For decades, the Arab world was in a state of regression and helplessness, until the uprisings and revolutions early this year. To date, these have toppled two regimes, in Egypt and Tunisia, and threaten three, in Libya, Yemen and Syria. Other Arab regimes have been obliged to initiate degrees of reform. This is one of the most sweeping examples of change in the Arab world in the last century.
In fact, events taking place in several Arab countries can be seen as a delayed phase of that age of renaissance and enlightenment that began late in the Ottoman era. That age was interrupted during the colonial era when the victors of World War I divided up the lands of the “sick man of Europe” based on the Sykes-Picot and San Remo agreements. That was followed by Israel’s creation in fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration, the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, then military coups against regimes accused of being accomplices of the West.
If we reflect on the impact of these coups on the political, economic and social structure of Arab states and societies, we can to a certain extent explain the “democratic inertia” the region has witnessed. The coups demolished the emerging civil, political and partisan structures in our societies, hindered the legislative and judiciary branches of government, and prevented free and pluralistic elections. They also “ruralized” civil life and empowered peasant-rural elites to determine the status of political, intellectual, cultural and social life in the Arab world. Indeed, most of those behind the coups and imposing dictatorial military rule descended from peasant origins.
By the second half of the 1970s, the “Bedouinization” of Arab communities by the Wahhabi version of extremist Salafism became the most extreme and socially and culturally backward manifestation of this dynamic.
Coincidentally, oil and gas discoveries were concentrated in the least-developed and least-urbanized Arab countries. Thus, an “unholy alliance” emerged between Salafist-Wahhabi religious institutions and enormous oil revenues, constituting a chronic impediment to Arab reform. Arabs came to be viewed as “another type of people” who did not deserve democracy, for whom democracy was irrelevant, even though the 1920s and 1930s had witnessed a modernization and renaissance process at least in the major Arab cities.
Thus did the Arabs miss the opportunity to join the democratic waves spreading through most countries in the world. Only when the revolt erupted in Tunisia toward the end of last year did the Arab doors open wide for change and revolution. A domino effect catalyzed revolution in one Arab country after another and galvanized a new socio-political force – Arab youth. Could it be that the Arab world had all of a sudden decided to abandon regression and passiveness in favor of freedom, pluralism and dignity? Had the Arab street become convinced that the only thing it had to lose was its chains?
The quick fall of both Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali in Tunisia inspired young men and women in other Arab countries to take to the streets with similar aims. They repeated virtually the same slogans before recognizing that Libya, Yemen and Syria are neither Egypt nor Tunisia. On the contrary, revolutions seeking reform and change in those countries have been costly and bloody, and could last. Consequently, the “counter-revolutionary forces” led by Saudi Arabia have had a chance to mobilize their logistics and launch a counter-attack along multiple fronts.
This began with an effort to save Mubarak and Ben Ali, and when this failed, what remained of their regimes. The Saudis then sought to trade the head of the Libyan regime against the minority Sunni regime in Bahrain. Today, they are doing their seeking to rescue the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while in Syria they are still trying to fathom whether Washington wants President Bashar Assad to depart in order to calculate their response.
This Arab counter-revolutionary camp comprises nearly the same forces that in the 1950s and 1960s spearheaded a confrontation with the Nasserite, nationalist and leftist trends then. Coincidentally, the countries targeted today are the same that were targeted in the past. Indeed, such coincidences usually conceal necessities. Saudi Arabia and its allies in the residual “moderate” Arab camp consider the Arab Spring a strategic threat to their security and very existence. This is not because the winds of change have caused their major allies to collapse but rather because a “reaction” has already commenced inside Saudi Arabia (the Eastern Region and Hejaz) and among the Gulf emirates (Bahrain).
Saudi Arabia has left no stone unturned in seeking to immunize its interior and the Gulf. Alliances have been built with the old, collapsed “leftover” regimes. Support has been delivered to states vulnerable to revolution and change, based on enormous oil revenues derived from increased oil prices this year. Salafist-Wahhabi movements in Egypt and Tunisia have been exploited to cause the revolutions to wane and divert attention to marginal issues and clashes. In Syria, Riyadh seeks to blackmail the regime. In Iraq and Lebanon, it wants to challenge the forces affiliated with Iran and its “Shiite crescent.”
The old Arab political systems, then, are proving capable of resistance; they will not accept their new status easily. They are taking advantage of the double standards and hesitant reaction of the West when addressing Arab revolutions. Thus, many political observers are convinced that the Arab world is still in the throes of a hard transition period; victory has not yet been achieved.
The good news, though, is that the Arab street has abandoned the culture of fear. It has resolved decisively to take its future in hand and become a main actor, if not “the” main actor, on the political stage. This is the most important guarantee that the revolution of change will be sustained until it triumphs.
Oraib al-Rantawi is director of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman. This commentary first appeared at the online newsletter bitterlemons-international.org.