x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Arab Spring has slowed, for all the wrong reasons

The Arab Spring has its critics, but many of their objections - and much of the widespread concern about upheavals in the the region - are based on misconceptions.

The Arab Spring, as this season of change has come to be known, has had its fair share of detractors. While many considered the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions moments of hope, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have slowed enough to counter the revolutionary fervour.

Some of the detractors may in fact wish these revolutions would grind to a halt, and the status quo be retained. These arguments are seen across the spectrum of Arab people, particularly in the age group above 50.

But this desire is largely based on five misconceptions of where the Arab Spring is heading.

The first of these holds that revolutions bring instability, which will derail the economic growth of Arab countries.

This is perhaps the easiest argument to counter. Economic growth based on unequal distribution of wealth is a mirage, and the figures tell quite a different story than the actual state of the citizenry. Tunisia, like many other Arab economies, grew impressively in the heydays of dictatorship, but that growth was only experienced by a select few.

In fact, what dictators extract from the national economy through corruption, cronyism and outright theft is infinitely more costly in the long term than any improvement in the standard of living for citizens as a result of their economic policies.

The second misconception is that the dictators were protecting us from the Islamists, who are bound to take over now.

Again, there is an easy argument against this. By effectively killing politics and banning political discourse, the region's dictators pushed their people towards the mosque. By savagely persecuting their people, dictators then encouraged Islamists to radicalise and take a harder line. Dictators, therefore, weren't protecting anyone from anything but were rather adding fuel to the fire.

In an open political environment, Islamists will be one political option (of many, we can hope) from which the citizenry can choose its representatives. The only way to hold the Islamists in check is to find a competing political force, and to uphold civil rights and liberties - of expression, of religious belief, of thought. If Islamist parties want to get re-elected, they will be forced to moderate and deliver.

Third, revolutions will lead to sectarian warfare in the Arab world's ethnic and sectarian potpourri.

Again, flatly wrong. This misconception is used strongly in Bahrain and Syria specifically. Surely, one would want to avoid the Iraq scenario, goes the argument. But to the extent that sectarian strife in the Arab world can be attributed to anything, it is failed government polices of the past. Dictators foster sectarian identities at the expense of national ones. It is the oldest trick in the book; divide and conquer.

In a free Arab world, where different sects are respected and citizens are equal, sectarian identities will subside. As long as the law protects all citizens, Arabs have nothing to fear from their diversity.

Fourth, Arab revolutions give foreigners an excuse to meddle with Arab affairs.

Hasn't this been the case for centuries? As if the foreigners were not meddling with Arab affairs before the revolutions. Saddam Hussein practically invited foreign powers to invade Iraq in 1991. Libya's Colonel Muammar Qaddafi bowed to whatever the foreigners wanted after witnessing his Iraqi comrade's demise in 2003.

And in Syria, the Al Assad regime sided with foreigners twice against its Iraqi neighbour (Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, the US in Desert Storm). And we all know who has a naval base in Bahrain. The fact that Iraqis and Libyans would make a pact with foreigners to get rid of their tyrants is quite telling of the circumstance they were living in more recently.

Foreigners will always want to meddle with Arab affairs, but democracies, even those allied with the West, have always been better at saying "no" to their foreign patrons than dictatorships have (Turkey and Israel are prime examples).

And fifth, the misconception that some regimes are part of the "resistance" against the West and Israel is yet another fallacy.

It is no coincidence that Israel was the least enthusiastic country in the world when it came to the Arab Spring. While commentators across the world were singing praises of Arabs for rising up, the Israelis were the only ones saying: "What do we do now?"

Arab democracy robs Israel of its favourite line; that it is the only democracy in the region, sharing the values of the powerful West. In reality, subjugated Arabs were never going to liberate anything or anyone. Resistance that is based on coercion and subjugation will lead to ruin (for two examples, see Hamas and Hizbollah). Freedom of the mind is a necessary precursor for freedom of the land.

The Arab Spring will not lead to a rosy Arab world anytime soon. It will be a long, hard road for us to build our states and societies. But at the very least, the Arab Spring indicates that we have finally begun to recognise the problem.

This ongoing experiment might not always yield wanted results. But at the very least, it will be our own experiment, which we will bear the responsibility of conducting.

 

Abdul-Wahab Kayyali is a political analyst and editor of the Amman-based Venture business magazine.