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  • The Dangerous Upcoming Year after the Arab Spring
    Fri, 30 December 2011
    Raghida Dergham - New York

    This year, now drawing to a close, has been amazing, yet it surprisingly was not all rosy or indeed promising. The new regional order is still being shaped, and mystery still surrounds both the identity and the agenda of local and international players. Frankly, most of us find themselves at once thrilled by the Arab awakening of 2011, and terrified by the outcome of the so-called Arab Spring. We are on a mythical swing of uncertainty, going up in celebration of the ouster of regimes that monopolized power for thirty or forty odd years, then down in frustration over the alternative that is now coming to monopolize power with theocratic authoritarianism. In the beginning, the Arab youths surprised us with their courage, audacity and modernism in bringing about change. But then we were taken by surprise by the Islamist parties who hijacked the youth uprising. The bloody manner in which the regime of Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya has prevented us from being optimistic about a better future for Libya. This is particularly so when the rebels, in their majority, raised the banner of vengeance and fanaticism in the aftermath of the end of NATO’s mission, without which these rebels would not have been able to boast of their victory. In the beginning, the surprise came when the GCC, the Arab League and NATO collaborated to persuade the Security Council to adopt fateful resolutions on Libya. Then accusations came, pouring cold water over our aspirations for a new clean slate in Libya. In the beginning, too, the U.S. administration hesitated to adopt the youth revolution in Egypt or the uprising in Syria. Then afterwards, the Obama administration engaged the so-called moderate Islam in Egypt and elsewhere and finally agreed to call on the Syrian President to step down. “Leave, leave” “Come on, get out”, and “the people want the downfall of the regime” all became slogans for the mobilization of the masses and their ability to induce change and their audacity to make demands. But such chants have raised alarm not only among the pillars of regimes, but also the businessmen who were close to the government. These chants have left some deeply moved by the crowds amassed in public squares, and others in a panic over what will come after the change – change in power, the economy and the future of the relations among sects and with the minorities. The first victims of change were Arab women, and the minorities may be next. The smell of sectarian wars is becoming ever more redolent across the whole region. Fear of partition has begun to instill terror in people's hearts - partition in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere.

    Where does Iran stand with regard to all this? Where is Israel? What ambitions does Turkey have? What will the Arabs do with their Spring and what does the West want? Does the United States have a secret agenda? Is Russia committed to the Syrian regime card, or is it willing to forfeit it as soon as it gets what it wants in the Gulf region? Finally, will the Gulf countries remain untouched by the train of change that has traversed the Arab region?

    We will not be able to assimilate everything that happened in 2001, and we probably do not yet know all the repercussions. The hijacking of the Arab youth awakening could only be one small event in the process of democratic change- as the advocates of the electoral process purport. But the biggest danger may yet be that this hijacking is a cunning takeover of the youth revolution, along the lines of what happened in Iran more than thirty years ago. The rest is history.

    Perhaps the youths will understand what has come to pass, and draft astounding strategies to correct their course and regain control of their own future and prevent others from monopolizing it. This requires serious vigilance that would avert the euphoria of having brought about change and pursue instead an organized process that is conscious of the pitfalls ahead. It also requires creative ideas to attract the new generation to modernity and the separation of religion and state. Finally, it requires in-depth reading of the balance of power in the Middle East, and of what may be in the mind of those who want the Arabs to be in perpetual strife and sectarian and ideological warfare, culminating with the partition of their countries.

    It is very striking how the Arab awakening resulted in further cohesion, awareness and collaboration among the GCC countries. It is striking because these countries are resource-rich countries – i.e. oil and gas – and have the ability to influence commodity sales and the markets themselves. These countries woke up to the need for reform, and spoke the language of integration and union. The GCC countries shielded themselves against the Arab Spring, even becoming a key factor in shaping it. Their strategy was to steer clear of ideologies and doctrines, while being determined to remain steadfast and unwavering, as the winds of change blew across their immediate – and non-immediate- surroundings.

    A major source of concern for the GCC states is Iraq, in particular when the country appears to them as subservient to Iranian will. This renders it ever more dangerous in the aftermath of the U.S. pullout from Iraq, as it may very well be on the verge of being partitioned. The Gulf strategy on Iraq today is much different than in the past, as it rather relies on protecting the GCC from the repercussions of impending developments in the new Iraq, especially if partition does indeed take place, and talk of the so-called Shiite crescent reemerges.

