From six months to six years of Arab Spring

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(This article was first published on http://english.alarabiya.net)

Six months after the Arab Spring raised hopes of a major overhaul of the regions political landscape, current events on the ground reflect confusion and uncertainty.

While forecasting political developments is a tricky exercise, the present conditions offer little hope for cheer in the hypothetical short to medium term of six years, which is more than a full parliamentary term in any democracy and ample timeframe to realize some of the aspirations of the people.

Within this timeframe, analyzing the probable developments in the economic, political and international arenas may be worthwhile.

Without undermining the current movements, which were long overdue, it ought to also be underlined that the most disappointing developments are likely to be in the economic realm.

As much as intellectuals stress that demand for human dignity and political freedom were the key factors behind the dissent, equal emphasis if not more is due for peoples aspirations to force economic solutions to longstanding problems in the region.

The Arab world is among the most socio-economic backward regions of the world. It is estimated that the only other region with an income level lower than the Arab world is Sub-Saharan Africa.

Arab countries host the worlds largest youth population nearly 40 percent under the age of 15; and, more alarmingly more than 25 percent of the worlds unemployed youth between 15 and 24 years.

This partly explains the ease with which opposition groups across the region managed to garner support for political change immediately after the Tunisian trigger.

While garnering support and even overthrowing regimes in some countries have been easy, translating partial political gains into partial economic benefits that would reasonably satisfy the people in the short and medium terms is a tall order.

With most new governments concentrating on consolidating political power, economic growth is unlikely to get undisturbed attention.

Lack of political will to tackle the economy is likely to extend to another great curse of new democracies corruption, which is likely to become a tool for compromise and consolidation of political power for the benefit of a few, as is evident in Iraq and Palestine.

In view of these and other factors, an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report states that while the Arab Spring has raised hopes of a shift towards pluralistic regimes, ushering in economic change and reverting decades of relative stagnation in the region, there is only a 20 percent probability of this translating into reality.

In the political realm, the EIU report suggests, it is likely that the new governments would return to autocracy and repression as the old guard from the authoritarian regimes find their way back into the new political maze.

The report claims that the most likely outcome, with a 60 percent probability, is a hybrid regime, with political change failing to yield genuine accountability or popular participation in the governments decision-making process. Under the circumstances, politics is expected to become a tussle between weak post-uprising forces and strong pre-uprising groups.

This is evident in the increased confrontation between an empowered, but unsatisfied, group of protesters and an unyielding, but consolidating, army-dominated regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.

Further, it is also important to note that social cohesion in non-democratic states is relatively easier to achieve than in democratic systems. While lack of freedom and oppression encouraged relative unity among the citizens in the past, political competition and power mongering could lead to intolerance and social divisions.

Equally detrimental would be the role of religious groups. As much as the Arab Spring appears to be secular, there is a religious underbelly. In the backdrop of influential religious groups being politically ostracized in the past, their return to the forefront of the changing political dynamics is a natural fall-out, which could lead to a polarized, even radicalized, political scenario.

In the backdrop of several new dispensations likely to follow a politically exclusive policy rather than adopt an inclusive approach, more worrisome is the possibility of some of the countries gravitating towards territorial disintegration, which would alter the geographic landscape of the region.

Amid these economic and political uncertainties, the Arab Spring is bound to impact the international relations of the region as well.

Turkey is using the crisis to consolidate its status as a force to reckon with in Middle East politics. But its policy of zero problems with neighbors is being tested by the developments in Syria, which may impact the Kurdish question in the region.

Simultaneously, a more assertive Saudi Arabia is emerging from the tension with the United States over the events in Egypt and Bahrain, as well as its longstanding ideological differences with Iran.

On the other hand, Irans desire to retain its influence in the region amid the changes has led to a tentative rapprochement with Egypt, which has, in turn, contributed to a thaw in Hamas-Fatah ties, thus raising the spectre of a meddling Iran all over again.

All these new alignments and realignments in the international arena are likely to add to the evolving uncertainties in national politics.

Finally, while most post-revolution states will be modestly more representative and less repressive, but turbulent and messy in the short and medium terms as well, what it all boils down to is if the means justify the end or the end justifies the means.

(Dr. N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst and author of Boom amid Gloom The Spirit of Possibility in the 21st Century Gulf (Ithaca Press, 2011). He can be reached at: [email protected])

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