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DIFFERENT OPINIONS

The opinions expressed by the authors of the articles in this section are for discussion purposes only and may not coincide with the position of the Russian Government and the Embassy

21.01.2012

The winter breath of the “Arab spring”

Not every year the humanity becomes witness to how swiftly the habitual image of the world can change. The year 2011 proved to be just like that as regards the Arab Middle East. It abounded in profound political shifts, the consequences of which will undoubtedly tell on the development not only of this region but also on the international geopolitical situation in general. We asked Professor Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Doctor of History and Corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, to give his view of the meaning and effects of the “Arab revolution” and what ramifications they may eventually have.

– Professor, early last year, hardly anyone could have contemplated that the wave of anti-government protests and rallies in Tunisia would lead to an overthrow of four heads of states, who had ruled for 130 years in aggregate. What is your take on it?

– Indeed, last year the Arab world went through a turbulent sequence of events that was called the “Arab spring”. This mostly included mass protests in the name of social equity and democracy overthrowing some seemingly strong governments and shaking the standing of others. These events mainly resulted in a birth of new regimes with a dominant role of political Islam in the place of former secular authoritarian and nationalist regimes.

Moreover, in each Arab country these events unfolded in quite unique ways. In Tunisia, there was an outrage of educated youth against the rotten bureaucratic regime, where the resources and power were usurped by one family and its entourage clans. Here political slogans prevailed over socio-economic ones.

In Egypt, the makeup of the protesters was probably wider and the socio-economic element stood out more. In contrast to Tunisia, the army played, and it still does, an important role in the intricacies of the country’s domestic policy. While the Tunisian Islamists are represented by only one moderate Nahda party, in Egypt, a conglomerate of Islamist organizations ranging from moderates to radicals is in effect taking up the reins of power.  At the same time, the military are unwilling to yield their upper hand position they have been holding since 1952. 

In Libya, it all started with a civil revolt in one part of the country, where people felt disregarded, against another one embodying the dictatorship of Gaddafi.  Practically, there started a civil war; external forces interfered into it acting under the mandate of a UN Security Council Resolution, which in fact they shamelessly stepped beyond the bounds of. It is with the help of NATO that Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown. In absence of well-developed institutes of governance, which in this case were substituted by quasi-state structures controlled by just one person, it is extremely hard to build a new state.

– Today Syria is on top of the agenda, as they say. And the situation there is growing ever more tense...

– The situation in Syria is quite a burning issue today. This country, despite of its small territory, has always been one of the key countries of the Arab world. Its people has been split into advocates of the regime and its adversaries.   Until recently, a majority of the country’s population, including security ministries, minorities and inhabitants of the two largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo supported the government’s policy. The regime of Bashar Assad has proved to be especially strong: the army stayed loyal to the President, and even sanctions failed to make the majority turn away from the government when it started liberal reforms. However, a large portion of population follows the opposition, the protest moods and interests of which are not to be ignored. In addition, the radical opposition has the support of the West, which supplies it with arms and militants and turns a blind eye to the fact that in an effort to overthrow the regime the Islamists practise full-scale terror.

The 23 December explosions in Damascus foreshadowed a new spiral of violence. They mean that Al-Qaeda has interfered in the fight against the Syrian regime. It is symptomatic that those explosions happened just when an advance group of Arab observers left for Damascus. Moreover, a civil war in this country may be no less bloody than in Jamahiriya, and its consequences for the region may be even direr. Particular danger lies in the attempt to turn the conflict into a sectarian clash between the Sunnis and the Shiahs fraught with upheavals for the entire Islamic world.

– Today a lot is said about the role of social networks in orchestrating the “Arab spring”. It sometimes seems that but for social networks there would be no protests. What do you think?

– The great communicating and mobilizing role of social networks in modern societies is well known. But why, after the long hibernation, did people take to streets, often risking their lives? Because they got online or because they became desperate and lost their trust in the government?  Was the protest movement spontaneous or organized? And whoever was able to organize such large mass of people? I will only say that if a person feels comfortable, and this applies not only to material needs, he will not go on a march and take chances.

With all the importance of the electronic means of communication, we must not overestimate the role of social networks in what has happened. Not everybody had the access to these channels. Looking at a stirring crowd of Yemeni women in the streets of Sana, all in black garments, with their faces hidden under niqabs makes it hard to believe that they have just rushed from their computers having chatted with their friends on Twitter or Facebook. I mean that in these societies the traditional ways of mobilization are often much more potent. First of all, these are sermons in mosques. Let us recall that the most dramatic events took place right after the main Friday prayer, after which crowds of worshipers took to the streets and squares. The very Moslim religion provides people with this tool.

– For the West, there has emerged quite a paradoxical situation in the Middle East. On the one hand, the USA and NATO have if not facilitated the process, then, in any case, joined the Arab street quite fast. On the other hand, neither the US nor France or the UK can guarantee that the power will go to figures loyal to the West.

– You have given a perfect account of the situation. Anti-American and anti-Western mood is rather strong among the winners of the “Arab spring”. However, even radical elements within the Islamists coming to power face problems that are difficult to resolve without the assistance of the West. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Qatar can feed the 85-million Egypt and provide for the Egyptian army and police. So even radical Islamist leaders in this country claim that they will, for example, observe the peace deal with Israel, despite the fact that they had always been against it. In the recent Parliament elections in Egypt, the radical Salafi party – Party An Nur – got no less than 20% of votes, while the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood Party got 40%, and the Al-Wasat Islamic Party was supported by just 5% of voters.

The West will be interacting with these people trying to assist their transition to more moderate, tolerant positions, helping them on the condition that they will not go beyond the “red lines” (like cancellation of the Peace Deal with Israel), hoping for their evolution and growth of the liberal-democratic movement. But the West will never get absolute loyalty. In a critical situation it will aim to discredit these people or will even resort to the tested power politics. However, no one can make the situation develop according to a scenario written “somewhere far away”. By the way, we will also have to learn how to cooperate with Islamic forces, which, in any case, in the short term, will prevail in a number of major Middle Eastern countries.

– What is your opinion about Russia’s position regarding the “Arab spring”?

– I believe that our country’s standing is justified and consistent: from the very start of the conflict we sought to engage in an international dialogue, to arrive at a trade-off arrangement between the opposing sides. Now, with the hindsight of the sad Libyan experience, we are trying to prevent foreign interference in Syria. Unfortunately, some of our partners abroad, including in the Arab world, interpret our position as supporting the “stranglers of freedom”. Personally, I think that this is not an unconditional support for the Syrian regime, whose actions deserve critisism, but a stand widely backed up by public opinion against coercive change of regimes and interventionism. I still have apprehensions that the time for a compromise has been already missed.

– So what are we to expect next year?

– Disturbances, mutinies, protest movements, political transformations, and possibly, revolutionary regime changes. All of these will certainly take place in the Middle East. In support of this I may cite the exacerbating situation in Algeria and Sudan. In Yemen there also remain tensions. What is of particular concern is the worsening relations among various confessions and different denominations of Islam against the background of uncertainty and instability in the region. So, after the withdrawal of foreign armed forces from Iraq, the relationship between the Shiah and the Sunni has started to deteriorate again. The situation around Iran is a topic for a separate discussion; I will only observe that the “Iranian factor” plays a significant role in the developments in Syria and the situation around it.




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