A year after the Arab Spring came to symbolise the ascent of people's power, hope has given way to a bleak sequel. The democratic awakening has fallen prey to international geopolitics that has helped cleave the Arab Spring into two parts, with the America-backed kingdoms escaping change but the non-monarchical republics coming under varying degrees of pressure.
The promise of a new era of democracy has been blighted in much of the region by continuing political repression. Worse, war clouds have appeared on the horizon.
What began as protests against food prices, corrupt leaders and lack of government accountability has assumed ominous dimensions. From the rampant but largely unreported human-rights abuses in post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya to the increasing bloodshed in multi-ethnic Syria, the developments are making the future of the extended region from the Maghreb and the Sahel through the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea more volatile and uncertain.
Bahrain stands out for carrying out the region's most-successful suppression of an Arab Spring movement, thanks to a Saudi-led military intervention and continuing Western backing. Whereas Cairo's Tahrir Square has come to epitomise the power of ordinary people to rise up against tyranny, Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout was simply obliterated with bulldozers — an action that was followed up with arrest and torture of activists as well as of the doctors and nurses who treated the injured. Yet a year later, family-run Bahrain's future looks anything but stable.
Exacerbating the regional instability is America's escalating geopolitical confrontation with Iran, with both sides currently engaged in a psychological war. Israel has stepped up its own ‘shadow war' with Iran, with the two sides ratcheting up a blamegame over targeted assassinations and bomb incidents. India risks becoming their proxy battleground.
Washington, by seeking to strangle the Iranian economy through an oil-export embargo, has raised the risks of missteps and military hostilities. History attests to the linkage between oil embargo and war. Japan's surprise Pearl Harbour attack in 1941 was triggered in some measure by a US-led oil import embargo to squeeze the Japanese economy. America's move to choke off Iranian oil exports, however, is faltering: India, Japan, China and South Korea — accounting for three-fifths of Iran's oil sales — have given Washington a polite brushoff.
Four trends in the Arab world have become pronounced. The first is the way the Arab Spring movements are reopening traditional fault lines along sectarian and tribal divides and fomenting new internal conflict. For example, if the once-peaceful, secular Syria becomes another Lebanon or Afghanistan, a sectarian division of that country is conceivable, given that its Sunni Arab and minority populations are largely concentrated in geographically separate areas.
A second trend has exposed a vein of religious extremism and promoted the ascendancy of Islamist influence, including in states that have experienced regime change. New opportunities have been opened up for Islamist movements to exert influence and bring themselves to the centrestage, as in Morocco, Kuwait, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Tunisia and Syria. The oil sheikhdoms, in any case, are theocratic states, which today are aiding Islamist causes in their own backyard.
This is best exemplified by Saudi Arabia and its new avatar, Qatar, that has developed cosy ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in its various incarnations across the Arab world. Qatar — the seat of current US secret talks with the Taliban — has leveraged its natural gas wealth and unbridled ambition to emerge as a leading backer of Islamist causes, in parallel to the role Saudi Arabia has long played.
The third trend is represented by the increasingly ugly regional geopolitics, which pits the powerful 'Sunni Crescent' led by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates against the beleaguered 'Shiite Crescent' states — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The regional contest for geopolitical influence between Turkey and Iran — the inheritors of the Ottoman and Persian Empires — has cast a lengthy shadow over the Arab Spring. This shadow has been made darker by the interventionist impulse of the Saudi and Qatari monarchies, working to create puritanical Islamist surrogates in other states.
Tiny Qatar, for example, has played an important role in the past year in ousting the Gaddafi regime (including by covertly deploying hundreds of troops in Libya), aiding the Sunni insurrection in Syria, backing Tunisia's Islamist party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, and brokering the departure of Yemen's brutal dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, instead of being tried for the killing of hundreds of demonstrators, was recently granted entry into the US, in keeping with the foreign-policy maxim, "He may be a bastard, but he is our bastard."
A fourth trend is that the Arab Spring has become a springboard for playing great-power geopolitics. Syria, at the centre of the region's sectarian fault lines, has emerged as the principal battleground for such Cold War-style geopolitics. Whereas Russia is intent on keeping its only military base outside the old Soviet Union in Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus, America seems equally determined to install a pro-Western regime in Damascus.
Moscow continues to arm and politically shield the Bashar al-Assad regime, while Washington has just announced the resumption of military aid to despotic Bahrain, after rewarding Saudi Arabia with a mammoth arms package. Iran, for its part, wants democracy in Bahrain but status quo in Syria. The Arab League — still the world's premier organisation of tyrants — sent a delegation headed by a tainted military general to monitor Syria's human rights situation.
The harsh reality is that such geopolitics has effectively hijacked the Arab Spring.
The Arabs' democratic aspirations will likely remain unrealised unless the sharpening geopolitics backfires and the oil sheikhdoms' insulation from change wears away. Given the way well-entrenched autocratic presidents have fallen from power in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the durability of the region's monarchs is anything but assured.
Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed by the author are personal.