19 December 2011

Arab Spring: One Year Later

17 December was the anniversary of Mohamed Bouazizi's death. He was the Tunisian vegetable vendor who set himself on fire and who triggered the events collectively known as the Arab Spring.

The change that took place within a year is breathtaking. Three autocratic Arab rulers were toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Yemen and Syria are trying to get rid of their own dictators and both countries are on the verge of civil war. There was turmoil in Bahrain, Morocco and early on even in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Bouazizi' sacrifice notwithstanding, my position has been that the mass movement called Arab Spring was effective and led to regime change only in cases where some external and internal actors wanted that change and it failed where such a outside push and inside assistance did not exist. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the US controlled armies sided with the protesters and ousted the existing governments. In Libya, NATO forces provided air support and arms to the anti-government side and ensured their victory.


Now, in Syria a regime change is imminent for the same reasons. The US wants Bashar al Assad gone and Turkey is willing to make that happen.

You might have noticed that Russia suddenly changed its tune and instead of blocking all UN efforts against Syria it has just circulated a draft resolution that talked about excessive use of force against those exercising their rights.

There are several reasons for that.

The first one is the realization that regime change will take place regardless of Russia's stance. It will not be a UN scenario nor a NATO ploy: it will most likely be a regional affair with Turkey as the lead actor. In other words, this is not a situation Russia can control.

In fact, if regime change is now a forgone conclusion, Russia has every reason to switch to the winning side. Turkey is a rising power in the region and Russia has been very careful to be on good terms with it. It increased its trade with Turkey exponentially and helped Turkey become a global energy hub by setting up new pipelines. Putin and Erdogan seem to be jolly good friends and it has long been rumored in Turkey that they are actually business partners in several ventures (including oil and gas pipelines) through proxy shareholders.

Thirdly, the US seems to have offered a carrot behind the scenes: Russia finally joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) after 18 years of negotiations. It is widely assumed that the Americans were behind Georgia's decision to drop its long standing veto.

I am curious about the method they will chose to get rid of Syrian government but I am convinced that it will take place.

Syrian National Council setup offices in Istanbul and were holding their first congress this weekend (apparently to coincide with the anniversary of Bouazizi's death). They will decide how to proceed and how to assume the leadership of the process.

One aspect no one seem to mention about Syria is the fact that Bashar al Assad does not really control the system. He was an outsider, a medical doctor studying to be an ophthalmologist, with no political aspirations. When the heir apparent Basil al Assad died in a car accident, Bashar was pulled in a la Michael Corleone.

The people around him, starting from his younger brother Maher to General Qudsiya or to Lt Gen Mamluk, are calling the shots. These people have serious blood on their hands, which means that they have a lot to lose in a regime change and they know that they will not survive even a mild reform movement. Consequently, even without outside actors pushing for change, a peaceful transition is not a realistic outcome.


Egypt has reclaimed the headlines lately. I see breathless commentary about the unstoppable rise of the Islamists. Or mounting death toll in Tahrir Square as liberal protesters have been clashing with the military.

I tend to be less alarmist about Egypt. In my opinion, the country was given a specific role in recent changes and the army is in place to ensure that things don't go in a direction not favored by outside actors. Also, the army has its own incentive to remain in control, namely their huge economic empire. Since that empire depends on their privileged status in the political system, they simply will not give that up. In fact, they will crush any group if their status is threatened in any way.

This is also the built-in security valve for the US plans for the region. Mubarak may be gone but his replacements will not be able to make a U turn.

Perhaps more importantly, the Brotherhood knows all of this and have been working with the army from the first days of the original uprising. I can make the bold prediction that they will not form a coalition with the Salafis. My guess is that the Brotherhood will end up with the largest number of seats and they will turn to the liberals and secularists to form a moderate government.

There are many reasons that supports that scenario. The obvious one, as mentioned, is the army. Secondly, Egyptian economy is largely dependent on tourism. Both for revenues and employment. If Salafis are allowed anywhere near the government, that will be the end of tourism for Egypt with disastrous economic consequences. As the largest party the Brotherhood will be the one blamed for this outcome.

