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The Arab Spring withers into winter

August 30, 2013 11:43 IST

Its promise has fallen short before the onslaught of the votaries of the old order and ruthless extremist forces, notes Talmiz Ahmad.

A little over two years ago, the Arab Spring swept the landscape of West Asia and North Africa with the promise of freedom, democracy, social and economic justice and, above all, dignity. In 2011, four despots who had ruled their countries, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, for several decades, were dethroned in quick succession, and free elections took place in some countries. Thus, at the end of 2011, while political and economic problems remained, there was a sense that the WANA countries would now shed their exceptional character as the last bastions of autocracy.

Today, however, the West Asian scenario is marked by: a two-year-old civil conflict in Syria in which over 100,000 people have been killed and over three million have been displaced; in Libya, competing warlords, divided on clan and tribal lines, control different enclaves; in Tunisia, the elected Islamist government is under growing domestic pressure; and in Egypt, the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi has been ousted in a military coup and former president Hosni Mubarak has been released, while Morsi and the leadership of the Brotherhood face incarceration.

The Al Qaeda and its affiliates have discovered new opportunities for penetrations into Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and recently in West and Northwest Africa as well. The promise of the Arab Spring is withering before the onslaught of the votaries of the old order and well-armed and ruthless extremist forces.

The causes of the failure of the Arab Spring are complex. The Spring had alarmed the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council who felt that their political, economic and cultural order, founded on royal prerogative, patriarchal patronage and familial and tribal loyalties, was threatened by two challenges: one, a strategic and sectarian challenge from Iran, and the other from within the regional religious and political order, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood has its moorings in the Sunni Salafi tradition, but, unlike the quietist Wahhabiya of Saudi Arabia, it is activist in orientation, with a platform and a committed cadre equipping it to seek power. Over the previous 50 years, its intellectuals, fleeing from persecution in Egypt and later Syria, had found sanctuary in a number of Gulf countries where they had influenced at least two generations of young people with programmes founded on Islam, imbued with a strong anti-West content.

The Brotherhood, and its underground affiliates in some countries, is seen as a challenge to the monopoly on religion and power of the GCC regimes.

In response, the GCC countries led by Saudi Arabia have shed their traditional quiescent, moderate and low-key approach, and are confronting these challenges head-on. It is possible that the coup in Egypt was effected at the initiative of the armed forces to save the country from polarisation and political and economic malaise due to Brotherhood misrule. Still, the GCC has welcomed the ouster of the Brotherhood and offered substantial political and economic support for the military regime. The Saudi ruler has publicly chastised the US for its dithering and has asserted that the GCC will stand with its Egyptian brothers in case Western aid is cut.

Though Saudi Arabia is confronting Iran across the Western Asia theatre, the competition is principally taking place in Syria. Iran has a long-standing strategic alliance with the (Shia) Alawite regime of Bashar Al-Assad, even as, through Syria, Iran has also nurtured the Hezbollah in Lebanon, a formidable Shiite political and military force in the region.

But, in Syria, the situation does not have a simple Saudi Arabia versus Iran dimension. The opposition militias in the country consist of a non-religious group, the Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from the national force, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood have their own militias, till recently supported by another GCC country, Qatar, but which are anathema to the Saudis.

The third force is made up of lethal Al Qaeda affiliates, frequently in conflict with the Syrian army as well as the other two opposition forces. All the fault lines in West Asia -- religious, sectarian, ethnic, Islamist, and big power divides, are at play in Syria, leaving the nation shattered and in danger of splintering into warring enclaves.

India, along with other countries with a stake in regional stability, has every reason to be concerned. The GCC countries are India's principal energy and trade partners, a major source for investments and joint ventures, and, above all, home to over six million Indians who send to their country over $35 billion annually. India also has substantial energy and economic ties as also strategic links with Iran, particularly in respect of its interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Hence, the GCC-Iran divide and the ongoing contentions in Syria and Egypt are alarming. These competitions could escalate into a region-wide conflict, if Israel were to persist with its aggressive postures against Iran, while Iran, Russia and even China would oppose an active US role in the Syrian imbroglio. All of this will have deleterious implications for India's (and Asia's) energy and economic interests, aggravating the current economic problems.

India can counsel prudence and restraint, but for now initiatives for moderation are unlikely to have any influence. With Brotherhood elements going underground and initiating a campaign of subversion in Egypt; with Iraq and Syria imploding under sectarian violence and external machinations, and the Kurds, inspired by revanchism and pursuing a sovereign territorial unity, the stage is set for major political upheavals that could redraw borders across West Asia and victimise thousands of people in religious and sectarian conflict and ethnic cleansing.

The Arab Spring is dying in the West Asian quagmire.

The author is a former diplomat. His book, ‘The Islamist Challenge in West Asia’, will be published in September 2013

Image:A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi shouts slogans during a protest outside Al-Fath Mosque in Cairo.

Photograph: Muhammed Hamed/Reuters

Talmiz Ahmad