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The Arab Spring: conspiracies or national will?

January 24, 2014 at 10:34 am

Attempts to analyse the Arab Spring revolutions have included suggestions of foreign conspiracies to divide and rule what is left of the Middle East. Others suggest that the revolutions are a long-awaited expression of national pride and dignity and were ignited by domestic forces.

I would like to address the commonly-held views not only among academics and politicians but also the Arab masses which have started to question, doubt and lose confidence in the Arab Spring. I will use a nuanced approach in addressing a third view which considers the events as academic material which can serve as a platform to examine theories of International politics in a region described for many years as being sluggish over reform.

The conspiracy theorists link their views to remarks, articles and books by non-Arab intellectuals such as Bernard Lewis and Thierry Meyssan which give the impression that the Arab Middle East is in a process of transformation similar to that of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916. Phrases used by government officials, mainly Americans, include “constructive chaos”, the “New Middle East” and the “Greater Middle East” and have led to further worry and distrust. As far back as March 2004 the Bush administration adopted what was named “the Greater Middle East Project”.

One can argue that the US vision was based on a reshuffle and reorganisation of the Middle East following Washington’s sole control over the international political order in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Efforts to improve America’s image in the region post-Iraq and Afghanistan invasions are a key component. Nevertheless, the project was a complete fiasco.

Undaunted, other projects followed: “the New Middle East” was introduced by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 accompanied by the term “constructive chaos”. In 2006, Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya defined constructive chaos as that which “generates conditions of violence and warfare throughout the region” and which “would in turn be used so that the United States, Britain and Israel could redraw the map of the Middle East in accordance with their geo-strategic needs and objectives.” In this context, a new map of the Middle East was presented in the US Armed Forces Journal in 2006 entitled: “Blood Borders: How a better Middle East would look”.

Simply put, as the goals of these projects went down the drain, US decision makers started to think of a new plan to replace them. The approach was primarily to find a new model acceptable to the Arabs which would counter the stereotypes of old and traditional regimes. The rise of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) of Turkey in 2002 inspired that viewpoint and moved the compass towards what was called “moderate Islam”. The promotion of the Turkish model in particular and “moderate Islam” in general struck a chord with the public whose dissatisfaction and aversion to corrupt regimes became a priority.

Henceforth, “moderate” Islamic movements which were once deprived of their rights and whose members were imprisoned and even executed by their own governments lined up to present their credentials as the new “model” alternative to the dictatorships. The latter, of course, were viewed by the Arab people as stooges, too attached to the West and excessively dependent on the US.

The theory in this sense is that the Arab Spring represented the execution of this American plan, having democratically-elected moderate regimes ready to be accepted by the people and willing to serve US interests, securing multinational businesses and oil supplies. The fact that many such Islamic movements had sought refuge in Western countries from oppressive governments bolstered this way of thinking.

This requires further investigation. Failing to take into consideration the various contexts of these events will lead to inaccuracy, which brings us to the second group of views.

Many people tend to see in the Arab revolts the increasing frustration of Arab youth. This generation, which is the majority of the Arab population, grew up with tales of glory and a magnificent history. The frustrating reality, however, was that they found themselves fully dependent on the West and living in bleak economic and social conditions. This was combined with the oppression of their governments and the lack of democracy and freedom of expression. Dictators’ exaggerated self-confidence and hyperbole made parliamentary elections a joke as they sought to pass on power to their sons in supposed republics.

Arab youth saw progress and development in other countries and coveted the economic and social conditions experienced elsewhere. Social network sites and improved access to the Internet saw the new generation sharing their fears, hopes and dreams around the world. Arab regimes underestimated the power of such technology, described by one official as “children’s toys”.

When the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia it caught every expert, analyst and politician off guard, not least because the people of Tunisia are renowned for their quiet temperament and gentleness. The revolutionary fever spread, providing the evidence for those who say that the movement is entirely internal with no external influence or inspiration.

A number of facts support this view. First of all, there was a close relationship between the West and previous autocratic regimes in the Arab world. Second, the West hesitated over the revolutions. Michele Alliot-Marie, the ex-Foreign Minister in France, had to resign after expressing his country’s willingness to provide Tunisia with its security expertise just a few days after the escape of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The US position was also confused. The BBC’s correspondent in Washington, Kim Ghattas, said that State Department officials “seemed to be caught unawares” by the revolution in Tunisia, adding that they had not been briefed about the country. She noted that the immediate reaction of the US administration to events in Tunisia focused mainly on advice for American citizens there.

It is worth noting, though, that Western governments had ample time to evaluate and reassess their positions based on the new developments as they sought to secure their interests and the cooperation of the emerging powers. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preferred the use of “smart power”, a mix between diplomacy and military power, especially in the Middle East. This was described aptly by Massimo Calabresi in his article “Hillary Clinton and the Rise of Smart Power” in TIME Magazine’s issue of 7th November 2011.

As events unfolded a third group found in the Arab Spring a rich source of research data to study, providing a good platform from which to examine international politics. A number of aspects have stood out.

Some linked the revolutions to the school of realism as per the interpretation of the state of chaos, alliances and the use of force. Others explained them from a neo-liberal approach, looking at the role of soft power employed by some regional countries and superpowers, the role of diplomacy that influenced the course of events and finally the interdependence of Arab Spring countries. Another approach tries to validate the theory of revolutions along the trajectory of Arab revolts.

Furthermore, some scholars like Larry Diamond and Ali Sarihan see in the Arab revolts “the fourth wave of democratisation”, with reference to the concept developed by Samuel M. Huntington, although the latter believes that the third wave is still ongoing. Other scholars consider the current Arab revolts to be the third stage or wave of modern Arab revolutions.

Inter alia, one can say that the Arab Spring represented a glimmer of hope for the Arabs despite the failures, bloodshed and unfavourable repercussions which have seen some loss of zeal and the start of questions about the purposes and motives of the revolutions. Foreign influence cannot be discounted in this context.

Nevertheless, it would be naïve to question the motives of those who initiated these revolts; the responsibility is for the new leaders and regimes which have benefited from the Arab Spring to serve their people well and create a better Middle East free of the poisonous dichotomies that have plagued the region for decades.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.