Some New Variables in Arab Politics

There are many clichés said and written about the Arab world. In fact, Western analysis of Arab politics is deficient without a healthy amount of clichés. One can’t read a short piece on Arab politics without reading the word “bazaar,” and one can’t read anything about Arab women without a section about the veil and its various forms. For those who insist on cliché-ridden analysis of Arab politics, one should ask them to insert new clichés, at least, to make room for new realities and conditions in the region.

Thomas Friedman – to his credit – is practitioner of the art of silly clichés and generalizations. And when Friedman can’t seem to find the right cliché for a sentence, he manages to introduce a new one to do the job. The era of Arab uprisings introduced its own set of clichés: We were early on told that this is “an Arab spring,” that Barack Obama “dropped Hosni Mubarak,” and that the Arab youth don’t give a damn about foreign policy and would love to have NATO troops all over the region.

It took decades and bloody uprisings for Western analysts and governments to admit that the Arab people don’t really enjoy autocracy, and when given a chance, they would overthrow the government that ruled them through a variety of means (repression and social benefits or combination of both as the need may be). But we need to introduce an obvious, new cliché: that the Arab world in the era of Arab uprisings is not what it was before. That there are new rules of the game and that there is a new set of factors needed in the explanation of Arab politics. Below is a list of some new variables that need to be taken into consideration:

1. Availability of weapons. The monopoly that Arab regimes have held over means of violence has been irrevocably broken, especially in the Maghrib and the Arab East (and this may soon extend to Gulf countries). The NATO intervention in Libya and the open policy of dumping all sorts of weapons in Libya and the confiscation of the weapons of the Libyan regime by a variety of groups (mostly jihadi) spread the supply of weapons all the way to Egypt and beyond. Similarly, the enthusiastic military intervention by Gulf Cooperation Council and Western governments in Syria also opened the road to the supply of yet more weapons in the Arab East. Opposition groups in Jordan, Egypt, and elsewhere now have access to readily available weapons.

2. The fear factor has been removed in most Arab countries. This factor, however, does not extend equally all over the Arab world. It is fair to say that the people of Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, and Morocco are now less fearful of their government. However, this factor is subject to change. It can be said that the Egyptian people removed the fear factor from their minds after they overthrew Mubarak, but Sisi succeeded in instilling back the fear factor in the minds and hearts of the Egyptian people. In the Gulf regimes, the fear factor in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Oman may have increased, as governments have become more ruthless after the eruption of the Arab uprisings.

3. A new realization of the interconnectedness of domestic politics and international politics. There was a measure of naiveté prevailing among many Arabs regarding their ability to chart their own destiny. The events of the last three years have revealed a lot regarding the anti-democratic coalition of United States-Israel-EU-Saudi Arabia. It is now quite clear that there is an international counter-revolutionary coalition that would try to prevent Arabs from overthrowing their dictatorships unless they happen to be opposed to US foreign policies (and even in those cases, the United States would merely prefer a more subservient dictator and not an open free democratic system that could defy US orders).

4. The loss of the appeal of Islam as a political factor. It is not that Islam is going away, or that Islam would be less dear to the hearts of Arabs and Muslims, but Islam as a political party or movement or ideology is quickly losing its luster and momentum. The brief experience with Islamist rule in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria (in the form of the Muslim Brothers and the various jihadi armed groups in the opposition), has undermined the foundation of the popularity of Islam. There is still, and will be for a time to come, a significant segment of the population that rallies around the Islamist banner (and the Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi dictatorship’s repression will probably restore some appeal to the movement in Egypt as it is being pushed underground). Nevertheless, Arab political culture is likely to produce more ideological trends and currents that were formerly disregarded from the political equation.

5. Daring Saudi foreign policy. Traditional Saudi caution is thrown to the wind. The Saudi royal family, ever since Mubarak was ousted from power, has gained new features and characteristics that we normally don’t associate with the public manifestations of Saudi foreign policy. The Saudi regime has shown a more daring and provocative streak, and this will only increase the number of blunders by the Saudi royal family. Overplaying their hands in Lebanon and Syria, the Saudi government’s policies have backfired in more places than one. This factor is partly due to the intense struggle for succession that is going on within the royal family.

6. Islamic reform. The agenda of Islamic reform emerged at the end of the 19th century and was later spearheaded by the Nasserist regime. The rise of Anwar Sadat and his alliance with the Saudi royal family brought reactionary Islam back into the religious establishment and silenced voices of reform in Islam. The political opening in several Arab countries and the expansion of the parameters of debate, especially on matters related to religion in Tunisia and Egypt, will undoubtedly enrich the debate within Islam and will marginalize that clerical establishment that was put in place by oil and gas regimes back in the 1970s. No one will anytime soon refer to Yusuf Qaradawi (a reformist by some Wahhabi standards) as the “respected cleric,” and that is a good thing.

These are some of the new variables that should be considered in any analysis of Arab politics, although these are tentative because the pace of change (violent and peaceful) has been increasing and because the regional and international counter-revolutionary coalition is aggressive in its attempt to prevent democracy from taking hold at all cost.

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