The "Arab Spring" is now over one year old. In much of the popular analysis over the past year the term "Arab Spring" has become the defining characteristic of the "new" Middle East emerging from decades of authoritarian and repressive rule. However, one should be cautious about inflating the importance of the democratic uprisings in several Arab countries in shaping the future contours of the Middle East. This caution applies especially to exaggerating both the prospects of democracy — particularly the unhindered linear transition to representative rule — in the Arab world and the role of major Arab powers in determining political outcomes in the Middle East in the short and medium-term future.
The major reason for this caution is the fact that the transition to democracy in the Arab world is very much a work in progress that, after initial successes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, seems to have ground to a halt. The counter-revolution has succeed in Bahrain thanks to the military might of next door Saudi Arabia, which is firmly opposed to any political opening in its backyard and is not averse to sending in its storm troopers to crush democratic stirrings in the Arab sheikhdoms and emirates of the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, Syria has descended into civil war with Saudi Arabia, paradoxically, leading the "democratic" charge against the Assad regime.
As if to establish the fact that nothing in the Middle East is what it appears to be, Iran, which did not engineer but certainly supported the uprising in Bahrain, has stood solidly behind the authoritarian Assad regime in Syria. The geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, that has dictated the actions of both countries toward democratic uprisings in the Arab world far more than normative concerns or ideological affinity, has for the moment contributed substantially to quashing the democratic aspirations of the Arab populations both in the Gulf and the Fertile Crescent. Even where the ancient regimes have been overthrown the success of the democratic movements cannot be taken for granted and the democratic wave is far from irreversible. Tunisia may still prove to be the exception to this rule, but both Egypt and Libya betray characteristics that make one "cautiously pessimistic" to put it in the mildest of terms. The overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt has not led to a smooth transition to democratic rule. Despite the parliamentary elections and the plurality gained by the Muslim Brotherhood in these elections, the military brass is still well ensconced in power — an outcome that was predicted by some observers of the Egyptian scene at the time of Mubarak’s fall.
It is far from certain that the tussle between Egypt’s elected representatives and the military will be resolved in favor of the former. It is more than likely that a compromise will be reached providing a transfer of power to civilian rule in some spheres while the military will continue to control the more important arenas of governance — internal and external security, foreign policy — and also preserve a great deal of its corporate interests. This will be akin to the situation today in Pakistan and to the condition that prevailed in Turkey not so long ago.
Libya and Syria: Disintegration and Civil War?
The situation in Libya is even more precarious than in Egypt with the very unity of the state in jeopardy. Unlike Egypt, which is a relatively homogeneous society, regional and tribal rivalries exacerbated by the chaos accompanying the fall of the Qaddafi regime threaten to tear Libya apart. The writ of what passes for the central government does not run too far and already voices have been raised in the eastern part of the country demanding autonomy, a possible code word for independence. The fact that foreign intervention played a critical role in regime change in Libya also detracts from the legitimacy of the successor government and makes it more susceptible to domestic challenges.
The lack of an overarching political formation with roots in all or most of the country a la the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could easily turn into the Achilles heel of the Libyan polity. The Libyan Brotherhood, which launched its own Freedom and Justice Party in March 2012 modeled after its Egyptian counterpart, is but a pale shadow of the Egyptian Brotherhood. The saga of Libya’s democratic transition has become entangled with issues of national unity and the very integrity of the state. The jury is still out as to whether the new political dispensation will take root in Libya and, even if it does, whether it would be able to sustain its democratic character as well as preserve the territorial integrity of the Libyan state.
Syria, it is becoming increasingly clear, is headed toward a long-drawn out civil war for four reasons. First, there is no sign of the Alawite-dominated military officer corps abandoning Assad’s cause, which is their cause as well. Second, the opposition — above all the Syrian National Council (SNC) — is divided between different bickering groups. One of the underlying disagreements hobbling the work of the SNCis the divide between elements representing the Muslim Brotherhood and those opposed to it. Probably even more important is the divide between the internal and external elements of the Syrian opposition that prevents the emergence of a united front that could act as an alternative and successor to the Assad regime. Third, Syria has become an integral part of the regional cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which had already been accentuated by the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. As a consequence, it has become impossible to disentangle the Syrian conflict from broader regional balance of power issues, thus making the situation conducive for a continuing stalemate. Fourth, external powers – the United States and its NATO allies – for a variety of geostrategic reasons are unwilling to launch a military campaign such as the one they did against Qaddafi to bring down Assad. It is also doubtful, even if they did launch such a campaign, whether it would topple the regime and could end up causing larger civilian casualties and huge damage to the country’s infrastructure without achieving its goal of regime change. Current efforts by Kofi Annan, the U.N. and Arab League envoy, to bring about a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict may be laudable but are unlikely to succeed — especially given the Assad regime’s view of the situation as an existential struggle.
