x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Arab states mired in the messy reality of political change

History is replete with examples of dramatic revolutions followed by long, drawn-out, bloody, plodding efforts to build the new polity and fulfil the dreams of the people.

Ous Meloulli, the Tunisian swimming gold medallist, and Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist writer, are an odd pairing, but both provide apt examples for the aftermath of the Arab uprisings that have transformed the region.

Gramsci famously wrote in the 1930s: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." It's a good metaphor for countries in transition in the Arab world today. From Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to Yemen to Bahrain, the morbid symptoms of this transitional moment in the Arab world have already appeared, and the new world is struggling to be born.

Alas, transitions are never simple or easy and, they are always full of morbid symptoms. From the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, we know that they can be bloody and wrenching and long. In our insta-news world, it's worth remembering that history is replete with examples of dramatic revolutions followed by long, drawn-out, bloody, plodding efforts to build the new polity and fulfil the dreams of the revolution.

Even the 1776 American revolution, the aftermath of which saw less bloody infighting than its European counterparts, did not fulfil its principles of "all men created equal" until nearly 100 years later with the abolishment of slavery after a bloody civil war, and nearly 200 years later when American blacks were finally - in 1965 - given the right to vote. Women were only given the right to vote in 1920, nearly 150 years after the Declaration of Independence.

So, where does Ous Meloulli fit into this narrative? Meloulli is a marathon swimmer, winner of the gold medal in one of the most physically demanding of Olympic sports, the 10-kilometre swim. Not only is the length enormously demanding, but so is the style: all swimmers are jumbled together, amid flailing arms and kicking legs, battling the elements, the water and each other.

There are no neat and tidy swim lanes in the 10km open water race. Victory requires the heart of a marathoner, a skilful strategy of conserving energy at the right times, the ability to absorb the pain and bruises of jostling legs and elbows, and steady, consistent strokes. In a sense, Arab countries are still at the beginning of a similarly gruelling race.

The Arab world today faces a transitional period that is full of challenges. In Meloulli's home country and in the heart of the Tunisia uprising, Sidi Bouzid, young men have taken to the street again, demanding jobs and dignity - a reminder of the early days of the uprising that lit the Arab flame.

All across the region, particularly in the populous transition countries, the jobs crisis has accelerated. Where will the 100 million jobs needed over the next two decades come from?

Meanwhile, Egypt's political transition remains fraught with danger. Militant activity in the Sinai Peninsula has challenged the government of President Mohammed Morsi. The longer term challenge for Mr Morsi, however, will be to balance the demands of Egyptians who want jobs and economic relief, the Salafist groups who want a more conservative Egypt, secular and liberal groups who want more freedoms, the military who still cling to power, and rising economic populists with pretty slogans but few answers to Egypt's economic problems.

Yemen's transitional moment saw hundreds of the Republican Guards and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh amass outside the defence ministry this week, protesting against a move to strip the ex-president's son of some of his military command duties. Amid Yemen's severe economic problems, the country desperately needs stability to move forward. Unfortunately, it looks like the morbid symptoms will continue.

In Bahrain, talks between the opposition and the government this past week have done little to mend the shattered fences between the largely Shiite protesters and the government. Amid the political stalemate, Bahrain's position as a regional banking centre continues to deteriorate, and its reliance on Saudi Arabia for financial support continues to grow.

In Syria, the carnage continues and the war between the opposition and the government has intensified this past week. Though it seems hard to imagine President Bashar Al Assad staying in power, it's equally hard to imagine him giving up lightly. That is not the Assad way. There will be more blood, adding to a death toll that activists put at 20,000.

As if these multiple crises were not enough for the region, an intensifying proxy battle between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other threatens to pour fire on the region's simmering embers. Most dangerous is the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria and escalating Shia-Sunni tensions fanned by the Tehran versus Riyadh-Ankara struggle. Amid the hundreds of problems the region faces, the last thing it needs is atavistic, primitive sectarianism.

Of course, there were plenty of morbid symptoms around before the uprisings and the courage of many Arab protesters has been breathtaking. Amid the flailing arms and kicking legs, Arab leaders, civil society and the private sector must keep plodding onward, finding their way, building new paths and running the marathon of transition.

While it is hard to be optimistic in a time of morbid symptoms, if we remember history, we can note that the next phase of life in the Arab world will require the heart, skill and determination of a marathon swimmer - more Ous Meloulli and less Usain Bolt.


Afshin Molavi is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation

On Twitter: @Afshin Molavi