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'The Arab Spring is in great distress'

By MK Bhadrakumar
February 15, 2012 19:09 IST
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Former diplomat MK Bhadrakumar delivered a keynote address -- The Arab spring: The region and India -- at an international seminar held in Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. Here's the complete text   


I intend to restrict myself to placing the phenomenon of the Arab Spring in a global context. This may seem a futile exercise because when the Arab Spring was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year or when it actually received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament, the accent was on its inner world. In the overwhelming bulk of western literature on the Arab Spring, the accent continues to be on the march of the indomitable human spirit in its quest for freedom. The leading human rights organisation in Washington, Freedom House, underscored the quintessence of the Arab Spring as of "captive people seeking freedom after decades of oppression."

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But then, arguably, Nobel too is imbued with world politics, as we have long suspected; Sakharov legacy certainly occupies the high ground of Cold War politics and indeed Freedom House hinted that the Arab Spring is "very much the same" as the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which of course reset the chessboard of world politics.


Suffice to say, what lends enchantment to the view is that the Arab Spring stands at a cross-roads today. It did topple regimes in four countries -- Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen -- although what follows remains unclear. Equally, it reinvigorated political Islam, just when the belief was gaining prevalence that political Islam was moribund; and the Arab Spring intensified dormant rivalries among regional powers and even rekindled the ambitions of extra-regional powers.


On a broader plane, it has brought to the centre stage the issues that first surfaced alongside the 'colour revolutions' which erupted on the territory of the former Soviet Union -- the genesis of popular uprisings and the forces at work behind them, hidden and open; 'democratisation' as a means to resolving problems and contradictions in countries with their own unique modes of social formation; indeed, the meaning of 'democracy' itself in the modern world. Economic factors alone cannot be regarded as the motivating factor in the Arab Spring. The upheavals that have surfaced are not even in the poorest or least developed parts of West Asia -- with the exception of Yemen. Clearly, the old models of governance have been found anachronistic by the masses, who today have easy access to international experiences thanks to the revolution in the media. Indeed, the media provide social networking for a broad enough swathe of society to provoke change.


The key issue is of legitimacy. Yet, curiously, the tremors of popular discontent have somewhat bypassed the conservative monarchies where power is inherited and have instead visited autocratic republics under 'elected' presidents. Why and how this happened needs probing.


Again, Islamist parties have come to the lead on the political spectrum in Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries that went through democratic elections, and across the board their surge is apparent. To my mind, this is primarily due to a combination of two circumstances. One, Islamist forces have long operated clandestinely as neighbourhood groups and over time gained legitimacy and popular acceptance in a political environment characterized by repression and unresponsive regimes. They, therefore, enjoy an early lead as vehicles of popular aspirations.


Two, in the stifling environment of autocratic rule, efforts toward building new political systems of representative character were non-existent and secular forces languished in the bargain.


The dialectics involving the robust forces of political Islam and the nascent secular elements in the building of modern institutions becomes an absorbing template of the West Asian politics in the coming period. I do not see a particular version of Islamic democracy -- Arab or non-Arab  -- as offering a model.


It helps to weigh in, though, that the ascendancy of the Islamist parties is taking place in the shadow of a globalised economy. The big question is how the Islamist revolutionaries are going to acquit themselves in power. History shows that revolutionaries are not above constituting the counter-revolution. This is one thing. Second, the Islamists in power face a hard struggle to reform the deteriorating economic situation and this may prompt them to adhere to the Washington consensus so that international financial institutions will loosen their purse strings. This is already happening with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the al-Nahda party in Tunisia, which are inclined to view the Washington consensus as a pragmatic choice that combines political liberation and democracy with economic freedom, apart from gaining acceptance by the western powers.


The White House announced on Monday plans to help the Arab Spring countries with more than 800 million dollars in economic aid. It is difficult to tell how much of the proposal is actually new money but the political message is self-evident. In sum, the revolutionary spirit in the current upheaval should not be mistaken as directed against capitalism or anything like that, although corruption and injustice and inequities were causes that triggered the upheaval.


The point is, these processes are not taking place in a vacuum. The regional backdrop has transformed. The Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising countries not many of whom are known for democratic rule, is nonetheless acting as the guide and guardian angel of reform in Bahrain and Yemen. The Arab League, which was long derided as a club of dictators, is on a lead role in Syria and within that organisation two oil monarchies are at the barricades as the flag carriers of democracy in Syria alongside non-Arab countries belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation while at least four Arab states that could today claim to have some form of representative rule -- including two of Syria's immediate neighbors -- have dissented.