The remaining North African front
After regime change in Tunisia, largely absent from this discussion because it remains the most optimistic case, Egypt, and Libya, the Arab states of North Africa, especially Algeria and Morocco, seem to be in a state of high alert. The Moroccan monarchy, adept at playing the game of electoral authoritarianism, has adopted a twin-pronged strategy. The first prong consists of accommodating the moderate Islamist party, the PJD, within the power structure by allowing it to emerge with a plurality in the elections of November 2011 and by appointing its head as the country’s Prime Minister without diluting the reserve executive powers of the monarchy.
The second prong consists of making common cause with the Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia, culminating in the GCC invitation to Morocco, as well as Jordan, to join the exclusive club of Arab monarchies (although neither of them qualifies geographically for this honor). Membership of the GCC must have appealed to the Moroccan king as a policy of reinsurance against popular revolt. The Saudi-led GCC intervention in Bahrain was above all intended to carry the message, which must have been pleasing to the ears of King Mohammed VI, that the organization is committed to, and capable of defending, the monarchical regimes of member states under threat from forces unleashed by the Arab Spring. While Morocco’s geographic distance from Saudi Arabia considerably dilutes the effectiveness of this message, the prospect of economic aid from Gulf monarchies flush with petrodollars that can be used to buy off dissent adds to the attraction for Morocco of membership in the GCC.
Algeria had experienced a brutal civil war in the 1990s between the military-dominated regime and Islamist extremists frustrated by the army’s decision to abort Algeria’s electoral experiment when it became clear that the Islamist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) would win a majority in parliament. The shadow of that war which left 150,000 people dead still hangs over the Algerian society and polity. According to one observer: "This episode has taught Algerians the dangers of contestation. The ‘black decade’ remains an open wound within the society, preventing it from reproducing the next-door revolutionary model. In the collective mind, revolution involves considerable risks that the current generation of Algerians are (sic) not willing to take." This does not mean that Algeria is immune to the democratic contagion. The memory of civil war and its substantial oil revenues, which the regime has spread around as handouts to critical segments of society, has bought a reprieve for the military-backed Algerian government. But this is likely to be temporary and Algeria may be in a "calm before the storm" phase.
The Persian Gulf
The Arab states of the Gulf seem to fall in a category of their own because of their oil and gas wealth and rentier economies that have turned the adage "no taxation without representation" on its head. However, their capacity to buy social peace differs greatly from one to another. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (especially Abu Dhabi) lie at one extreme with their enormous wealth per capita from energy sources, providing them with more than enough resources to buy off their relatively miniscule populations. Yemen, which is poor, and Bahrain, which lacks oil wealth, lie at the other extreme. Yemen has been in the midst of political strife for several years with multiple secessionist movements and contenders of power slugging it out with each other. President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s recent departure is unlikely to make too much of a difference to this chronically unstable country.
Bahrain, with a politically aware population and little oil wealth, has become the spearhead of the democratic uprising in the Gulf. The fact that it has a Sunni monarchy ruling over a 70 percent Shia majority has allowed its rulers to portray the democracy movement in sectarian terms. This was not true at the beginning of the movement but is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as the regime’s repressive policy persists. Nonetheless, Bahrain continues to be the weakest link in the chain of Gulf autocracies and, therefore, of extreme concern to the GCC’s leading power, Saudi Arabia. While the regime seems to have temporarily suppressed the democracy movement, Bahrain’s revolutionaries are unlikely to give up the fight anytime soon.
It is Saudi Arabia, the largest and the richest of the kingdoms, that is the key Arab country to watch in the Gulf in the context of the profound changes affecting the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, with its enormous reserves of oil, a respectable demographic base, and a huge inventory of sophisticated weaponry bought from the West, principally the United States, is located at the center of the Arab Gulf system and is the predominant power in the GCC. Its geostrategic competition with Iran and its self-proclaimed role as the protector of Sunni interests against Shia Iran make it the logical pillar of American policy in the Persian Gulf. However, Saudi Arabia is potentially a colossus with feet of clay. Bolstering Saudi capabilities, principally by the transfer of sophisticated weaponry by the United States, is unlikely to change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf given the vulnerabilities of the Saudi state, including its octogenarian leadership and lack of genuine political institutions, as well as its lack of soft power (other than cash) to influence events in the long term.