    In Yemen, the possibility of President Ali Abdullah Saleh receiving treatment in New York may be part of a certain agreement over the pacification of Yemen, with a view to avoid a similar fate to that of Somalia or Afghanistan. Perhaps the partition of Yemen is also in sight, and also a plunge into poverty and misery that would quench the fires of the uprising. The end result is that Yemen did not rise up in a real revolution of change, as that would require a revolt against tribal thinking and identity – and Yemen is quite far from seeing that happen.

    Egypt is important to both the GCC and the rest of the Arabs. But Egypt today is suffering from confusion, loss and also disappointment and frustration. What happened in Egypt was promising in the beginning, when it appeared that the military had changed from being the regime’s army to being the people’s army. Tahrir Square, every now and then, brings us surprises that restore hope in the youths, in modernity and in the determination to cause a radical change in mentalities and customs alike. However, this soon changes quickly to disappointment, when one sees the army’s conduct, especially with women, and when one becomes aware of the attitudes of the Egyptian people, as they vote in fanaticism and religious rule. Egypt is today a rusty swing, and its fall is both painful and terrifying.

    The crisis in Syria too has terrifying implications. There, the Arab Spring became an autumn and may soon become a harsh winter. The Arab League has played and continues to play an unprecedented role there. In truth, this is encouraging because it means the League is no longer a spectator, but a player. However, it is not clear whether Bashar al-Assad has indeed considered, through his deputy Farouk al-Shara, the possibility of seeking asylum in Russia, or whether he is still intent upon fighting until the opposition is completely crushed. This is the major game in Syria, where the regime seems determined to stay in power, under any circumstances and at any cost.

    Which party today is at the helm when it comes to changing the new regional order? Is it the people that rose up? Or is it the major powers that drafted the map for the new regional order, having found for the purpose local partners – including regional powers, news stations and the social media? Or is it a combination of both?

    There is no harm in overthrowing regimes and a regional order that was not working in favor of the people, but rather at the expense thereof. This perhaps is the most important development of 2011. Yet the biggest challenge may be devising an alternative. If the ready alternative is rule by the so-called moderate Islam, then the youths of the Arab awakening must demand, and use to that end all the available means and capabilities, must demand guarantees against authoritarianism precipitated in the name of the electoral process, and guarantees that the new constitutions shall be neutral by insisting on them being secular.

    Whether it is fifty thousand casualties in Libya or five thousand in Syria, every person that lost its life as a price for the Arab awakening deserves such safeguards.

    What happened in Iraq was not a war for Arab democracy, as some would like to claim. The Iraq war was one of inviting al-Qaeda and its ilk to Iraqi soil to be battled there, instead of battling them in American streets and cities. It was also a war for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and pacifying Iraq, so as to prevent it from acquiring nuclear capabilities later. The Iraq war was a gift to Iran and Israel. So then perhaps it was indeed the war for the partitioning of Iraq, since this is now a plausible scenario, and that cannot be a coincidence.

    By contrast, what happened in 2011 came from within the Arab world, and not through American warfare. It transpired in a spontaneous manner in Tunisia. The contagion then spread to Egypt, before NATO entered as a party in the war for toppling a regime that hitherto was a friend of Britain, Italy, France, Turkey, the United States and others. In Yemen, it was a different matter. In Bahrain, the GCC countries rallied to protect Bahrain and themselves simultaneously. And in Syria, change is coming, but its implications for Iran and Lebanon are still vague.

    Next year carries a lot of uncertainty. Throughout it, feelings will erupt, not only of joy or frustration, but also of fury because people will need jobs and will need stability.

    As such, some in the United States are wagering on the new rulers in Egypt needing, for instance, U.S. aid that would be crucial to keeping them in power. In doing so, they are prepping themselves for new ways to placate moderate Islam. Either moderate Islam changes while being in power and adapts with its need for U.S. aid, or it fails and is then held to account by its electoral base. But the problem in this scenario is that the cost is high, that the people will starve and that this equation will not protect countries like Egypt from strife and partition.

    Next year will be a difficult one. It is then a dangerous year after the change, unless the powers of modernity and enlightenment change course and surprise us with feats that would restore our hope in the Arab awakening.

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