The Arab Spring: opening a pandora's box?
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Issue Vol. 26.3 July - Sept2011 | Date : 02 Oct , 2011

The so called Arab spring represents a massive popular movement, not seen or predicted in the Arab world ever since the Suez sponsored Nasserite upheaval. It is as significant as the falling of the Berlin wall. The effects of the falling of the Berlin wall are still being felt. Similarly, the Arab spring will lead to irreversible and continuous changes.

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Although a common thread links the movement in all the regions, its origins are not monocausal. The common denominator is that the entire region seeks a total transformation of ruling political structures and processes, fundamental reforms in governance to foster social equity and emancipation of the poverty ridden classes. The downtrodden have risen to forge a new identity, to look for better opportunities in education, development and personal enhancement.

Egypt is the largest Arab country and can be expected to be in a leadership role in the region. A Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo may act as a magnet for the Islamists in the entire region. Since Islam remains inhospitable to democracy, in due course Islam will rise to preeminence in all the countries.

The spring started in Tunisia with a policewoman slapping a young adult who immolated himself later. This ignited the widespread discontent which had been there in Tunisia against the regime, leading ultimately to the flight of the president. Reactions followed in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria where similar undercurrents of discontent prevailed against the autocratic regimes. The Egyptian president too had to abdicate. The Yemen President, hurt in an assault at the Presidential Palace, took refuge in Saudi Arabia. Other rulers are facing armed insurrections.

The specific issues vary from country to country but broadly they can be placed in two categories. The movements in Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya are more social than political or economic, engineered by unhappy tribal or sectarian maladjustments, aggravated by authoritarian rulers. In Egypt, Yemen and Syria the roots lie in political, economic and sectarian dissatisfactions. Only Bahrain is monarchial: the rest of the five countries are republican. Great anxieties are being felt in their neighbourhood, especially the monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the gulf region. If the unrest spreads to these regions, absolutely unpredictable consequences can arise. Instability in Saudi Arabia will lead to severe repercussions in the oil and energy politics of the world. There are many who dread at the thought of instability in Saudi Arabia as it is also the custodian of the Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina.

In Egypt the problem also has an inter religious dimension. The Copts and the Muslim citizens have never been able to live in total harmony. In Bahrain and Syria the rulers are from minority communities, Sunni and Shia respectively and the Shia Sunni divide has now come to the fore as never before in these two countries. The sectarian conflict is also being provoked from outside, Saudi Arabia in the case of Bahrain and Iran in the case of Syria. Iran is also supporting the majority populace of Bahrain. The Sunni cause has received support from the Saudis who are forever striving to establish the supremacy of Sunni Islam over the entire Islamic world through liberal funding and projecting Wahabism and Salafism. In Libya, the problems arise from a society, divided heavily between the tribes, clans and regions, each imbued with its own sense of sub nationalism.

This is too thin a cover to disguise the Western Powers real objectives in Libya, originating from their desire to control the economic and oil resources of Libya.

The Libyan unrest is compounded further by a Western interference, operating under a new aggressive principle of defending the indigenous population against the so called depredations of its own regime. This is too thin a cover to disguise the Western Powers’ real objectives in Libya, originating from their desire to control the economic and oil resources of Libya. The West is otherwise also reluctant to lose its preeminence in the Arab world, particularly Egypt and Yemen. The interests of the West and Saudi Arabia in this respect coalesce. These developments point to two geopolitical factors at play in the region, rising Shia-Sunni rivalries and the open Western intervention in the region, to safeguard their energy security.

Aggravation of Shia-Sunni divide will cause unbridled manifestation of competitive religious chauvinism, as is already happening in Pakistan, and as had become common, though largely one-sided, during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Several Arab countries have significant Shia populations like Kuwait (30%) and Saudi Arabia (17% mostly in oil locations), not to mention Iraq which has a majority. As Shia-Sunni antagonism crosses the point of no return these countries could get severely troubled.

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The West, to protect its concerns regarding hydrocarbons, has already co-opted the UN to justify armed attacks in Libya. It has also set in motion the reconstitution of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), primarily of Arab Sheikhs and monarchs, but now to include also the kings of Jordan and Morocco. The GCC will be expected to provide counterweight to the republican Arab regimes if they emerge as hostile entities.

The Muslim brotherhood in Egypt always had the aim of establishing a complete sway over the country and, thereafter, to spread the tentacles of its ideology to other regions of the Arab world.

Some broad contours of the likely shape of events in the affected regions can be made out but the distant future remains very hazy. In Egypt while a general consensus to have a new constitution has evolved, the debate remains unsettled what should come first, elections or constitution. A significant development in Egypt has been the recognition of the Muslim brotherhood as a political party, which entitles it to participate in elections overtly using its own agenda as its manifesto. The Muslim brotherhood had for a long time tried to seek recognition and acceptability in the country but had not succeeded so far. Although it has indicated now that its participation in the elections and in the governance thereafter if elected to power, will be bereft of any overtones of violence, it cannot be taken for certain that its strategy will not change in the future, like the Maoists in Nepal who joined the civil processes in Nepal giving up their violent ideology but have retained the desire to become ultimately the supreme power in Nepal. The Muslim brotherhood in Egypt always had the aim of establishing a complete sway over the country and, thereafter, to spread the tentacles of its ideology to other regions of the Arab world. The Muslim brotherhood had been founded in the vision that all Arabs would unite to form one single Islamic Umma but that dream was not fulfilled because the Arabs felt that they were Arabs first and Muslims later. Will this dream reappear in case the Muslim Brotherhood gains power in Egypt remains to be seen but the possibility that some kind of pan Islamist ideology will get promoted in the Arab world under its   tutelage will be on the cards.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anand K Verma

Former Chief of R&AW and author of Reassessing Pakistan.

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