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Arab Spring: Shaping a better tomorrow

The promises of revolutions across North Africa and West Asia are many. Will they be fulfilled? Bruce Riedel writes. Leaders at the summit | Vox pop

world Updated: Dec 01, 2011 14:28 IST
Bruce Riedel
Bruce Riedel

Last December, Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, Zine Ben Ali, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Bashar Assad looked forward to spending another year as the unquestioned dictators of their Arab republics. Now, they are respectively dead, imprisoned, exiled, resigned and fighting for their lives.

A tsunami of change has transformed Arabia, an awakening that is unprecedented, contagious and unpredictable. From Morocco to Oman, a dozen distinct but related revolutions are producing changes whose final outcome will not be clear for years to come.

Why did it happen? Demographics, a huge youth bulge, economics, the worldwide recession, are part of the answer. But the more fundamental reason is that Arabs got sick of living in police states, or mukhabarat states in Arabic, where dictators and secret police chiefs ruled with no accountability, no transparency and no freedom.

The Arab world had been stuck in the misery of mukhabarat rule for decades. America, Europe, India and other democracies occasionally paid lip service to the cause of Arab freedom but, in reality, were satisfied with the old regimes: they delivered oil, counter-terrorism and stability.

Those days are over. The new regimes are likely to be unsettled and violent for some time to come. Replacing police states with democracy is a daunting challenge made more difficult by hard economic times. America and Europe are broke; they can't help bail out Egypt or Yemen.

Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and its various offshoots are likely to hold far more power in the new Arabia than ever before. Though they were late to join the revolution, they are organised. Whether they will truly play by the rules of democracy is an unknown; some Islamists may (Tunisia, maybe Egypt); and others probably will not (Libya, Syria).

The model most outsiders would like to see emulated is the Turkish model, but many Arabs and outsiders fear it will be the Iranian or more likely the Saudi models. Extreme Islamic states with strong mukhabarats. Already, Saudi flags are popular in the protests.

Or, it may turn out to be the Pakistani model. If the Pakistani model prevails, we will see weak civilian governments which barely camouflage police states where the army and spies continue to call the shots. The Egyptian military is probably hoping to emulate Pakistan's army, and let civilians take responsibility for weak economic growth and poor governance while the army controls its own budget.

Egypt is the key because of its demographic, cultural and political weight. What happens in Tahrir Square resonates throughout the Arab world. It's simply too soon to call the outcome. Neither the army nor the Muslim Brotherhood can monopolise power. Some compromise outcome in which the Brotherhood's popularity and organisation works with the army's needs while protecting minority and female rights would create a new Egyptian model. But that is hope, not prediction. Decades of US aid gave Washington some influence to help hope become reality.

Egypt's neighbour, Israel, is full of gloom over the Arab awakening. A former head of the Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, said recently that it was "better to leave things as they were, dictatorship is preferable to Islamic extremism". But there is no going back.

Jordan's King Abdullah has publicly said the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is in danger and polls show a majority of Egyptians want to either scrap it or rewrite it. Rightly or wrongly, Israeli policies over decades have created a deep well of anger among all Arabs that is now coming home to roost. Israel, the regions top nuclear and conventional military power, is not at risk of destruction but it will be more isolated in the new Middle East.

Saudi Arabia's royal family knows it's kingdom in not immune to the tsunami. They have spent over a hundred billion dollars this year to try and buy off unrest. The Saudis also sent their own troops into Bahrain to prevent a Shia revolution there and they are trying to contain the revolutionary impulse in Yemen which is a perennial source of trouble for Riyadh.

Iran may actually be the biggest loser from the Arab awakening. Its longtime ally, the Assad family in Damascus is in trouble. If a Islamist Sunni regime replaces the Alawi Assads it is likely to be violently anti-Shia and anti-Persian.

The rest of the world will be bystanders . There is no hunger in Nato to do another Libya and no money to fund a Marshall Plan for Arab democracies. The Arabs are largely on their own now. Whether they can craft a better future, only time will tell.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Arab Awakening

Leaders at the summit | Vox pop

First Published: Nov 27, 2011 22:44 IST