Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

The Arab Spring: Supporting Transition to Democracy

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

The Arab Spring: Supporting Transition to Democracy

Article excerpt

The popular uprising in many countries of West Asia and North Africa in 2011 caught the world by surprise. While there was recognition that change was overdue and perhaps inevitable from the military dictatorship, authoritarianism and single-party rule that had held sway for several decades in the region, the kind of trigger that led to the groundswell was hardly expected. In Egypt, for example, the opposition political parties had been emaciated; the government's propaganda machinery had effectively discredited the Muslim Brotherhood; and the security and intelligence apparatus was reputed to be ruthless. A greengrocer in Tunisia kindled the upsurge, and almost every Arab society caught the fever in no time. While it would be difficult to predict how the short-term political future of the several Arab societies would evolve, it looks like the era of thirty-year-long dictatorships in the region has ended.

Although the term "Arab spring" is used to collectively describe the uprisings in the West Asia and North Africa region, the developments in each country are distinct. For example, Tunisia is often considered as a "local" event except that it did provide the trigger for the uprisings in Egypt and Libya. Egypt, the most populous country in the region, is a case by itself.

The Libyan case became inevitably complicated by the unfortunate decision of the UN Security Council and the subsequent decision of NATO to intervene militarily. There were reports at one time, according to knowledgeable observers, of "informal" suggestions in the UN Security Council that the frozen assets of the Qaddafi regime be used to buy arms for the rebels and for extending financial support to them, ideas hitherto unheard of in the UN. That NATO was not held accountable to the Security Council for its bombings in Libya and for the civilian casualties caused by those actions, ostensibly for reasons of "operational secrecy", has justifiably elicited criticism. The African Union was pressing for a political settlement while the Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, preferred a military solution; the Western powers, wanting a regime change, opted for the latter.

Yemen was somewhat complicated because of the al Qaeda factor. Behind- the-scenes diplomacy helped in the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh without much bloodshed, though the country is still quite some distance away from a transition to genuine democracy. In Bahrain, the Saudi authorities used strong-arm tactics in helping the regime put down the popular upsurge. Any genuine democratic movement that would undercut the Sunni monarchy in this tiny Shi'ia-majority country would have far-reaching implications for the entire region. The Human Rights Council has not been "allowed" to discuss the situation in Bahrain.

The developments in Syria have come as a convenient tool for the Western countries to wage a proxy war against Iran by arming and financing the anti- regime elements. It has been a longstanding perception that Iran has been able to extend material and financial support to Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon because of the support it has enjoyed from the Assad regime in Syria. The expectation seems to be that if this regime is toppled, Iranian influence in the region will decline, consequently weakening Hamas and Hizbullah and ensuring greater security for Israel.

Perceptibly, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been exercising enormous influence over the Arab League and its policymaking in the past year. As a result, the League has almost become a "Sünna" League, to the exclusion of Shi'ia Islam. In the long term, such a sectarian approach will harm not only Arab unity and solidarity but also stability and peace in the region.

Complicating recent events in the West Asia/North Africa region, in addition to the popular uprising, are regional factors such as Iran's convoluted relationship with several Arab countries, the sectarian divide, Middle East politics, the strategic interests of major powers, radicalism and religious extremism, and the Israeli factor. …

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