By Oraib Al-Rantawi
For decades, the Arab region was in a state of regression and helplessness, until a series of uprisings and revolutions erupted early this year. To date, these have resulted in toppling two regimes, Egypt and Tunisia, and threatening three, Libya, Yemen and Syria, with a similar destiny. Other regimes have felt obliged to initiate various degrees of reform: Jordan, Morocco, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Algeria, and Bahrain. This is one of the most sweeping changes witnessed by the Arab world since the age of renaissance and enlightenment some 100 years ago.
In fact, events taking place in several Arab countries can be seen as a delayed phase of that renaissance and enlightenment age that began late in the Ottoman era. According to this concept, that age was interrupted during the new colonial era when the World War I victors divided up the inheritance of the “sick man of Europe” based on the Sykes-Picot and San Remo agreements. That was followed by the creation of the state of Israel in fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration, the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, then a series of military coups against ruling regimes accused of being accomplices of the West.
If we reflect on the impact of these coups d’etat on the political, economic, and social structure of our states and societies, we can to a certain extent explain the “democratic inertia” that the region has witnessed. The coups demolished the emerging civil, political and partisan structures in our societies, hindered the legislative and judiciary branches’ functioning, and prevented free and pluralistic elections. They also “ruralized” civil life and empowered peasant-rural elites to determine the status of political, intellectual, cultural, and social life in the Arab world. After all, most of the Arab armed forces executing the coups d’etat and subjecting the states to dictatorial military rule were descended from peasant origins.
Thus Upper Egypt dominated Cairo and Alexandria; Tikrit dominated Baghdad, Mosul and Basra; Kardaha dominated Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. By the second half of the 1970s, the “Bedouinization” of Arab communities by the Wahhabi version of the extremist Salafi trend became the most extreme and socially and culturally backward manifestation of this dynamic.
Coincidentally, oil and gas discoveries were concentrated in the least-developed and least-urbanized Arab countries. Thus, an “unholy alliance” emerged between Salafi-Wahhabi religious institutions and enormous oil revenues, constituting a chronic impediment to Arab reform. Arabs came to be viewed as “another type of people” who do not deserve democracy and for whom democracy is irrelevant, even though the 1920s and 1930s had witnessed a modernization and renaissance process at least in the major Arab cities.
The triumph of the Islamic revolution in Iran, along with the Salafi movement, oil revenues and an ideology of hatred, resulted in the region sinking into an ocean of Islamization that collided with modernity, freedom, pluralism, and democracy. A parallel Sunni-Shiite confrontation has festered since the Iraq-Iran war.
Thus did the Arabs miss the opportunity to join the democratic waves that spread through most countries in the world. Only when the Bouazizi event erupted in Tunisia towards the end of last year did the Arab doors open wide for change and revolution. A domino effect catalyzed revolution in one Arab country after another and galvanized a new socio-political force–Arab youth. Could it be that the Arab world had all of a sudden decided to abandon regression and passiveness in favor of freedom, pluralism and dignity? Had the Arab street become convinced that the only thing it had to lose was its chains?
The quick fall of both the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt and that of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia inspired young men and women in additional Arab countries to take to the streets with similar demonstrations and sit-ins; they repeated virtually the same slogans before recognizing that Libya, Yemen and Syria are neither Egypt nor Tunisia. On the contrary, revolutions seeking reform and change in those countries will be costly, long, and bloody. Consequently, the “counter-revolutionary forces” led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have had a chance to mobilize their logistics and launch a counter-attack along multiple fronts.
This began with an effort to save Mubarak and Ben Ali. Failing this, the Saudi camp attempted to salvage their regimes. It sought to trade the head of the Libyan regime against the minority Sunni regime in Bahrain. Today, these forces are doing their best to rescue the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while on the Syrian front they are still trying to fathom whether or not the American strategy calls for President Bashar Assad to depart in order to calculate their response.
Noticeably, this Arab counter-revolutionary camp comprises nearly the same forces that in the 1950s and 1960s spearheaded a confrontation with the Nasserist, nationalist. and leftist trends of the day. Coincidentally, the countries targeted today are the same that were targeted in the past. Indeed, such coincidences usually conceal necessities. Saudi Arabia and its allies in the residual “moderate” Arab camp consider the “Arab spring” a strategic threat to their security and very existence: not because the winds of change have caused their major allies to collapse but rather because a “reaction” has already commenced inside Saudi Arabia (the Eastern Region and Hijaz) and among the Gulf emirates (Bahrain).
Saudi Arabia has left no stone unturned in seeking to immunize its interior and the Gulf. Vast alliances have been built with the old and collapsed “leftover” regimes. Support has been delivered to states vulnerable to revolution and change, based on enormous oil revenues derived from increased oil prices this year. The Salafi/Wahhabi movements in Egypt and Tunisia have been exploited to cause the revolutions to wane and to divert attention to marginal issues and clashes. In Syria, Riyadh seeks to blackmail the regime. In Iraq and Lebanon, it wants to challenge the forces affiliated with Iran and its “Shiite crescent”.
The old Arab political systems, then, are proving very capable of resistance; they will not accept the new status easily. They are taking advantage of the double standards and hesitant reaction of the West when addressing Arab revolutions. Thus, many political observers are convinced that the Arab region is still in the throes of a hard transition period; victory has not yet been achieved.
The good news, though, is that the Arab street has abandoned the culture of fear. It has resolved decisively to take its future in hand and become a main actor, if not “the” main actor, on the political stage. This is the most important guarantee that the revolution of change will be sustained until it triumphs.
Oraib Al-Rantawi is director of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies, Amman. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org