The Arab World into the unknown

TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO, Arab countries were abuzz with interesting conversations. Rich and poor, old and young, villager and urbanite, Islamist and secular all had their own take on the bewildering turmoil of the uprisings they were caught up in. They tended to be aware of the risks, hopeful that change was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial, and proud that the region could awaken and, after centuries of foreign interference, set its own agenda. Opinions were also invariably sophisticated, with people speaking profoundly about societies they thought they knew and had started to reassess.

This was a refreshing change from the pre-2011 tune of impotence. The region at that point, as its inhabitants saw it, was hostage to ossified regimes, intractable conflicts, worn-out narratives, and crumbling economies – not to mention Western hypocrisy, and schizophrenia, about urging client regimes to reform. Sterile agitation on the regional or international front, notably around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, distracted from thorough stagnation in domestic politics. Commentary was a cyclical run through the latest episode of violence, round of sanctions, realignment of alliances, or half-hearted diplomatic ventures. Uninspiring solutions to lingering problems left citizens reluctant to choose, among players in this game, the lesser of evils. Standing up to the US (like firebrand Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or surviving an Israeli assault (as Hezbollah did in 2006 and Hamas in 2009) could certainly make you popular beyond your traditional base, but not for long.

Less than three years after popular protests streaked across the Arab world, conversations appear to have come full circle. Optimism that societies in the region could no longer be ignored and would bring about change has reverted to doom and gloom. Outside observers have jumped from one label to the next: Arab spring to Islamist autumn to reactionary winter. All-too often, local residents view protests as a conspiracy, a naïve illusion or an ill-fated hope at best. Many see a stark choice between a failing old order and hegemonic Islamist rule—or war, as in Syria. Opinions are generally crude, aggressively intolerant and more rigid than ever. Interlocutors sport surprisingly definite conclusions about their home-region, no matter how fluid and contradictory the current trends actually are.

If commentary appears the same, events on the ground are not.  On a domestic level, the region’s people remain more assertive than ever. Dissidents, both Muslim Brothers and liberals, have shown they won’t give up in Egypt, where they have spoken out against new laws banning protests and constitutional drafts allowing military trial of civilians. Syrians, despite the chaos in their country, talk openly about what they want, challenging both the regime and the opposition. Tunisia remains a place where parties are being forced to seek some sort of compromise. The environment in which this is happening has been transformed, too.

At a regional level, Iran has assumed a more overtly sectarian policy, which Tehran had hitherto tried to avoid; the so-called ”axis of resistance” to Israel is detached from any major Palestinian faction; Saudi Arabia has opened a front not only against Shiites, but Salafi Jihadis and Muslim Brothers, leaving it largely divorced from the Islamist scene it aspires to lead; Syria is no longer a player but an arena for others to compete in; Israel is only rarely accused of joining the scrum. The most noticeable change to the international environment is the US’ relationship with the Arab world. Rather than grab on and take advantage of change of the sort the US has long called for, the superpower has focused on negotiations with Iran and a push at the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, leading to strange shifts in its links with the region. It failed to define its interests in the Syrian context, missing out on what for decades was considered the prize of all regional struggles. It has allowed its relations to wane with its principal Arab partners, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It has moved towards rapprochement with Iran, a foe since 1979. All told, the Arab world is still at the start of a period of domestic, regional and international flux.

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Originally published, with Sarab Birke, by The Arabist, 14 January 2014

Illustration credit: Gustave Dore illustration of Orlando Furioso by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

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