x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Arab Spring needs to draw strength from within region

With western dithering over foreign intervention, it is up to Turkey and the GCC to take the lead on assisting countries like Syria and Yemen in transitioning out of their current state of unrest.

As anti-government protests intensify across Syria and Yemen, the Arab Springappears to have entered a decisive phase. After months of popular mobilisation, current developments are dominated by the military response of incumbent regimes and outside powers. A lethal mix of domestic repression and foreign intervention could exacerbate the tribal and sectarian divisions that were merely papered over by colonial settlements and the appeal to pan-Arab nationalism following independence in many nations.

There can be little doubt that the ongoing revolutions have already transformed North Africa and the wider Middle East. So far however, the popular movements have not replaced authoritarianism with democracy. Tunisia and Egypt have changed presidents, but much of the old guard remains in power and the military is clearly calling the shots. The prospect of a protracted conflict in Libya following the start of the western-led military intervention raises fears that the peaceful uprising will end in a bloody stalemate between pro and anti-Qaddafi forces. In Syria and Yemen, the political pendulum oscillates between cautious reform and brutal repression. The birth pangs of Arab democracy could hardly be more prolonged.

As cracks appear both inside the western-led anti-Qaddafi alliance and across the Muslim world, what is missing is a strategy that can respond to the popular demand for freedom, democracy and justice. With street protests spreading fast, Syria and Yemen's leadership is on the brink. Their seemingly clever tactic of combining concessions with defiance simply will not wash. Unless Damascus and Sana'a clamp down on corruption and introduce both significant political reforms and economic opportunities, the outlook looks dire. The danger is that the struggle for overthrowing the two regimes will either end in civil war or violent crackdowns on protesters.

Either way, the West is unsure about how to proceed - both in Libya and elsewhere. The Obama administration is visibly reluctant to be drawn into another open-ended war. Washington is keen for its European allies to take a lead, albeit under the umbrella of Nato's integrated command structures - a demand shared by Britain's prime minister, David Cameron.

By contrast, the French president Nicholas Sarkozy insisted on Friday that the "political coordination [of the military intervention] is with the 11-member coalition", which includes Arab partners such as Qatar and the UAE. That, in turn, would exclude Turkey on account of Ankara's refusal to participate in air strikes against pro-Qaddafi forces.

The tensions between Turkey and its Nato partners show no sign of abating. Indeed, the ambitious Turkish foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu has called on the entire Arab world to take ownership of the revolutions - replacing decades of foreign insults and colonial humiliation with a sense of "dignity and common destiny", as he put it in his address to the sixth Al Jazeera forum in Doha earlier this month. Such a vision seeks to curtail outside influence over affairs in North Africa and the wider Middle East, where US-led military misadventures have fueled popular anti-western sentiment.

Thus, the West looks deeply divided and unable to bridge the growing gap in the strategic outlook of the US, the EU and Turkey. For now, it seems inconceivable that individual western countries or Nato would intervene militarily in Syria, Yemen or elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly however, hardcore neo-cons in the US and Europe are calling for regime change by military force in both Syria and Yemen. Far from being interested in robust and independent democracies, they brandish the spectre of state-sponsored terrorism that allegedly threatens the national security of western countries. For now, this view has little traction within US and European governments. But if the violent repression of protests continues, then the revolutions could serve as a pretext for some form of intervention.

That is why it is crucial for Turkey and the countries of the GCC to take bolder action. What is required is a closer and more robust engagement with the Syrian and Yemeni regimes. Neither the status quo nor a brutal crackdown of protesters will be viable or acceptable. Ankara and the Gulf states could pledge political and civilian assistance to Damascus if President Bashir al Assad is serious about reform. At a minimum, that would have to involve his commitment to constitutional reform, ending the draconian emergency law and a meaningful dialogue with representatives of the Sunni majority.

In Yemen, Arab troops and police could be deployed to facilitate a peaceful transition and a handover of power from the discredited President Ali Abdullah Saleh. While the threat of civil war and mass unrest remains real, it is hard to see how the country can change leaders without some outside help.

Mr Davutoglu is certainly right to suggest that the will of the people needs to be respected. After the legacy of colonialism and the Cold War, there is now "a need to reconnect societies, communities, tribes and ethnicities" beyond tribal and sectarian divisions. That requires a political vision that shifts the emphasis away from old elites towards much greater popular participation in power, higher incomes for the working class and a fairer distribution of assets across society.

The shape of nascent democracy in North Africa and the wider Middle East remains unclear. Events in Syria and Yemen in the next few weeks will have a crucial impact on the fate of the Arab Spring.

Adrian Pabst is a lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, UK, and a visiting professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), France