'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Myth of the Arab Spring

Describing this year’s upheavals in the Middle East and Maghrib has been a treacherous undertaking exacerbated by a collective failure to forecast them. Labelling these events has been just as difficult: Arab spring; Arab awakening; Arab revolutions and Arab uprisings have all been employed in analysis, the latter evoking the World War I-era revolt of the Arabs against Ottoman suzerainty made famous in the West by the role of T. E. Lawrence. Only the Arab element in the recent descriptions is constant and yet it is the only element which is also clearly erroneous.
When Lawrence assisted the uprising against the Turks, there was success in conflating the various tribal identities beneath the banner of being Arab. This was possible because the various tribes, instead of warring against each other, could coalesce beneath the banner of being Arab against an occupation: I am Arab, you are Turk. In the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Auda Abu Tayi puzzles over the idea of such identity overarching familial loyalty: ‘The Howitat, Ajili, Rala, Beni, Saha; these I know, I have even heard of the Harif, but the Arabs! What tribe is that?’ To which Lawrence replies: ‘They are a tribe of slaves. They serve the Turks.’

Distinguishing friend from enemy accompanied by a language of justification shapes the character of conflict. If the rebels in the uprisings identified themselves primarily as Arab, the enemy would therefore be non-Arab. Such a depiction does not accurately describe the situation; rather, each revolt has been an internal conflict in which the rebels assert an absence of relations of reciprocity between the government and those it governs. In constructing their identity, the rebels view themselves as true patriots disenfranchised from the wealth of the nation-state; the enemy are corrupt elites enriching themselves to the detriment of their people. The rebel seizes and holds the public places whilst the enemy’s territory is the diffuse state apparatus of corruption and violence; in Egypt rebels attacked the police quarters, they being part of the architecture of suppression.

Assigning the regional label ‘Arab’ to these intrastate conflicts hinders our understanding. These are not cultural or religious wars rather conflicts fought over economic and social injustice: identities have crystallised along the lines of the haves and have-nots. Even in Bahrain, in which the majority Shia are suppressed by the ruling Sunni minority; in protest, they demand economic justice. In Syria, the middle class has been slow to take up arms: their comfortable prosperity requires great injustice and insecurity to make them risk all against the ruling elite although their position worsens with the continued economic paralysis, hence al-Assad’s lip service to Arab League mediation. The rise of the middle classes hence acts as buffers to the status quo where, as the Roman historian Sallust observed, ‘few men desire liberty, the majority desire only fair masters.’

In being charged with protecting its population, a regime will commonly identify an external adversary as the foe hence the anecdotal evidence, here from the blogger Mahmoud Salem, that Egyptian police blamed Zionist elements for the uprising. In Libya Qaddafi asserted that al-Qaeda were behind the discontent, the rhetoric additionally acting as a plea to incorporate the state’s reprisals into part of the larger War against Terror. Bahrain, without justification according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, blames Iran for agitating unrest in the country. Bashar al-Assad in Syria used a speech in June to blame foreign ‘microbes’ and there are reports that the Foreign Minister recently cited United States involvement. Such narratives justify the crackdown on the population: external antagonists backing the rebels suggest that the means employed to suppress violence are patriotic and just. Any civilians involved are simply the corrupted agents of foreign aggressors.

All change

Successful rebellions bring changes in identity. At the end of the Cold War, Georgi Arbatov, an advisor to Gorbachev, supposedly remarked, ‘we are dealing you the worst blow: we are going to deprive you of your enemy.’ Having united in efforts to bring down the dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, former alliances held together by mutual loathing of regimes and their figureheads splinter into myriad opposed groups. After ousting Mubarak, the state’s weakened monopoly on violence released older societal divides built on religious narratives including the escalating and violent discrimination against Egyptian Copts.

The fight against tyranny and injustice is only the beginning; fighting for ways to ameliorate societal deprivation in the shadow of institutional resistance is more difficult. Democratic representation as a means to a more equal distribution of wealth creates many new groups and many different identities, some of whom will be marginalised by the voting and seek other ways to prosecute their ideology. For the Copts, who represent only about ten percent of the population in Egypt, democratic representation could see they become subject to the tyranny of the majority, as popular vote means they are unable to gain representation in the new government.  

Political reform will attempt to engineer the redistribution of wealth yet the Spring revolts have cost the region an estimated $55 billion whilst a spike in oil prices benefited those oil exporters stable enough to continue processing – mainly UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (.pdf). Oil remains the only industry capable of generating enough national income to develop services, education and infrastructure but of the three revolutions in the Maghrib, only Libya is a net exporter of oil. Moreover, oil wealth is no guarantee of security or prosperity. Iraq, a nation having toppled a dictator with Western intervention and now in the grips of fledgling democracy, is in possession of significant energy reserves yet remains ravaged by insecurity. Prime-minister Nouri al-Maliki consolidates power amidst rumours of his use of ‘detention squads’ and a 2011 report by the Lancet calculated that more than twelve thousand people have been killed by suicide bombers between 2003 and 2010. Eight years after Saddam’s fall, Iraq sits 132nd of 187 countries in the Human Development Index (.pdf), its position inflated because of a Gross National Income per Capita figure distorted by oil wealth.  

