The Arab revolt: transformation to transition

A hurricane of change is blowing through the Arab world. Even now, many Arab regimes are still in denial. But it also challenges the west to grasp a new political reality.

The Arab demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tion, if that is what it proves to be, is spread­ing. The expe­ri­ences of protest and change in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain and Moroc­co, Libya and Yemen may vary sub­stan­tial­ly, as most prob­a­bly will their polit­i­cal out­comes; yet they also seem to be com­po­nents of a great col­lec­tive shift, which will have rever­ber­a­tions far beyond the region.

Even in the midst of tumul­tuous events it is not too ear­ly to start think­ing about what comes after, and in par­tic­u­lar how inter­na­tion­al pol­i­cy-mak­ers should best respond to and inter­vene in the com­ing Arab order.

The cur­rent signs are less than encour­ag­ing, in two ways. First, there is a ten­den­cy for polit­i­cal and media atten­tion to focus on where the most dra­mat­ic action is, but then to move on quick­ly when it is over — the very time when sus­tained engage­ment (as now in Tunisia) is most need­ed. It is not enough to cheer for the rev­o­lu­tion while it is hap­pen­ing. The after­math, the tran­si­tion process from author­i­tar­i­an­ism to democ­ra­cy, is the cru­cial moment; and this is when a coun­try needs most help. This is also the time when peo­ple pow­er alone can­not guar­an­tee a change in the right direc­tion, and when bad man­age­ment in a crit­i­cal peri­od can backfire.

Sec­ond, the epic events in the Arab world reveal a poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous ten­sion. Across the region, peo­ple seem to be crav­ing free­dom and democ­ra­cy at a time when the west has lost inter­est in pro­mot­ing these val­ues. The east is look­ing west (at least in terms of its aspi­ra­tions), but the west is look­ing away. Will the twain find a meet­ing-point in their objec­tives in the dif­fi­cult peri­od to come?

From romance to reality

What hap­pened in Tunisia and Egypt, and may yet hap­pen in the rest of the Maghreb and else­where in the Arab world, is the col­lapse of an order that had long had lost its legit­i­ma­cy. The Tunisian expe­ri­ence is exem­plary, in that the trig­ger for the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali seems to have been a rad­i­cal awak­en­ing of the pop­u­la­tion so pow­er­ful as to con­vince the pres­i­dent and his coterie that it was all over and that fight­ing back was useless.

The abstract and roman­tic part of the process is that many Tunisians’ dream of change and free­dom to speak is being ful­filled — and that oth­ers in the Arab world are inspired to fol­low suit. But this phase, in Tunisia and else­where, is not the end of the sto­ry, but only the begin­ning. The hard real­i­ty of nego­ti­at­ing and cre­at­ing a new order must fol­low, to fill the vac­u­um of pow­er and build the insti­tu­tions that can ensure bet­ter gov­er­nance. This involves huge chal­lenges and requires sub­stan­tial sup­port from outside.

The start­ing-point, in most of the Arab states, is that polit­i­cal soci­ety has been sup­pressed for decades and needs to be rebuilt from scratch. Even civ­il soci­ety, polit­i­cal par­ties and the non-gov­ern­men­tal sec­tor (where they exist) are com­pro­mised by hav­ing had to adapt to the real­i­ties of an author­i­tar­i­an regime; they need help to move quick­ly towards a healthy plu­ral­ist environment.

The prob­lems of tran­si­tion are thus mul­ti­ple. There are issues of tran­si­tion­al jus­tice: what to do with the old regime and reform the secu­ri­ty sec­tor, how to pro­mote rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and allow soci­ety to move on. There are ques­tions of fair demo­c­ra­t­ic com­pe­ti­tion: after so many years when real pol­i­tics have been semi-comatose the most effec­tive oper­a­tors are often Islamist par­ties, which in addi­tion ben­e­fit from asso­ci­a­tion with and pro­tec­tion from the mosque.

But address­ing all these mat­ters should be made eas­i­er by the fact that the impulse of the Arab revolts are for free­dom, jus­tice and account­able gov­ern­ment. These val­ues echo those espoused by Europe and the Unit­ed States, and rep­re­sent enough of a shared foun­da­tion for the west­ern pow­ers to be seen as sup­port­ive of the process.

The US and west­ern Europe have sig­nif­i­cant expe­ri­ence in man­ag­ing tran­si­tions; in the case of the Mar­shall plan after the sec­ond world war, it bound them togeth­er. The Euro­pean Union on its own account has also led var­i­ous tran­si­tions: in Spain and Portugal’s move from author­i­tar­i­an rule, in the enlarge­ment process that trans­formed east-cen­tral Europe. And the EU’s neigh­bour­hood pol­i­cy (ENP) is intend­ed pre­cise­ly to apply the lessons gained from enlarge­ment to help reform the coun­tries just beyond the union’s boundaries. 

Euro­pean secu­ri­ty, in Javier Solana’s dic­tum, was best pro­mot­ed were Europe sur­round­ed by a “ring of well-gov­erned states”. In prac­tice, the ensu­ing approach devel­oped bilat­er­al “action plans” in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the regimes them­selves. These plans will now need to be rene­go­ti­at­ed with the Arab world’s ambi­tious agents of change that are now or will soon be in government.

The transition handicap

But prece­dents can mis­lead as well as guide. The post-1989 tran­si­tion in Europe and the ear­ly sig­nals of a sim­i­lar process in the Arab world seem are like­ly to be dif­fer­ent at the out­set in three main ways. They can be char­ac­terised in terms of visions, com­pe­ti­tion, and timing.

