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Friday, 23 December 2011
The Actual Reminder
The political shock of the Jasmine Revolution (“Tunisiami”) first toppled the twenty-three year old House of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in twenty-eight days, the thirty year old House of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in eighteen days and now after nine days of protests the forty-one year House of Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi in Libya totters on the edge. In the case of Libya a combination of regime defectors and criminal violence against its own citizens comprehensively delegitimize the regime in the eyes of its own people. Peaceful protest in Bahrain and Iran is met with incumbent regime force, while Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria all report protest.
How to interpret these events that reverberate around the region and beyond? Is this an Arab Spring leading to transition democratization, akin to 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe? Or rather can we look to 1979 in Iran, and the prospect of Sunni theocracy taking hold? Or should we look to the wider Moslem world - Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey - and draw the conclusion that sustainable political systems and regimes which will emerge in the Arab Middle East will ipso facto be heterogeneous - acceptable to elites and societies, appropriate to indigenous, histories, traditions and narratives and affordable. What are the lessons which other Middle Eastern incumbent regimes will identify from the causes and consequences of the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? How might those lessons be learned?
Egypt’s stability under Mubarak was guaranteed by two compacts. The first was agreed between the regime and the US: Egypt supports the peace treaty with Israel and ensures access to cheap energy; the US would stay out of Egyptian internal affairs. The second between the Mubarak regime and the Egyptian people: the regime monopolises political and economic power; societal living conditions steadily improve.
The first pact was badly damaged by 9/11; the second was badly frayed, ready to break after a decade- long economic stagnation. Food and energy price hikes, high youth unemployment (two-thirds of the population is under 30 and 25% unemployed), corruption, nepotism and dignity deficits (with 40% of the population living on less than $2 a day) all served to highlight the gaps and disparities between elite regime performance legitimacy rhetoric and the societal daily realities. Nonetheless, radical transformation was considered a mirage: the state is too powerful; opposition too divided; the media easily muzzled. That these nostrums have been turned on their head by events in Egypt is clear, but to what strategic effect?
First, the powerful nature of incumbent regimes, buttressed as they are by a “deep state” and Western external legitimation all support continuity of the status quo. Societal and elite perceptions as to the loyalty, cohesion and resiliency of a pro-regime “securitocracy” – the security and intelligence services, the military and business elites closely connected to the ruling families – have shifted radically. The pyramid of Egyptian power has proved to be a brittle facade that in reality was built on shifting sand: the Pharaoh had no clothes. The deft positioning of the Egyptian military, the central establishment pillar, as a would-be honest broker between the Mubarak regime and society underscores this reality, as does the speed at which fair-weather Western friends (France in the case of Tunisia), the United States with regards to Egypt) have abandoned erstwhile long-standing strategic partners in the region.
Second, Egypt’s society comprising of 80 million people may be fragmented between secular, nationalist, Islamist factions, between the ideologically motivated forces of conservatism and modernity, between pragmatists and extremists and the apolitical or simply apathetic, but events indicate that a leaderless and disunited opposition rooted in society paradoxically renders it a more powerful force. It promotes the emergence of a hard-to-challenge key societal message delivered in demotic terms – “Game Over!” and “"Bread, freedom and human dignity”. The tired paternalistic mantra of deeply unpopular incumbents - “hold onto nurse for fear of something worse” in the shape of violent revolution and repressive theocracy - could not regain control of the narrative. With whom can the incumbent regimes negotiate, decapitate or co-opt if society is resilient, stubborn, united in opposition and leaderless?
Third, the role of instantaneous information communication technologies, not least social networking, has been highlighted as catalytic. Indeed, the crises in Tunisia and Egypt are characterised as the first Facebook and Twitter social revolutionary movements. Alongside satellite TV (Al-Jazeera), such on-line real-time technologies serve to heighten awareness, build and shape political solidarity, identity and cohesion around a message rather than individual. They enable peer pressure and authority operating in virtual space to coordinate and organise mass protest on the streets and squares of the capital. The state can impede but not silence the new media and plugged-in opposition: linear sclerotic state hierarchies and apparatus staffed by placemen and led by tone-deaf elite elders are outmanoeuvred by a networked, mass educated, urbanised and globalized new generation, proud of their traditions and heritage and desperate for change.
