The year 2012 will be remembered as an important milestone in the development of the modern Arab world, because it has started to reveal the underlying but long-hidden strengths and weaknesses of Arab societies and states. Here is my list of the 10 most significant things we learned from events in the Arab World and the wider Middle East in 2012. First, it is now clearer than ever that there is no such thing as a cohesive, single “Arab World,” as every Arab country follows a different path in pursuing its own political reconfiguration. For the first time ever in their history, ordinary Arab men and women are driving the political changes under way, revealing the variety of identities, sentiments, legitimacies and conditions in different Arab countries, with their own character, nuance and agency.
Second, simultaneously, those 350 million ordinary Arab men and women across the region are expressing some common grievances, attitudes and aspirations. The most significant sentiment they expressed in 2012 is the desire to live a life of integrity and dignity – not to be treated like a serf by one’s own government, but rather to enjoy a basic set of human and citizen rights. Shaping national systems that guarantee those citizen rights via credible constitutions is the hallmark trend of 2012 that is rippling across the Arab region in different forms and at different speeds.
Third, as part of that process, 2012 has taught us not to exaggerate the power, wisdom or political efficacy of Arab Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who have generally fared poorly in translating their slogans into policies. Thus they are being increasingly challenged by fellow citizens – including some of their own supporters – who are disappointed by the Islamists’ erratic performance in office.
Fourth, foreign policies hover in the background of the Arab citizen’s powerful sense of their own dignity, in the form of citizens who will not accept being chronically insulted by the aggressive, colonial-like, policies of other powers. Those could be Israel and the United States (especially vis-à-vis Palestine), Russia (in Syria), or Iran (in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria). Some people now complain about the aggressive actions of other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia’s and the other Gulf states’ intervention in Bahrain. The “Arab world” finally died in 2012, as the Arab citizen and state started to be born.
Fifth, there is no single Arab “leader,” but several states are pioneering different aspects of political development. Syria’s status will have the most profound implications in the short run because its imminent regime transformation will widely impact all of Western Asia. Tunisia and Egypt will have the most influence over other Arabs in the long run, because they are in the midst of the first ever process by which Arab men and women draw on their national values to shape and validate their own constitution and state structure.
Sixth, the Arab uprisings have not seriously touched the Gulf region other than in Bahrain, but the early signs of citizen activism in several Gulf states – a Twitter message here, a Facebook page there, human rights petitions and citizen participation concerns everywhere – represent the most profound Arab development of 2012 in my view; and Kuwait is the most fascinating country to watch in the year ahead. When wealthy, pampered citizens take to the streets and openly demand a more clear and constrained definition of the powers of their heads of state, it is time to take notice of Arab citizens demanding their political rights in the midst of material plenty.
Seventh, the Arab state in 2012 started to face its most severe modern tests of legitimacy and durability. Some Arab countries that lack integrity and cohesion – Yemen, Iraq – may fragment in due course, just as Southern Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011. Others such as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Lebanon may experience severe decentralization that camouflages the erratic bonds of nationhood that are now being more clearly exposed to the light of day.
Eighth, Turkey’s regional policy – once an elegant desire to have good relations with all neighbors – has collapsed into a series of stressful encounters with Syria, Israel, Iraq and Iran. So this may be a good moment to remember that only Arab countries, not non-Arab neighbors, can play a credible leadership role in the Arab world.
Ninth, global powers continue to adjust to the changing conditions in the region, more and more often responding to new realities shaped by Arab populist activism. The U.S., Russia and China are waging proxy battles in the Arab world, but usually playing in supporting rather than leading roles.
And tenth, the two big regional political issues of Palestine and Iran were subdued this year, while Arab uprisings and constitutionalism took center-stage. They will rebound in 2013, however, because they reflect real power relations that have an impact on the well-being of tens of millions of people.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. You can follow him on twitter @RamiKhouri.