Arab Spring or Western Winter?
June 16, 2011 1 Comment
If you have been hearing about the Arab Spring, but haven’t been simply swept away by the prospect of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa and are still contemplating whether this is a good or a bad thing, then you are not alone. The mainstream media has been somewhat vague to give this topic proper coverage and the responses by Obama and other leaders have been ambiguous to say the least.
So what is happening in the Middle East?
The Middle East through its evolution has ended up on the whole with two types of regimes. It has the regimes post a military coup as well as the Monarchies. The post military regimes are countries such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq and Syria, whereas the Monarchies are Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai … etc. Iran is a special case.
The military regimes in the Middle East are generally regimes that have had a military coup. These are normally half-way democracies, as they hold elections, which mean very little, as traditionally they have a long term ruler, who passes the reign down to a member of the family, for example in the case of Syria, where Bashar Assad inherited the reign from his father Hafez.
The other type of regime is a monarchy, in which the ruling party is often part of a prominent dynasty, which often also has religious context, justifying its rule. Some of these monarchies have a constitution as well, however in practice they are a dictatorship, in which the citizens have few civil liberties and the country has a strict adherence to Muslim law. These rulers are normally irremovable as they claim their authority in more than just popular vote and are backed by the religious clerks.
As mentioned before Iran is a special case, since it has gone through a military coup in 1979, but instead of the typical secular army rule, it put in place a religious rule backed by the army. While Iran holds elections, in essence it is no different to the monarchies, as it has a group of irremovable religious leaders, who run the country in accordance to strict Muslim law and can veto any of the decisions made by the elected government.
It is important to understand the distinction of these countries, since as the plot unfolds in the Middle East it seems that there is a pattern emerging, in which countries, which have had an army rule are the ones, whose citizens have successfully toppled the leadership, whereas the countries with a monarchy rule have managed to avoid a regime change, sometimes by violently suppressing the protesters.
The turbulence in the Middle East has also exposed some of the alliances. Reports have come out about the Lebanese Hezbollah supporting the regime in Syria and Iran and there have also been some reports about Shiites supporting their religious sect, while Sunnis standing together as well. This support has noticeably been from Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Internally in each country there are also many more complexities regarding tribal and regional rule, which also play a part in the revolution and a broken alliance is a circumstance that could give a revolution backwind, which it has for example in the case of Libya.
In regards to whether the revolutions would have a positive effect on the West, there are a few things to consider. The first and obvious would be the fact that a true democracy isn’t merely the act of putting votes in a box, rather an environment supporting freedom of speech, free vote for everyone and freedom to run for government. Countries coming out of a long dictatorship probably do not enjoy the benefits of these freedoms yet. Another aspect is the driving force behind the protests, just as the West has been accused of organizing and inciting some of the protests in Iran, there are some local countries and groups involved in the uprising, closely monitoring and manipulating the outcome. The third aspect, which is equally important, is the type of regimes going through a leadership change and the future leaders.
At this point in time, the revolutions have only managed to remove long term dictators and not yet establish a fair stable government. In Tunisia and Egypt an interim government has been put in place, while the citizens are waiting for the next elections. In Libya and Syria, Gaddafi and Assad are still holding on to power by violently trying to suppress the protests, but all indications are showing that it is only a matter of time. The West is still looking anxiously, whether one of the monarchies would fall as well, possibly starting a new domino of revolutions in the established monarchic regimes.
Looking around the region at countries that have gone through the changes from military to democracy, shouldn’t give the West high hopes. Iraq, which has had a Western instigated regime change, is still unstable due to outside influence as well as an inability to bridge over internal ethnic differences. Turkey, which has had its regime change after WW1 by Ataturk, has in the last decade plunged back into Islamic rule, which is slowly undoing the checks that were put in place to ensure Turkey remains a secular democratic country, and of course there is Iran, which has already been discussed.
At this point the wind could blow in either direction. There has been a trend in the past, in which the religious parties have been able to steer clear of any corruption allegations of the same scale of the secular parties (for example CHP in Turkey, Mubarak family in Egypt, Fatah in Palestine ..etc. ). If this trend continues, it is likely that the religious parties would take hold in the Middle East and North Africa, which would be bad news for the West, as the road back to a dictatorship is not long and the religious parties typically promote anti-West values.
If the West wants to continue trading with the Middle East and North Africa countries it is going to have to at least match its influence on the region, to the one made by Iran and other countries in the region. However any Western influence is always greatly criticized at home as seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya …etc.
The majority of people in the West believe that democratic values are universal and would prevail despite local influence. Most people would not wish to spend money or use undemocratic means to promote democracy, despite of what is already the norm being in the region. As long as this is the case, true democracy in the Middle East and North Africa is a long way away and we could only expect to see things get worse in the short term.