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.

Visions
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.

Com­pe­tition
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.

Timing
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 openDemocracy.net under a Crea­ti­ve Com­mons licen­ce. It is repub­lis­hed here in accor­dan­ce with the license.

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