najadi) were also present in good numbers in the revolution, and are represented in the dispensation that has followed.
Despite all the hype around the revolution, no clear indications are still there to show that there has been any marked increase in people’s piety in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Yemen. Nor are there any indications of any substantial changes in public life, or of a greater adherence to Shariah.
To be fair to the new leaders, it is unrealistic to expect any meaningful societal change within a year. However, a part of the blame for raising public expectations goes to the leaders and the activists themselves. Such major changes in society’s ethos require a great consensus, which is easier said than achieved. In the absence of such consensus life goes on as usual, whoever rules.
A particular strand of the revolution’s narrative was the freeing of these lands from Western hegemonic agenda. Somehow, this too has not materialised, even though the people, who have seen the ravages of Western colonial aggression and exploitation over the last couple of centuries, wanted this part of the revolution’s manifesto to be fulfilled as early as above. In fact, the opposite has happened as the Western powers have successfully tried to co-opt these new regimes in a new vision of power-sharing between the West and these regimes.
Egypt, Qatar and Gulf sheikhdoms are the new players on the Western chessboard which is projecting them as agenda-setters for the new Middle East. The West is prepared to give some concession to Islamists, including Hamas, to allow Israel to live undisturbed. The new understanding between the West and the Gulf’s powers is to isolate and drive out Bashar al-Asad from power to weaken Iran. A similar understanding is sought on Hezbollah in Lebanon, another Iranian proxy.
A pointer towards the new geopolitical equation in the region came in the form of a high-level Israeli delegation to Cairo at the time of a savage Israeli attack on Gaza. The delegation made the offer to Egypt to mediate between Hamas and Israel to stop the attack. Once the Egyptians accepted the offer, Hilary Clinton flew in to supervise the deal. Soon a ceasefire agreement was signed (but after heavy destruction in Gaza) under American tutelage.
According to observers, the Egyptian role was also influenced by Egypt’s application for a $ 3 billion loan under American consideration. From one end of the Middle East-North Africa to the other, where Arab Spring brought a change, the new dispensations have made accommodations with Western powers and their local proxy regimes. Up to this extent, the revolution’s rhetoric about distancing the Arabic-speaking world from Western hegemony has not come true.
This has created greater intra-regional pressures against Bashar al-Asad in Syria and Hasan Nasrullah and his militia in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikhdoms, Qatar, Egypt and virtually everybody else in the region is having the same position on Asad and Nasrullah as America, EU and Israel. This has made Iran more vulnerable, accentuated the Shia-Sunni schism and consolidated the ground in favour of the West.
This is the post-Arab Spring situation in the winter (January) of 2013.