Both sides of the Euro­pean tran­si­tions at the end of the cold war had the objec­tive that the post-Sovi­et states (as with Iberia and Greece a gen­er­a­tion ear­li­er) should move towards becom­ing lib­er­al democ­ra­cies, and ulti­mate­ly mem­bers of the Euro­pean Union bound by its insti­tu­tion­al-legal frame­work and prin­ci­ples. Such con­sen­sus in or regard­ing the Arab world can­not be guar­an­teed, despite the con­so­nance of val­ues referred to above. The tran­si­tion is also like­ly to fea­ture a com­pe­ti­tion between visions, each pre­sent­ing a direc­tion and mod­el to fill the vac­u­um cre­at­ed by regime collapse. 

Some influ­en­tial polit­i­cal cur­rents are already call­ing for west­ern-style democ­ra­cies and gov­er­nance. But there is also sup­port for Islamists of var­i­ous kinds; and rem­nants of the ancien regime will learn new tricks and use the new sys­tem to attempt a come­back (the exam­ples of Ukraine and Lebanon show how this can be done). After so many years of semi-comatose polit­i­cal exis­tence, it is only nat­ur­al that at a cer­tain point the awak­en­ing will be dis­ori­ent­ed and look in dif­fer­ent direc­tions. What is need­ed is a mech­a­nism to man­age the diversity.

There will also be inter­na­tion­al and region­al com­pe­ti­tion for influ­ence in the Arab world dur­ing the tran­si­tion. In the case of the enlarge­ment of the Euro­pean Union to the south and east, the Euro­pean com­mis­sion was alone in plan­ning and imple­ment­ing the required reforms; again, the Arab world’s inher­i­tance means that no sin­gle legit­i­mate author­i­ty is like­ly to be available. 

Instead, there will be com­pe­ti­tion. Sau­di Ara­bia, Turkey, Qatar and Iran will prob­a­bly step in to sup­port dif­fer­ent brands of Islam; there are already signs of that in Tunisia and Egypt. Al-Jazeera is attempt­ing to take cred­it for the first Cathod­ic rev­o­lu­tion; Syr­ia claims the var­i­ous ris­ings to be in line with its own anti-Amer­i­can and anti-Israeli stance; Iran’s Aya­tol­lah Khamenei seeks to inter­pret the events as an Islam­ic revolution.

So the west will not have things its own way, and must focus soon on how best to sup­port the tran­si­tion. It is not true that a stance of non-inter­fer­ence and of leav­ing every­thing to home­grown reform is the best way to ensure a good out­come; on the con­trary, this needs to be argued for, worked for, and paid for.

In one sense, the long-await­ed Arab demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tion comes into being at an unfor­tu­nate time. The dom­i­nant mood in both Europe and the Unit­ed States has been shift­ing towards more “real­ism” in for­eign pol­i­cy, effec­tive­ly a will­ing­ness to engage and make deals with unpalat­able regimes for the sake of sta­bil­i­ty and self-interest.

The corol­lary is a move away from a pos­i­tive pro­jec­tion of demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues, reflect­ed in decreased empha­sis on and fund­ing of active democ­ra­ti­sa­tion projects. The reluc­tance to put these at the cen­tre of for­eign-pol­i­cy objec­tives reflects the bit­ter lega­cy of the George W Bush administration’s “free­dom agen­da”. But it is not clear that a more dis­tant and “real­ist” pol­i­cy will serve the Arab peo­ples any better. 

The new partners

Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, Moroc­co and Libya are in tran­si­tion — albeit at dif­fer­ent stages, in dif­fer­ent ways, and with (in all like­li­hood) dif­fer­ent out­comes. The west­ern per­cep­tions of what is hap­pen­ing needs to change to take account of the move­ment on the ground. This is eas­i­er said than done: ideas and poli­cies that have evolved slow­ly are hard to change, even when shown to be wrong or bypassed by history. 

When events are mov­ing so rapid­ly, last week’s ques­tions can very soon look ancient. In the week after the Egypt­ian revolt erupt­ed, much atten­tion focused on the oppo­si­tion fig­ure Mohamed ElBa­radei (is he a strong leader, will he have the back­ing of the army, can he uni­fy the oppo­si­tion?). The ques­tions were out­dat­ed before they were asked. If real change is to hap­pen, there will be demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed politi­cians, not strong lead­ers; they will prob­a­bly be elect­ed by a small mar­gin, not the clas­sic 97.6% of the past. They will be crit­i­cised and con­test­ed; con­sen­sus and enforced nation­al uni­ty are depassé.

The Arab polit­i­cal awak­en­ing means that old words should acquire new val­ues: polit­i­cal crises, some insta­bil­i­ty, paral­y­sis, bick­er­ing mediocre and oppor­tunis­tic politi­cians, are all part of the new good. Divi­sion is a sign of strength not weak­ness, for it means the sys­tem can absorb the var­i­ous polit­i­cal cur­rents. There will be few­er reli­able allies, who can be tar­nished — and become elec­tion losers — pre­cise­ly for sup­port­ing a bad policy. 

In the end, change in the Arab world means that west­ern pol­i­cy-mak­ers have to change too. The west has pre­ferred to work with dic­ta­tors. When their Arab allies no longer fit that descrip­tion, a new phase of his­to­ry with all its chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties will begin.


About this article — Creative Commons license

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Nadim She­ha­di, and under a Cre­ative Com­mons licence. It is repub­lished here in accor­dance with the license.







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