This Year and Next in the Greater Middle East

Patrick Seale

Historians will remember 2011 as the year when the Arabs rose against their dictators. The projection of ‘people power’ has been angry, impatient, astonishingly brave -- and above all young. Exploding demographics have provided the motor of the Arab Spring.
The figures tell the story. High fertility rates across the Arab world have led, within a single life-time, to a doubling, tripling and even quadrupling of populations, resulting in grossly over-stretched government services, in a huge inflation of student numbers and, inevitably, in frustrated expectations.
In country after country, a vast new generation of educated -- or semi-educated -- youngsters has emerged into adult life, only to discover that no jobs are available for them. Hence, they have no access to the consumer goods so blatantly displayed on TV screens, no decent lodgings, no possibility of early marriage, no prospect of a better life. Youth unemployment is the fuse which lit the fires of revolution.
Inevitably, the targets of these frustrated youngsters were the fat cats and crony capitalists who, in every Arab country, have thrived from proximity to the centres of power. The rebels demand an end to corruption and a fairer distribution of wealth. They want their share of the national cake.
It was but a short step from there for them to challenge the political regimes under which they and their parents have lived and suffered: the arrogant, puffed-up ruling families and their patronage networks; the stale one-party systems; the brutal security forces imposing stifling controls; the total lack of basic freedoms. There has been much talk of the revolutionaries wanting dignity – that is, the respect which governments owe their citizens, but which has been sadly lacking.
When economic grievances turn political, regimes begin to crumble. By their very nature, revolutions tend to be violent and destructive. Once they bring down the human and material pillars of a state, they create a void which it is often difficult to fill. A house can be destroyed in an hour, but might take months, if not years, to build. The next phase of the Arab revolutions must surely be devoted -- slowly, painfully and inevitably with many false starts -- to devising and creating the new state institutions which will replace the ones which are being swept away.
Each Arab country will proceed at its own pace. The more violent and prolonged the revolution, the more difficult the reconstruction -- as countries like Syria and Yemen will no doubt discover. Each country has its own history, its own power structures, its own unique characteristics. But one theme seems present in the revolutions of this past year. It could perhaps best be described as a profound desire to express the Arab and Muslim identity of the local populations, free from foreign cultural and political tutelage.
Across the greater Middle East -- from Tunisia to Afghanistan and the many places in between -- one senses a rebellion against foreign attempts to impose on the Muslim world a Western model of society, together with a submission to Western strategic interests. We may indeed be witnessing a new chapter -- perhaps a final one -- in the Arabs’ long struggle against Western imperialism, which began after the First World War, was defeated in the 1920s and 1930s, only to be frustrated again by the emergence of Israel after the Second World War -- and of the Arab dictatorships which followed.
A new phase of the struggle is now beginning. Is not this the explanation of the remarkable electoral success of Islamic parties? These parties are close to the common people and provide welfare services which the state has often failed to supply. But their immense appeal must surely also stem from their defence of Islamic traditions -- social, cultural and religious -- and their expression of an authentic national identity.
We don’t yet know how the Islamists will behave in government. Will they adopt the Turkish model of Islam allied to secular democracy, or will they slip back into Salafi fundamentalism? Whatever the answer, I suspect that their prime goal will be good governance rather than Western-style liberal democracy.
America’s decline in influence and reputation is likely to continue this coming year. It is the inevitable result of Washington’s grave foreign policy errors. Pro-Israeli neoconservatives in George W. Bush’s administration played a large part in launching the destruction and dismemberment of Iraq. Israel wanted Iraq permanently enfeebled: It has been the main beneficiary of the Iraq war. The same forces are now driving the current U.S. confrontation with Iran and the shameful abandonment of the Palestinians. To this catalogue of failures should be added America’s costly embroilment in Afghanistan; its quarrel with neighbouring Pakistan; and its use of unmanned drones to carry out targeted killings of doubtful legality.
The Arab world -- whether under new or old leaders -- must now assume responsibility for the grave problems it faces. Three require urgent attention: First, the need to protect the Egyptian and Yemeni economies from collapse; second, the need to build bridges across the Sunni-Shi‘a divide so as to protect the region from further civil wars; and third, the need to use every bit of Arab leverage and every ounce of revolutionary fervour to assist the Palestinians in their long-delayed quest for independent statehood.
In pursuit of these important goals, the Gulf States under Saudi leadership have a vital role to play. They are the new pole of Arab wealth, education, stable government and international influence. Much is expected of them. A union of Gulf Cooperation Council member states -- as recently proposed by King Abdallah, the Saudi monarch -- has much to commend it. It might even provide a model for a divided Europe. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2011 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global