Unlike the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003) and Orange Revolution Ukraine (2004), allegations that Western NGOs, embassies and security services are running post-modern coup d’états in the region are not a feature. This reflects two realities. The first, that the toppling of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and now Libya are clearly societal-led internal revolutions. Second, in the case of Tunisia and Egypt at least, the incumbent regimes were strategically orientated towards the US and alternatives reflecting the perception of the “Arab street” almost certainly will not be, at least to the same extent with regards to Western unconditional support to Israel.
It is still too early ascertain with real certainty which lessons ruling regimes in the region will identify and then learn (through changing policies, programme priorities, resource and budgetary allocations) from the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. However, it can be agreed that as Egypt has the Arab world’s largest, oldest and deepest culture and civilization, it is a benchmark for the region. It is in transition, but transition to what? What was a virtue during the revolutionary phase of regime-change – a leaderless peaceful radicalised population – may turn into a vice during a period of negotiations and agenda setting that marks the next, favouring organised pre-existing interest groups to optimise their influence at the expense of society as a whole.
Three potential scenarios could unfold in post-Mubarak Egypt. First, a soft-landing managed “orderly transition” towards a reinvented democracy and the emergence of a state-building project modelled on Indonesia or Turkey over the longer-term. Second, greater repression could be unleashed by reactionary “pro-stability/regime” old guard and interests and attempt to reinforce and legitimise autocratic nationalism. Might the Supreme Military Council look to conflate the national interest with its own - military controlled industries and defence contracts account for a 15% share of GDP? Third, chaos, anarchy and civil war or a 1979 Iranian-style Islamist takeover constitute the default options if either process stalls and fails. So goes Egypt, so goes the region?
Some states may still be in ‘wait-and-see’ mode, caution and deliberative discussion being the prudent choice. Two other strategic responses are even now possible: accelerate or initiate regime-led reform processes; accelerate or initiate regime-led reaction efforts. Both are predicated on the notion that the writing is now on the wall, change is coming and states that want to avoid ‘inevitable’ chaos and anarchy of a security vacuum need to get ahead of the curve. But each draw radically different conclusions from these agreed premises.
On the one hand, enlightened reform factions within states in which economic, political and military power is monopolised by corrupt closed elites-for-life will be emboldened to conclude that “getting ahead of the curve” involves anticipating societal need for change by proactively calling for free and fair parliamentary elections (guaranteed by international monitors), with the promise that the Constitution will be rewritten to address dignity deficits. For states that opt for this pathway – and Jordan appears an exemplar - the internal debates will centre on how far and how fast the process of reform unfolds rather than the general strategic orientation and ultimate end-goal. Here the Egypt demonstration effect proves a powerful driver, buttressed by media reportage and raised societal expectations. For energy rich states in the region higher oil prices (the psychologically $100 pa threshold has been crossed) may provide a cushion to offset social, economic and political disruption (‘the J-curve’) as the political system shifts. The underlying rationale is not a Damascene-like conversion to democracy, but rather a basic survival instinct and political calculation that places self-preservation above all other considerations. To paraphrase Charles Darwin, regimes are like species, those that survive are not the strongest or most intelligent, but rather the most adaptable.
