x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A long season of change ahead for every Arab nation

The Arab Spring protests are different from country to country, and will have different outcomes. But taken together, they mark a watershed: there will be no going back to the bad old days.

In the six months since Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself and set an entire region alight, analysts and observers have swung from issuing death certificates for the established Arab order to concluding that it has managed to withstand the challenge of mass insurrection. Both judgements are premature, and neither is correct.

The fundamental reality that is all too often overlooked is that the Arab Spring is a dynamic process, rather than a single season. It will continue to wax and wane over the course of at least several years before there is any resolution.

Upheaval is never something that develops, or spreads, at a uniform or linear pace.

We should not be surprised that the changes in the region have assumed different forms in different societies, and we expect that they will continue to do so. And these varying processes will lead to distinct outcomes in the various countries involved. The widespread assertion that the Arab Spring has given way to fall or winter - has failed, in other words - is therefore entirely misplaced.

It should hardly come as a surprise that regimes respond to existential threats more fiercely - and sometimes successfully - as they see others buckle under pressure.

States facing such pressure will not consistently collapse in the space of several weeks. Some need to be pushed harder than others. In some cases laborious chipping away is required rather than a single hammer blow. And success for those seeking change is never a guaranteed outcome.

Taking stock of the whole phenomenon after a mere six months is therefore necessarily speculative. But as with a young child, some "personality traits" of the wave of pressure for change are already apparent.

First, it seems clear that the genie is out of the bottle. A return to the status quo could be achieved only by overwhelming force, and even then regimes could no longer presume that they would be able to return to the docility that had been the hallmark of Arab political life during the past several decades.

In society after society, the relationship between ruler and ruled appears to have been irrevocably ruptured, the basis of this breach being that people are demanding the full rights, and not just the trappings, of citizenship.

Second, the uprisings of the past half year appear to demonstrate that reform is not an easy solution. That is, regimes appear to be unwilling or unable to provide their subjects with these rights of citizenship, and continue to treat every political demand as a security challenge.

From their point of view the Arab Spring is a matter of victory or death, leaving virtually no room for dialogue and compromise. Regimes that survive popular uprisings are therefore liable to become exponentially more repressive rather than liberalise. Such is the fate of the unreformable.

Third, these uprisings have demonstrated that the de-Arabisation of the Arab world - which reached its pinnacle in an Iraqi constitution that made no mention of the country's Arab character - has failed. Uprisings in the Maghreb spread to the Mashreq, including Iraq, rather than to sub-Saharan Africa or Iran.

While pan-Arabism as such does not appear to be a prominent element of existing agendas, the events of the past half year have demonstrated the abiding solidarity and mutual affinity of the region's inhabitants, including not only its various religious but also ethnic and national communities.

The proposition that Arabs simply don't give a damn about a common destiny, and that the concept of such a destiny is merely a figment of the opportunist imagination, has been exposed as a pipe dream.

We have, however, also been confronted with the ugly spectre of sectarianism and other forms of division. This tactic is the well-established last refuge of unresponsive regimes and particularly of their intelligence services in times of crisis. We should brace ourselves for increasingly desperate attempts at divide-and-rule tactics in various countries.

As the Arab Spring continues to flower and wilt, and flower again and wilt again, there will be simply no way of knowing where things are likely to stand six months in the future.

Nevertheless, we have seen that where rulers have been deposed, socio-economic issues are increasingly coming to the fore.

Indeed, demands for action on such issues, in combination with parallel public clamour for constitutional government and accountability, may well provide the sparks for a new stage of change, one in which the agenda is transformed from getting rid of sclerotic leaders to creating a genuine regime change, including the structure and practices of government.

Where leaders remain in power, the military is playing a much larger role in repression, with regimes effectively declaring war on their own people.

Ironically, however, the mobilisation of conventional military forces may also hasten the success of uprisings. That is because the soldiery is never particularly reliable when it comes to domestic repression.

The months ahead are likely to be far uglier than the previous six, but it is all too easy to underestimate the significance of what has already happened.

The bottom line remains that the region is in upheaval, and will continue to be so until meaningful change is achieved. The glass, therefore, is decidedly half full.


Mouin Rabbani is an independent analyst based in Amman and a contributing editor of Middle East Report