The Arab Spring is well into its second year. What is the broad outcome of this gigantic struggle and, more importantly, what can be sketched so far for the future of the Middle East?
Is there a new Middle East emerging? If so, what sort of landscape can we project? How different would it be from the present one? Will the Arab Spring really lead Arabs to democracy? What will happen to some of the long and deep-rooted historical conflicts that have shaped the Middle East for more than a century?
Let us begin by noting that it is far too early to project specifically the future of the new Middle East. The Arab states are socially, economically and politically far too different from one another for us to draw any general and concrete conclusions about all of them. Still, certain strands can be defined with reasonable confidence.
One of the most important aspects of the new Middle East is a general move toward democracy. To avoid any ambiguity as to what is meant by the word “democracy” in the Arab-Islamic context, let us explain that it concerns three fundamental points. First, the government is appointed by the people through a fair and free election. Second, the rule of law exists, and elected governments are limited to what the constitution empowers them to do. Third, the government must be answerable to Parliament for all its decisions and policies.
Until now, none of these criteria have been genuinely practiced in any of the Arab states. The Arab regimes sought their legitimacy from places other than the ballot box. Invariably, it was their armed forces that raised them to power and kept them there as well. The idea of the rule of law existed only in textbooks. Arab leaders ruled quite arbitrarily, doing whatever they deemed necessary to stay in power.
No Arab leader, from Hosni Mubarak to Moammar Gadhafi to Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, ever said, “I want to do this or that, execute this decision or exercise that policy but, alas, the law or the Constitution doesn’t allow me to.” They always did whatever they desired, in the absence of any institution to which Arab heads of states were obliged to reply and defend their actions. Whatever they did was appropriate and, of course, “for the good of their country and their people.” Consequently, whoever opposed or criticized them was a traitor, an agent of Western colonial and Zionist powers and of the enemies of Islam and the Arab people. All Arab leaders identified their opponents with “foreign powers,” which invariably meant the West and Israel.
The Arab Spring has a long way to go. Conditions in many Arab countries will get worse before they get better. The tumultuous events in Libya, including tribalism and ethnic conflict, are a clear example of post-revolution upheavals. Some Libyans are already beginning to seek the stability and security their country enjoyed under Gadhafi. If the Egyptian Omar Suleiman had stood as a candidate in the coming presidential elections, many Egyptians longing for the stability under Hosni Mubarak would have voted for him. Syria, which is being torn apart, presents an even more serious example of the huge turmoil that is visiting the Arab world.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Democracy is slowly rising in the Arab world for the first time in its history. And if history is anything to go by, democracy will solve many historical conflicts in the region – domestic as well as between states – in the same the way it did in Europe and elsewhere. True, there were at one point fears that in the absence of strong, ruthless and authoritarian regimes in the Arab countries, radical Islamic groups might fill the vacuum and establish rigid anti-Western governments. But this has not happened.
The Islam that has come out of the Arab Spring is more inclined toward a Turkish than an Iranian model. It is true that Islamists in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt have emerged as the biggest winners in free and fair elections. But it is also true that the Islam they broadly represent is a moderate Islam. It is neither anti-Western nor anti-American. It is not even explicitly anti-Israel. The Islamists are of course critical of Israel’s conduct toward Palestinians, in much the same way that many non-Zionists and secular and non-orthodox Israelis are critical of their government, but they have not raised the banner of the destruction of the Jewish state.
In fact, the Arab Spring has for the first time created a realistic prospect for peace between the Arabs and Israel. Democracy aside, this is the most important achievement of the Arab Spring.
Sadegh Zibakalam is a professor of political science at Tehran University. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.