On the other hand, as Libya (helicopter gunships against the population) and to a lesser extent Bahrain (Pearl Roundabout on 17 February), demonstrate incumbent regimes may conclude that “getting ahead of the curve” involves proactively tightening the screws on society through more severe monitoring of public and virtual spaces. The orchestrated use of coercive force is a first rather than last resort, with pro-regime “pro-stability” proxy forces (thugs) waiting in the wings to use terror to break an opposition, allowing classical state structures and institutions to stand above the fray, maintain their legitimacy, and then intervene for the good of society to “restore order”. Compensatory safety-valves could include greater ant-Israeli/US rhetoric, ethno-nationalist mobilization and increased militarism – all paid for courtesy of the ‘Egypt effect’ on higher oil prices. Given the lukewarm incumbent regime support from the West in their hour of need, initiating a search among the ‘Authoritarian International’ for more reliable strategic partners will become a priority. Emergent or Great Powers will be a focus. Again, internal incumbent regime debates focus on means rather than ends: how much force, where and when to apply it, which alternative strategic partners? Here the calculation is that autocracies are indeed adaptable: they can become even more autocratic.
New Strategic Calculus
If it is true that most Middle Eastern analysts whether in the region or the West, in government service or in academia, did not predict the scale of protest, all now seek to provide policy-relevant assessments. Western public support for representative and participatory institutions, structures and processes in the region rather than elite personalities looks set to grow, whatever the reality in private. Events in Egypt make more acute and visible the central tension and contradiction in Western foreign policy towards Middle East autocracies. First, the Western strategic interests - regional stability, the continuity of Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace – are secured through long-standing strategic partnership with US-backed autocratic security-providers. Second, and simultaneously, the West has sought to promote its democratic principles and values-system in the shape of accountable and transparent market-democratic states.
Given real world practical calculations and realities, can there be a prudent blend of the two? At what point to pivot to counter-elites when longstanding incumbent allies become albatrosses? When and in what manner to apply coordinated external leverage (disclosure/freezing of incumbent assets; redrafting military-aid conditionality) while still ensuring a dignified orderly transition? How can grass-roots activists demanding regime-change be supported in Egypt without extending such support to all mass protest? How to avoid the unintended consequences that such external support is not used be incumbents, as is the case in Iran with the ‘Green Revolution’, to delegitimize the very protest it seeks to succour?
Could a Euro-Atlantic Marshall Plan to the Middle East help buttress democratization efforts by alleviating immediate societal needs (food, health, employment)? Is a coherent strategic approach to the region still possible as it self-differentiated further or does interaction with the Middle East remain contingent and transactional? Will transition democratization Arab states help contain Iran, keep the peace with Israel and allow for uninterrupted energy flows from the Middle East? If Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen do not fall primarily within the West’s security system, then whose? Lastly, and most importantly, how can the Egyptian crisis be utilised as an opportunity to re-address the issue of fractious relations between Israel and its neighbours?
An Arab Spring
Tunisia and Egypt’s political and social evolution through 2011 constitutes an exemplar for both states in the greater Middle East region, from Casablanca to Kabul, as well as current and potential future strategic partners around the world. Not only is Sunni Arab leadership in question, but more importantly the sources of its legitimacy – the narratives of defiance of the West, resistance to Israel, autocratic nationalism appears exhausted. Might the new Sunni centre be societal based and consumed satellite channel TV – a virtual real-time space the constructs a narrative of pan-Arab unity for the second decade of the 21st century? Internet access and social media subscription levels and, as importantly, the capacity of incumbent regimes to ‘manage’, censor and block such technology has proved to be a key factor: how large, vibrant and free are virtual societies throughout the region?
Pre-existing “authoritarian stability first” or “democratic disorder and Islamist theocratic chaos” dichotomies look set to be proved false in the coming days and weeks. The spectre of an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood takeover emerging as a default position reduces with Mubarak’s fall, further undercutting incumbent narratives. The obstacles to grassroots-triggered transitional governments acceptable to the military and society appear less than previously understood. The rules of the game are changing and a transformed societal-based collective consciousness sets new benchmarks, expectations and thresholds by which to judge incumbents. This Arab winter of discontent will be made glorious summer if denial, stupidity, greed and all too human hubris does not win out: arrogance truly does diminish wisdom.