Despite much vulnerability the Saudi regime has so far been able to buy time with its hefty financial resources to purchase the loyalty of its subjects. Furthermore, it has cleverly played the anti-Shia card by pointing to Iran as the primary cause of Shia unrest in its oil-rich eastern province. It has also persuaded the Wahhabi religious establishment to denounce any form of protest against the House of Saud as anti-Islamic, thereby portraying supporters of democracy as enemies of Islam. Above all, as an astute analyst of Saudi Arabia points out: "Saudi Arabia’s experience of the Arab Spring demonstrates that it lacks the structural conditions for mobilization, organization, and protest, let alone revolution…Saudi Arabia does not have trade unions-the majority of its working population is foreign, which has stunted the growth of organized labor-a women’s movement, or an active student population, three factors that helped to make protests in Tunis and Cairo successful." The only avenue left for any opposition, therefore, is violence that is likely to be met with much greater counter-violence by the state. With Saudi Arabia’s close strategic links with the United States and its huge petroleum reserves, the regime is likely to overcome such opposition at least in the short to medium term as the preeminent status quo power.
What is clear in all cases is that the initial optimism regarding the prospect of a region wide "Arab Spring" quickly taking hold was clearly misplaced. In fact, given the current situation in Libya and prospects of similar outcomes if democratic uprisings take place in countries with brutally repressive military regimes such as Algeria, the Arab world maybe heading for more turmoil, death, and destruction — at least in the near term.
The Regional Influentials
Furthermore, the speculation about Arab countries such as Egypt playing a larger role in the international politics of the Middle East in the wake of democratic transformations now appear to be more a product of wishful thinking than of objective analysis. Most of the energies of Arab governments, whether authoritarian or democratic or in between, will be concentrated in tackling issues of domestic order and legitimacy for the next few years, if not decades. This would leave them with little inclination to pursue proactive foreign policies except for tiny Qatar that is flush with gas wealth and sees a high international profile as a strategy to enhance the legitimacy of its regime among its tiny native population. However, given its limited capabilities, the Qatari attempt to play a larger than life size role may eventually turn out to be counterproductive and lead to unforeseen negative consequences for the ruling house.
The only major Arab country likely to engage in active diplomacy is Saudi Arabia, both because of its enormous oil wealth and because its regime feels threatened by a nexus of external and internal forces that require an active foreign policy especially to curb the growth of Iranian influence in the region. However, as discussed above, Saudi Arabia’s inherent vulnerabilities and built-in contradictions in its foreign policy are likely to limit its regional appeal and hobble its diplomacy to a considerable extent.
Egypt, the traditional leader of the Arab world, will remain politically introverted for a long time to come, thus detracting from its capacity to influence regional events. Despite more political openness and a public face of civilian rule, it is unlikely that the fundamental power structure in Egypt or its foreign-policy orientation will undergo radical transformation except in the very long run, if and when civilian forces are able to chip away at the military’s domination of the country’s political and economic life. It is worth noting in this context that it took six decades for Turkey to assert a reasonable amount of civilian control over its military, and that the process is still far from complete. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Egyptian revolution will have a major impact on the political and strategic landscape in the Middle East in the short and medium terms.
The other traditional major center of Arab power, Iraq, is located centrally in the Middle East connecting the Fertile Crescent to the Persian Gulf. However, Iraq’s power was drastically depleted and its influence dramatically curtailed beginning with the Gulf War of 1991. Iraq’s decline became a full-blown reality following the invasion by the United States in 2003. Since then it has been mired in the domestic mess created by the invasion and the attendant destruction of its state institutions and governing capacity. Furthermore, the invasion has decimated it militarily as well as drastically reduced its capacity to influence regional events diplomatically. In fact, it has become more an object of influence — by Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States — rather than an autonomous center of power with the capacity to influence regional events.
The basic lesson that one draws from this account as far as the international relations of the Middle East is concerned is that the Arab world in general, and major Arab powers in particular, with the possible and partial exception of Saudi Arabia, will not be in a position to greatly affect regional outcomes for the next couple of decades. This leaves the non-Arab powers, especially Turkey, Iran, and Israel, as major regional players whose actions and relationships with each other are likely to determine the future of the Middle East for quite some time to come. It appears that despite the initial promise of the "Arab Spring", Ankara, Tehran, and Tel Aviv will continue to dominate the regional political landscape far more than any of their Arab counterparts.
Mohammed Ayoob is the university distinguished professor of international relations at Michigan State University and adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.