The Arab Spring and Its Portents – January 15, 2012

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There was little advance warning that the suicide of a street vendor in Tunisia towards the end of 2010 would have led to the end of Ben Ali’s long and dictatorial rule. The Tunisian example was followed by other Arab countries when their peoples came out in the street day after day to protest against the stifling autocracies their countries had become. Distinguished by a hide bound statism coupled with massive corruption, the Arab world had lagged behind other parts of the world in human development. The Arab Spring signaled a patient people’s impatience and anger at their leader’s incapacity and indifference to ameliorate their economic and social conditions. Hosni Mubarak the long time pharaoh was toppled by street power. He was forced to hand power to the Egyptian armed forces that have promised but not yet ushered in a democratic era. The winds of change also resulted in the downfall (and killing) of Gadaffi of Libya, the resignation of President Ali Saleh of Yemen and massive popular pressure by the Syrian people on President Bashar Al Asad to resign. There have been protests in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arab countries. These are largely demonstrations against the status quo under which the majority of the Arab populations are deprived of economic and political freedoms which are routinely enjoyed by citizens in many other countries.

The United States and Western countries are largely spectators to the events unfolding in the Middle East. Only in Libya did NATO forces after UN authorization use decisive air power favoring the rebels, to defeat the four decades long Gadaffi dictatorship. The immediate fall out of the turbulence in the Middle East according to the IMF was that oil prices in 2012 were likely to be higher than originally forecast. This would make it more difficult for the Western economies to recover from the economic slump that many of them are battling against.

That the US and other Western countries were taken off guard by the Arab Spring is exemplified by a statement by Hillary Clinton just a few weeks before Mubarak’s downfall that the Egyptian regime was “stable” which is eerily reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s confident assertion a few months before the Shah of Iran’s political demise that “Iran was an island of stability.” It appears that despite significant diplomatic and intelligence mechanisms being in place in Middle Eastern states allied with the West, there was little advance warning from these assets, of the enormous change that was about to engulf this region. It would be in the interest of the United States according to knowledgeable analysts, to engage with the Islamists who are likely to win power through the electoral process in the Arab world. This assessment is based on the premise that the Islamists are pragmatists and not ideologues and that mutuality of interest between the successor Arab regimes and the West does exist and should be built upon. In any case the era of compliant dictators subservient to Western interests seems to be over. The United States and the rest of the world will have to adjust to the geopolitical aftermath of the Arab Spring.

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