The Arab League may have damaged its credibility in the Syrian crisis. It appears to be unable to have to act without the West and may be displaying its over-dependence on an outmoded paradigm in which Washington always prevails.


The latest Arab League stance to "provide all kinds of political and material support" to the Syrian opposition opens a new chapter in intra-Arab relations. "All options" is diplomatic language associated so far with the US and Israeli threats to Iran and for the first time it is entering the lexicon of intra-Arab politics. Again, the United States' standoff with Iran has been brought forward to replace or to digress attention from the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem. There is also a deliberate attempt to portray Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian confrontation as the dominant regional narrative. Woven into this is the angst over Iran's nuclear programme and that country's dramatic rise as a regional power, which challenges Israel's traditional regional dominance. A congruence of interests has developed between the 'pro-West' Arab oligarchies and Israel. Over and above comes the canopy of the West's historical hegemony over the oil-rich region, which it is reluctant to relinquish in the era of globalization. China's rise and Russia's return to the world stage impart urgency to the drive to perpetuate the western hegemony. West Asia always remained a pivotal region for world politics through modern history ever since Napoleon set foot in Egypt.


In the Syrian crisis, the interplay of these processes has become more visible than in Libya, which the West used to test a model for regime change under the garb of reform and democratization. Yet, the NATO's military intervention in Libya achieved only contradictory results and the saga turned out to be a cynical parody of the Arab Spring, largely discrediting the concepts of reform and change.


In the Libyan sands, the fine flower of Arab Spring began wilting. True, like in Libya, there is a popular yearning for reform and change in Syria too. But the spectre that haunts Syria is also that taking advantage of the popular yearning, outside powers have jumped into the fray to push an agenda of regime change. Syria's neighboring countries have become staging ground for inciting civil war conditions, which could at some point be seized as justification for direct, armed intervention. If oil was the leitmotif for the NATO intervention in Libya, much more is at stake in the geopolitics over Syria.



the very least, Syria's weakening as a state in the forefront of regional politics, coming on top of Iraq's devastation and Egypt's transition would mean the collapse of Arabism for the foreseeable future, which in turn mitigates Israel's acute isolation today. Syria is Iran's strongest ally in the region, and Damascus left a strong imprint on politics in Lebanon as well as on the Palestinian resistance. Once again, we come back to the security of Israel.


Quite obviously, in the regime-change bandwagon in the United States, we can easily spot many well-known friends of Israel, who espouse that a weakened Syria, marooned in protracted civil war, will weaken Arabism and militant Palestinian resistance.


The West has successfully frustrated repeated Russian efforts to bring the Syrian authorities and opposition on to the negotiating table. On the other hand, bereft of the fig leaf of a United Nations mandate, the West and its regional allies are reluctant to plunge into direct military intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime continues to enjoy substantial support of the people and of the armed forces. The Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri's latest statement, affirming support for the so-called Syrian opposition -- and for regime change -- underscores that the beast of anarchic violence is slouching toward Damascus.


I chose to speak at some length on Syria because what happens in Syria is going to seal the fate of the Arab Spring. The spiralling violence inside Syria and the continued ambivalence on the part of the West and its local allies toward the idea of dialogue and peaceful reform are feeding on each other. According to the UN, 5000 lives have been lost in the conflict so far. The entry of Al Qaeda takes the situation a critical step forward toward the eruption of sectarian violence of a kind that tore Iraq apart in the recent years. Syria is a melting pot of so may ethnic groups and polarisation and religious intolerance can plunge the country into civil war.


The Arab Spring will never recover if it turns out to be that the West and its local allies have entered into a marriage of convenience with al-Qaeda, as they once did in Afghanistan.


Iraq's Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi stated earlier this week that jihadists are flocking to Syria from Iraq and weaponry is being sent across the border to support anti-Assad movement in the country. Apparently, outflow of weapons into Syria has assumed such proportions that the price of a Kalashnikov assault rifle has risen in recent weeks from $ 100-200 up to $ 1500 in Mosul.


In a historical sense, whoever is paying for this trans-border gun-running operation is rubbishing the reputation of the Arab Spring.


