Arab Revolts and Western Dilemma

Raza Habib Raja

The phrase “Arab Spring” has been imbedded in our collective conscience till infamy. The recognition of this term has come due to constant media coverage of the wide spread revolts which till now have ejected almost four autocrats (If you include Saleh of Yemen). It may well also end up in dislodging Asad from Syria depending whether the momentum decisively shifts against him, whether army continues to support him or withdraws its support and most importantly whether West decides to intervene in the same way as they did in the case of Libya.

What has happened in these countries is not a revolution but rather revolt against autocracy which over the years has become intertwined with the destiny of these countries. When you completely stifle pluralism, curb opposition and not allow change through legitimate means then you end up being blamed for literally everything when things start going wrong in the society.

People can only blame in one direction and justifiably. The image and the persona of an autocrat becomes the natural target when things go beyond the tipping point. An authority which is just based on establishment institutions without any concomitant engagement with the public will crumble quickly under such circumstances. The state during the rule of the autocrat gradually becomes an insensitive organ and cannot change or sense the changing moods. Autocrats can seldom even understand the buildup of despair and when it ultimately expresses itself in widespread anger they keep themselves in denial mode until the anger manifests in violent and sustained protests forcing them out of power.

In such countries the change can only come through a revolt and at times a violent revolt. Most of the times, due to the evolution of state and society in a particular pattern which is not consistent with the people’s aspirations, the status quo cannot be shaken without completely overthrowing the regime and its foundations. Since regime cannot be changed through any electoral process therefore prolonged protests and bloodshed is the only way out. This is what gives rise to such revolts. This is what happened in communist regimes in the late 1980s and is unfolding in front of our eyes in Egypt. And yes to some extent this sort of movement has already happened in Pakistan in late 1960s which forced Ayub Khan out of power.

However, it remains to be seen that whether the dynamics set forth by the revolts are essentially good developments for overall freedom or not. Yes the revolts have successfully dislodged dictators who had been usurping the freedom and fundamental rights of the populace but the opposition in all the countries primarily consisted of right wing and religious groups. Due to the fact that these dictators were mostly secular nationalists, the opposition though not electorally present nevertheless evolved to be right wing religious genre.

So when the wave of the revolts started although the demand was for greater democracy and dislodgement of autocracies, the torch bearers were essentially reactionaries. Democracy is not always liberal. This is something which needs to be understood. Democracy is actually a reflection of the will of the majority. For a democracy to be liberal certain caveats such as lower prominence of religion in the public sphere, independent courts and established and respected property rights.

Democracy without the above merely leads to hegemony of the majority or popular rule by the reactionaries and religious right wing. The Arab spring though has restored democracy but at the same time has put severe question marks on the future of freedom in these countries. The West is justifiably afraid that even the dictators which it had feared were better options compared to the new democratic leadership shaping up in countries like Egypt.

It is this fear which is preventing the West from rendering full support to dissident movements in Bahrain, Syria and also to some extent Yemen where Saleh has promised several times to step down and then not fulfilled it.

At the same time, it can also not oppose the movements for the fear of being branded anti democratic but also because the worse the situation gets more the Islamic right wing forces will increase in their militancy.

So what should be the policy in the wake of these realities? Now whether the West likes the fact or not that forces like Muslim Brotherhood are going to take power, it has to engage them and try to tackle the situation in a prudent and reasonable manner. Actual power often weakens the ideological zeal of the parties. To some extent this has happened with Hamas in Palestine. There is every possibility that once in power, at least to some extent the priority of these parties will be to tackle the actual issues.

It is imperative that instead of trying to conspire to remove or weaken these new rulers, effort needs to be directed to help them solve the real issues. Engagement not confrontation needs to be the policy. However, economic aid should be made conditional with ensuring reforms in political, judicial and social spheres. These countries though under religious leadership are nevertheless embarking on the path of democracy. Through careful reform the West can set their trajectory towards slow but gradual progressiveness.

As an immediate step, West should help the Syrian opposition in dislodging Asad. If opposition is engaged  at the right time, then subsequently it is more likely to listen to the concerns. For example in Libya, the new ruling set up due to its obligation towards the NATO is much more likely to incorporate its concerns in the future.

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