Attempts to diversify industry across the Maghrib have proven arduous. Although a dominant industry, agriculture is a rural enterprise: Egypt is a country in which nearly half the population is urban with over a third of the population under the age of eighteen. Another economically meaningful industry, tourism, is beset by the economic crisis, rising fuel costs and political instability. Demonstrating the scale of the problem facing the Maghrib, World Bank data ranks Egypt, a regional powerhouse, as having a comparative GDP in 2010 to Portugal, one of the poorest countries in the European Union, this despite Egypt possessing a population eight times the size. In such a state, it is necessary to develop education and promote tertiary industry, as difficult as this may be.

Although greatly needed, external investment in the ‘Spring’ is a precarious undertaking at a time when Western economies are on a perilous trajectory. At the G8 summit in May, leaders created the Deauville Partnership to work with parties including Saudi Arabia and have thus far pledged $80 billion over a two year period to five countries should they continue democratic reforms. But investment can easily be portrayed as Western interventionism under the shadow of neo-colonialism especially when conducted through the IMF and hence breed resentment, bolster anti-Western narratives and be used as a pawn to smear opposition candidates in elections. Moreover, Western interests in the region are far from unified. The Maghrib on Europe’s Southern border presented a refugee crisis instrumental in causing Europe to act in Libya, not so for the United States, summed up by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ dismissal of David Cameron’s proposal of a no-fly zone in March as ‘loose talk.’

The United States has concerns over Egypt and Syria because of strategic considerations in the region but is largely hamstrung in the latter by Russian and Chinese vetoes at the Security Council. Concern over the Bahrain unrest has been mute due to Saudi influence, trade, strategic and defence relations. Even China is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach. Chinese interest in the region is predominantly economic, trade with the Middle East doubling between 2005 and 2009, but much of this is enemy transfers from Saudi Arabia and Iran and as such China will be keen to maintain a status quo, having little interest in the countries currently experiencing significant unrest.

In the immediate future, Islamist groups - those entities with guiding Islamic ideology as a template for government - are set to become ascendant for three reasons. Firstly Islamist groups have in place social welfare systems and political bodies, thus able to mobilise platforms quickly for elections with a solid support base. Secondly, the Qur’an is a document with great emphasis on charity and equality in wealth distribution: Allah, after all, rewards the compassionate. Thus, moderate Islamism with concessions to women and education can enjoy popular support. A group on such a platform emerged with the largest number of seats in the October Tunisian elections. Thirdly, Islamist rule provides a welcome non-Western approach to society. Given the pronounced global rich-poor divide, moderate Islamism remains attractive for a region which associates tyranny with Western backing.

The myriad new identities pose the risk of minority government hindered by concessions to allied parties. Democratic rule would hence be seen as ineffectual; weak authority that could give rise to parallel power structures including organized crime syndicates or Islamist groups who reject the nascent government and move to create welfare projects to develop relations with the population. The army may prevent violent ascent to power by radical groups who reject the political process, particularly the jihadists groups (the black flag of al-Qaeda was reportedly seen on the courthouse in Benghazi recently), but pose an institutional problem of control in and of themselves. The army, particularly in Egypt with its resistance to reform, must be tackled. The problem isn’t new just intransigent and self-enforcing. The need for legitimacy presses the development of the armed forces to ensure a monopoly on violence, but creating a military institution develops an aspect of the state acting outside of the bureaucratic structure.

In these fragile cauldrons with powerful, opposed factions unsure of the democratic process, when politics appears unable to serve needs, low-level violence will erupt. The spectre of civil war in which worsening insecurity and poverty leads antagonists to coalesce around ethnic or religious identities and blame adversaries for their predicament is a real concern. In such a setting the Weimar jurist Carl Schmitt observed: ‘all legitimate and normative illusions with which men like to deceive themselves regarding political realities in periods of untroubled security vanish.’ Protracted, bloody, internecine civil war has become the dominant conflict in the post-Cold War landscape.

Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus stated: ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world.’ When a phenomenon is ill-defined subsequent explanation of it courts error. The rebellions in the Middle East and Maghrib are neither homogenous nor distinguished by being Arabian in identity. Instead, they are secular expressions of last resort when faced with political, social and economic repression; a tipping point reached where the inevitable costs of rising up against tyrannical regimes have been outweighed by the potential benefits of taking up arms. The complex regional web requires a granular understanding of the challenges faced, country by country, city by city; societal furnaces where identities will be recast and ordered anew. Only when we understand both the unity and segmentation emerging from the revolts can we begin again to construct coherent diplomacy in the region.

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