To be sure, the Arab Spring is in great distress already. It is threatened with outright seizure by the West in cohort with local partners to serve as an instrument of geopolitical agenda. But what gets overlooked is that the genie of self-determination once let loose from the bottle in Syria cannot easily be put back and the plain truth is that self-determination has application in one form or another for many countries ranging from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Peninsula that emerged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.


In short, the induced Arab Spring in Syria could produce results as unexpected as the contrived 'Arab revolt' one hundred years ago. Undoubtedly, a contestation for regional influence has begun, which prompts one to recall Kemal Ataturk's famous words  --'Peace at home Peace abroad' as a highly relevant maxim for all.


This is not to deny the authenticity of the natural desire of the Arab people to express their political views but I am only drawing attention to the paradox that attempts to impose democracy or choreograph the narrative to suit geopolitical agenda by suppressing that natural desire risks a polarisation of allegiances holding the potential for escalation of violence. In sum, the western expectation is to finesse the regional upheaval and guide them as democratic movements that allow space for pro-west democratic liberals to grow and mature and eventually seize the opportunity to build new pro-Western governments overthrowing the old ones it has been long unhappy about. However, although at times it may appear the West has stolen the Arab Spring in Libya and Syria, the interpenetration of revolutionary circumstances is never quite that simple to predict, leave alone calibrate.


Besides, the current wave of social and political upheavals stem from multiple causes and multiple aims. While the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt wore revolutionary characteristics, those in Bahrain and Libya have been different, rooted in religious or tribal conflicts. In Yemen, the upheaval stems from a variety of factors such as tribal conflict, political separatism and the intervention of al-Qaeda affiliates. Syria's is also a complicated mix of social, political, religious and ethnic conflicts, which could extend beyond its borders.


The single biggest outcome of the Arab Spring so far has been the marginalisation of peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, which nonetheless remains the dominant question in the region. The West has contrived to push Syria and Iran to the forefront as factors that decide the future of West Asia.  However, this will only complicate solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem. In a longer-term perspective, it is small comfort that the Hamas leadership has been forced to relocate from Damascus and it is too dangerous a fallacy to hope that Islamism can be 'Americanised'.


It is apparent that the bilateral ties between Egypt and Israel have radically transformed. This trend is likely to repeat elsewhere too as a series of regimes more responsive to popular attitudes appear on the regional landscape in a political environment where popular attitudes are quite critical of American foreign policy -- and especially so in regard of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.


As the former US national security advisor Zbgniew Brzezinski noted, "we underestimate the extent to which Arab public opinion on the popular level is truly preoccupied -- and in some respects even impassioned – regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue… the issue is at the base of a lot of anti-American or anti-Western Arab sentiments." Therefore, while Israel might seem to benefit in the short-term, thanks largely on the basis of shortsighted expediency -- namely, taking cover behind a seemingly good argument that this is not an opportune moment for negotiations -- in the longer run, Israel may be ruling itself out as a viable, creative and influential participant in a more accommodated and peaceful Middle East and the implications of that for Israel's future could be ominous.


Equally, a dichotomy exists as regards the Arab attitudes. Very little is still being posed even after the upheavals appeared as to what truly motivates the Arab masses. The West -- and much of the world community, including India -- continue to ask themselves what motivates the Arab elites. We find it convenient to do so as the Arab elites are more inclined to accommodate our wishes because of the overlapping interests, which are essentially financial interests. But we tend to overlook that this is not the case with the Arab masses.


The Arab Spring highlights that we have to pay attention to the Arab masses, given the strong likelihood that a variety of domestic political forces with different political aspirations competing against each other can be expected to emerge out of the debris of the collapse of the authoritarian regimes. Egypt is already showing the way.


The Arab Spring has exposed a great variety of contradictions in the countries of West Asia, which have accumulated through the past century or more since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The best hope is that Arab elites themselves explore the ways to resolve the contradictions and work for a historic revival of the Arab people. But that is too much to hope for. Whereas, the probability is that great upheavals such as the Arab Spring and the transformations they engineer play out over a long period of time. Although almost uniformly the people expect that a new Arab world of prosperity, strength, progress, independence and civilisational flowering will emerge in the aftermath of the upheavals, quite obviously, such dreams are seldom if ever fulfilled.


I can only repeat the thoughtful observation by a Chinese scholar that I came across recently: While real revolutions may take place in some countries of West Asia, "the signs of revolutionary institutional transformations are yet to emerge" in any of the four countries that the Arab Spring visited.

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