Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Arab Spring: Origins, Implications, Outlook: Brian Lynch Reflects on a Recent NZIAA Conference

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Arab Spring: Origins, Implications, Outlook: Brian Lynch Reflects on a Recent NZIAA Conference

Article excerpt

The NZIIA's successful conference on the Middle East on 2 August 2011 took place against a backdrop of dramatic change. Early expectations that the Arab Spring would sweep all before it have proved unjustified m as some regimes resist the tide of popular protest. Fierce, often brutal, resistance to change continues in several countries, especially Syria. At the conference there was general agreement that the revolutionary movements were not ideologically driven, but instead reflected deep-seated resentment of past injustice, humiliation and frustration. Protestors demanded self-determination. Even if it remains difficult to predict what political landscape will emerge from the Arab Spring, a sense of cautious optimism was apparent during the conference.

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The suggestion that the NZIIA host a conference on the Middle East arose soon after the first dramatic events in Egypt and Tunisia in late 2010. Those uprisings toppled two seemingly entrenched Arab leaders, if not the regimes themselves. Other regimes nearby appeared threatened by the same waves of popular protest. Countries at opposite ends of the Arab world, from Morocco and Libya to Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and Yemen, were caught in the tide of unrest.

For a time in early 2011 events moved at a rapid pace, one that seemed to promise a radical reordering of the regional power balance that might be in place before the NZIIA was able to hold its planned conference. Given that it took only eighteen days in Egypt for President Mubarak to be deposed, it seemed that regime collapse elsewhere might be as quick as the fall of communism.

Unrealistic as it came to be seen in retrospect, that expectation was encouraged by the extensive coverage of unfolding events through modern means of communication, not least the Arab television channel Al-Jazeera and the marvels of social media. The protestor took full advantage of this shared space for spreading aspirations and ideas and to keep track of what was happening. Up to the minute exposure on daily television helped create the impression among a

global audience that in short order the region would emerge from decades of political stagnation, and be swept up in an unstoppable pro-democracy tsunami of change.

That hopeful scenario anticipated a self-empowering movement similar to the one which in a previous era had transformed the political landscapes of parts of Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the old Soviet bloc. The transition in the Middle East to fundamentally different, open, rules-based and pluralist societies seemed imminent.

That was not to be. There was fierce, often brutal, resistance from the ruling regimes in countries such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Early displays of dissent in Algeria soon ebbed. By mid2011 the revolutionary surge had lost momentum and was at risk of being turned back, if not crushed. As a result and despite selective Western intervention, in Egypt and through the use of NATO air strikes in Libya, when the NZIIA conference was held in Wellington on 2 August 2011 the final outcomes of the latest 'Arab Awakening' were still far from obvious.

What had become clear was that the spring 'flowering' had been followed by the first signs of a long hot summer. Beyond that loomed the spectre of an early winter. Would it all end, not so much in positive seasonal change but the resumption of authority by regimes proven to have been deeply unpopular yet determined at all costs to cling to power?

Intriguingly, amidst all the surrounding turmoil where did Israel fit? Not this time the focal point of Arab hostility, as so often in the past, it was, instead, almost a fringe spectator but critically interested in the course of the power struggles on its borders. An immediate casualty was the prospect of an early resumption of the 'peace process' with the Palestine Authority. …

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