Thirdly, Salafis and the Brotherhood do not see eye to eye. Salafis are an offshoot of the Brotherhood (for instance, the guy who killed Anwar Sadat belonged to a splinter Brotherhood faction.) but that also means that they are bitter rivals. Forming a coalition with Salafis would be like Mensheviks joining the Bolsheviks in a coalition government after they overthrew the Tsar. The latter would always be able to claim orthodoxy and the former will always appear as the less pure expression of the same ideology.

The Salafis constituency is the rural and urban poor who feel pushed aside by the political system. Salafis give expression to their alienation as they appear spiritual, incorruptible actors who are untouched by the compromises of the system. The Brotherhood has everything to lose if they side with them.

Libya and Iraq

Why did I put these two very different countries together, you might ask. That's because I expect continued unrest in both of them.

As everyone knows by now, Libya is hardly a unified nation state with a common identity. The civil war was won by regional, tribal and ethnic groups and they did not coalesce after the victory. There are a spectrum of Islamists (including Al Qaeda), Sub-Saharans, secularists trying to gain control of the situation and undermine their rivals.

Add to that regional tension between oil-rich east and Qaddafi-favored west. After we saw the fate of Sirte, how can we assume that the east will share its oil magnanimously with the west?

After the pseudo-withdrawal of the US, Iraq seems calm and quiet. In my opinion, this will not continue. Iraq is caught in the middle of those historic changes that are taking place. Its Shiite-led government is working very closely with Iran even though the winds are blowing in the opposite direction. Already, Iraqiya, the Sunni bloc in parliament suspended its support for the government.

The Sunni Iraqis feel alienated by Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government. They are not unlike western Libyans: they benefited from Saddam's largesse who took the oil wealth from the south (the Shiite) and the north (the Kurds) and redistributed to Sunnis. Also like western Libyans, at the time, not only did they not object to Saddam's genocidal acts against these two groups, they seemed to support him wholeheartedly.

The Sunnis know that the Iraqi Kurds are more or less autonomous, as they pursue their own oil deals with large companies. And the Shiites are in government. My guess is that the frustration of Sunnis in Iraq will sooner or later reach a boiling point.

Especially relevant in that situation will be Syria's fate. Maliki government is trying to find a way to keep Assad in power but it is unlikely that it will succeed.

When Syria implodes, Iraq will be deeply affected.

Saudi Arabia

You don't hear much about Saudi Arabia in relations to Arab Spring. I find that surprising. Saudi Arabia might turn out to be the biggest loser in all this.

You see, one of the most important consequences of the Arab Spring was to bring to power Islamist governments who were very reticent to turn to the Salafi or Wahhabi route. Instead, they all loudly and publicly claimed to adhere to the so called Turkish model. It is as if after some forty years of Wahhabi ascendancy pushed by Saudi money, the tide has been turning towards moderate Islam.

If most regimes in the region decide to pursue a "Muslim Democratic" line, even for taqiyya reasons, Salafis and Wahhabis are likely to be marginalized and unable to assert their orthodoxy over Islam.

The absence of an institutionalized body in Islam capable of ordering change (like the papacy and papal encyclicals) is the result of a historical accident. In its history, Islam has always remained subservient to a political authority. So change came only with power and ruling classes. The Ottomans provided the most cynical expression of this, as starting with Mehmet II (the guy who took Constantinople and turned it into Istanbul in 1453), Ottoman Sultans claimed the title of Caliph and with Bayezid II defeating the Mamluks in Egypt in 1517, Ottoman Sultans became the official Caliph (or khalifa). Yet, tellingly, they never used the title until 1774 when they signed a disastrous peace treaty with Russia. And they got all their individual Shayk al Islam (the highest authority under the Caliph to interpret religious texts) to rubber stamp all their dubious acts (like fratricide) as religiously sound.

Since the end of the Ottoman Empire, there has been no Caliph. The institution died with the Sultans. In fact, for most fatwas or religious edicts, people turn to the imam of the Great Mosque of Cairo and no one knows why.

Saudis filled that void and pushed their brand of Islam as the purest expression of that religion. Everything from Al Qaeda to burqas are a result of that push. It was also a cynical power play: Wahhabi ideology enabled the Saudi ruling family and ruling class to stay in power with no dissent or opposition.

What would happen if they could no longer claim to be the most ideal expression of Islam?

That is why, Nayef vs someone else is a very important question.



This just fell onto BBC web site. There is an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President of Iraq Tariq al Hashemi.

It didn't take long, did it?

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