What To Make of the Arab Spring

Ferry de Kerckhove on what the West has gotten wrong about the Arab Spring and what it can do about it.
By: /
June 11, 2013
Senior Fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa

At a recent event at the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, Kofi Annan, somewhat burned by his experience trying to negotiate a peace in Syria, called for “patience” when dealing with conflict and sectarian violence. It is clear that when it comes to the Arab Spring, any short-term prediction is bound to be sheer guesswork.

This, of course, in no way reduces the general angst over the future of the region and the potential surge of Islamist extremism. But the seismic changes that have taken place and continue to produce tremors across the world are far from portending a global catastrophe. After all, the underlying reasons are all causes for hope: Calls for change, freedom, dignity, accountability, an end to corruption, to dictatorships, for a better future for younger generations, jobs, equality, democracy.

But there cannot be any accurate prediction for the region inasmuch as there is no single model of post-Arab Spring. There is no Arab monolith. But one thing is sure: Islam will permeate the political and social fabric of every country in the region far more than it used to, and much less moderately in some than in others. Things don’t look great for any of the countries these days. Separatism and Islamic militantism is on the rise in Libya; Tunisia’s moderation is under attack; Algeria would have exploded already were it not for the iron fist of the regime; Morocco offers the hope of pluralism but its economy is in poor shape; Egypt is the poster boy for deep, seethed divisions; Jordan’s monarchy is under threat; Iraq is facing a blend of ethnic strife and religious partitions; Lebanon’s fractiousness is pushing the country close to the abyss once again; And Syria’s killing fields promise horrific retribution.

Yes, the outlook is bleak. Theocratic authoritarianism is on the rise and Islamist parties are acceding to power. The West has little to offer and its silence with respect to undemocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia’s is undercutting its credibility. Israel’s negative reaction to the Arab Spring adds fuel to a burning fire. And while Iran’s anti-West appeal has lost ground, the country remains a huge source of instability, and Israel’s warmongering reaction to Iran’s nuclear adventure is adding to the general uncertainty.

Several more factors add to this negative perspective: countries in transition are grappling with issues of legitimacy now that the unifying spirit of the initial revolutions is gone; economic troubles could lead to greater turmoil; the security sectors in most countries have collapsed; huge expectations on the part of freed populations are not being met; many issues are at a tipping point and dictators no longer control the agenda; the Shia-Sunni divide is being exacerbated.

Meanwhile, Russia feels that the West does not understand its concerns with extremist forces at its southern flanks and so Syria has become a kind of proxy war between the two sides. The energy sector is a similar point of contention. And Turkey needs to adjust to the social mobilization its recent economic and social development has provoked if it wants to continue exercising a stabilizing role in the region.

Faced with such a situation, what is the West to do? Options, unfortunately, are limited. Of course it should support reform and transformation in the Arab World. It should help address the economic, social, and institutional problems facing the region. It must avoid focusing only on the issue of democracy while still emphasizing pluralism.

More importantly, the West should initiate a full dialogue with the Islamist governments, parties, and movements and accept fact that a moderate Islamic model may be the only alternative to the previous totalitarian regimes, provided this new model offers civic guarantees to the people.

The West should provide consistent and coherent messages and not forget the legacy of resentment among people who for years witnessed its support of the region’s dictators. Another legacy to take on is that of corruption in commercial ventures.

It would also help if real progress was made on peace between Israel and Palestine and if the West were to treat Iran as a rational interlocutor, however painful and repulsive, rather than as a pariah.

What is clear is that the West’s approach needs a complete review. The days of armed humanitarian interventions are gone. It is time we look towards the long term and reach out to the youth, the moderates, and, critically, the disfranchised – unless we want to see what the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. El Baradei, predicted: “the real revolution – that of the poor”.

Ferry de Kerckhove will be speaking today at the CIC Ottawa Branch event The Middle East is Still on Fire. For more information, click here.