Much has been written about the Arab Spring of 2011 and rightly so: no other event in world politics had such wide-ranging effects both in the region and far beyond.
The process that began in the waning days of 2010 has toppled regimes in four countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen), reinvigorated political Islam, intensified competition among regional powers both in terms of geopolitical ambitions and the Sunni-Shiite confrontation, and led to a reevaluation of NATO’s role in the world. Finally, it has again raised questions about democratization as a means of resolving problems and the meaning of democracy in the modern world.
The countries at the center of the storm are not the poorest or least developed, with the exception of Yemen. So, these upheavals cannot be reduced to strictly economic factors. The authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, which have remained virtually unchanged since the middle of the 20th century, were long considered the only model of governance suitable for the region. However, the changes in the last few decades have made them look increasingly anachronistic, all the more so since the revolution in the media has made international experiences available to the Arab masses , not the overwhelming majority, but a broad enough swathe of society to provoke change.
Legitimacy is the key issue. It is no accident that the conservative Gulf monarchies, where power is inherited, were shaken but unhurt by the Arab Spring, whereas autocratic republics with formally elected presidents who sought to transfer power to an heir crumbled under popular discontent.
Islamic political parties have clearly come out on top in countries that have already held elections (Tunisia and Egypt), and Islamists are becoming more active in countries that have yet to hold democratic elections (Libya, Yemen and Syria). This is no surprise; decades of one-man or at least one-party rule have left no other foundation for building a new political system.
Democracy can develop further in the Middle East if secular parties are established in addition to Islamic ones and if the forces of political Islam are interested in building modern institutions. Otherwise, the democratic spring will serve only to legitimize a new anti-democratic model, this time Islamic in nature.
Two oil monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are at the forefront of the struggle for regional leadership. Their efforts have turned the Arab League, long derided as a club of dictators, into an instrument of regime change (the only exception being Bahrain, where Saudi interference helped suppress the Shiite protest movement) and a pretext for intervention (NATO’s operation in Libya largely succeeded due to Arab support).
The confluence of three processes, great power rivalry in the region (Riyadh - Tehran), Sunni-Shiite confrontation, and increasing international concern over the Iranian nuclear program, is changing the regional context. The risk of military action will increase next year. With the growing alignment of interests among such diverse countries as Saudi Arabia and Israel and the upcoming presidential election in the United States, the prospect of military conflict is rising. The Iranian-Shiite element is moving to the fore in the struggle over Syria. Arab pressure on the Alawite regime increasingly resembles a proxy war against an Iranian ally.
NATO’s intervention in Libya showed that the alliance’s military capability is limited and that the organization itself has become much less of a monolith. In fact, the bombing of Libya was less a NATO operation than an example of individual countries pursuing their own interests. France and Britain gained from their leading role in this campaign, while the United States used Libya to test a model in which leadership is relegated to the Europeans when a conflict is primarily their concern.
This year has yielded contradictory results for the fate of democracy. The invasion of Libya was legally presented as enforcing a no-fly zone, though in reality its direct aim was regime change. The bombing in support of Libya’s “democratic forces,” that is, one side in the civil war, about which nothing was known at the time, went far beyond the bounds of decency, regardless of what you think about the Gaddafi regime. The 20-year transformation of democracy and humanitarian protection from a noble idea to a cynical instrument reached its apogee in Libya and largely discredited these concepts.
Even so, democracy, or rather the desire for the transition of power and the refusal to accept permanent regimes, has taken root and spread all over the world. The public in Egypt and Libya rejected attempts of their leaders to transfer power to heirs. Essentially the same thing happened in other places, such as Transnistria, where people refused to vote for their long-standing ruler or Moscow’s choic, and instead backed an independent candidate. The same phenomenon was seen in Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s unilateral decision to return to the presidency turned the political atmosphere against the government.
Attempts to impose democracy produce the opposite effect but it is impossible to suppress people’s natural desire to express their political views. This is the result not only of 2011 but of the 20 years since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs.
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