The Arab Unrest

The New Balance of Power in the Middle East

Thursday 03 March 2011

By Adel Al Toraifi

If you consider what is happening in the Middle East to be a massive earthquake, then what lies ahead might be even more traumatic. In less than two months, two Arab regimes have been toppled, in Tunisia and Egypt respectively, whilst the Libyan regime is on its last legs, fighting in the districts of Tripoli. Furthermore, the security of other regimes has begun to fluctuate from day to day, such as in Yemen and Algeria. Even the Gulf States, which enjoy favorable economic and social conditions, have fallen under enormous pressure – consider the examples of Bahrain and Oman. I believe that the Gulf States, with the introduction of serious reforms, would be more capable of overcoming the challenge compared to Arab republics, whose legitimacy is being exposed to fragmentation, under pressure from the young enraged masses. However, the real repercussions of this earthquake have yet to strike the regimes that initially seemed the most volatile. Here I am talking about regimes such as Iran and Syria, not to mention the sectarian-based ruling systems of Iraq and Lebanon

Nobody knows exactly when this youth uprising fever, which has now gripped the entire region, will come to an end. Some regimes are hoping they won’t be next, so that their youth have a chance to conceive the gravity of what is happening in the affected countries, and how the unknown can be more perilous than they might have thought. These young revolutionaries are not aware of the enormous responsibility involved in state building, both security-wise and economy-wise.

It is difficult to argue, or even hold dialogue, with the young enthusiasts of the revolution, because the zeitgeist calls for change. Young people across the Middle East have seen their peers in Tunisia and Egypt successfully overthrowing powerful regimes, which boasted strong military and security forces and influential relations with the outside world. No matter how the existing regimes try to appease the masses, they will not be able to counteract this youthful energy, which endeavors to effect change. The earthquake will strike everyone, regardless of the amount of reforms and changes introduced. The only thing that certain wise regimes can do is to sustain the least possible amount of losses. Yet the problem with some politicians is that they do not appreciate the gravity of the current revolutionary wave. They continue to think in conventional ways, and undertake unrealistic assessments to weigh up the crisis. Meanwhile, the rebellious youths do not care for such assessments; they are more immersed in the revolutionary moment, which burns stronger every day.

The youth of today are staunch believers in a set of values pertaining to the world of politics, freedom and democracy. At the same time, they hardly care about the social, ideological and economic complexities, which form the social and political fabric in their countries. The youth believe that they possess a historic moment for change, and that they could transform their countries and the face of the entire region as we know it.

Amidst this “idealistic” atmosphere, which is engulfed by wishes and aspirations overlooking the complexities of reality, a lot of intellectuals and writers have supported what has been happening. They have given their blessings to the “Youth Revolution”, which has achieved effectively what they failed to accomplish over the past four decades. Some of this support emanates from a sense of nostalgia for the revolutionary roots of a “leftist” culture during the 1960s. Other supporters of the “Youth Revolution” are effectively opportunists, aiming to ride the wave of change in order to serve their ideological and material interests, and ensure their presence during the coming period. The third category of support for the “Youth Revolution” comes from figures within the Political Islamic movement that used to represent opposition during the 1970s and 1980s. They later converted to a coexistent discourse, maybe even a hypocritical one, with the Arab regimes toward the end of the 1990s. Perhaps the fact that those preachers and clerics have befriended sons of royalty and heads of state, is an explicit indication of the falsehood of their positions. Today, all those who have dealt with the former republican regimes, which are on the verge of collapse, have rushed to declare their innocence, and expressed their support and admiration for the youth revolutionary zeal, which has taken the region by storm.

Perhaps our major concern relates to the new regional balance of power that will emerge after the revolutionary earthquake reaches its furthest limits. There is no doubt that what happened will change the balance of power in the region, and the set of alignments and alliances we have known since the Second Gulf War (1990 – 1991). The new balance of power will depend on the results of the transitional processes in these countries. Here, I must stress that many Arab countries hit by the revolutionary fever are bound to experience a state of chaos, and internal instability, whereby the final outcome will be hard to predict.

In my opinion, we might witness elected populist regimes suffering from economic weakness and mismanagement, as a result of the sudden and extreme changes that will affect the bureaucratic structures in the service and economic sectors of those countries. Consequently, they will most probably be governed by fragile coalition governments, which are incapable of settling major and sensitive issues. Therefore, it is very unlikely that any new regime would venture to renege on important political treaties like the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accords of 1979. However, economic agreements won’t enjoy the same measure of immunity, because newly appointed officials will be motivated by an overwhelming desire to establish a reformist economic direction, distancing themselves from the contracts and agreements signed by the former “corrupt” regime.

As for the regional balance of power, there is a possibility that we shall witness fast and frantic endeavors on the part of new ruling entities, aspiring for popularity and self assertion. Just observe how the Egyptian revolutionary youth reacted to the current developments in Libya and elsewhere, and how the armed forces swiftly responded to their calls. In many revolutions in the past, revolutionists have resorted to exporting their political and economic problems abroad, to perpetuate their revolutionary legitimacy. Such examples include parties, which have risen to power in South America over the past ten years, particularly in Venezuela and Bolivia. The populist regimes in these countries did not think twice about strengthening their relations with radical regimes like Iran and Libya, despite the absence of democracy in both of these states.

Many are quick to refute the hypothesis of a possible correlation between the Iranian Revolution on the one hand, which overrode a leftist Islamist uprising at the height of the Cold War, and what is now happening in the Middle East on the other. Though we haven’t yet encountered an aspiring revolutionist like Khomeini, this does not mean the scene is void of such figures or religious leaders, who aspire to play that role.

There are lessons that ought to be drawn from the Iranian Revolution, most notably the “idealistic” stamp that characterizes such youthful uprisings. During the early 1960s, Khomeini was aware of the importance of the values of resistance, standing up to the world’s superpowers, and priding oneself on nationalism in the face of regional powers. As a result, he sought to “Islamize” and merge the leftist discourse into the theories of the Shiite Islamist movement. When Khomeini managed to lead the revolution, he enthusiastically hailed the “revolutionary idealism” of the younger generation, contrary to the advice of his less radical revolutionary partners. Within a few years, and with the help of the revolutionary spirit of the youth, Khomeini succeeded in eliminating those moderate voices. Nevertheless, this “revolutionary idealism” stood in the way of Iran being able to purchase arms from other countries, which considered the Iranian regime to be a hostile one. Consequently, the regime resorted to buying weapons clandestinely from its enemies (Iran-Contra), and holding secret negotiations with them, in order not to lose the support of the revolutionary youth. Subsequently, Iran lost three decades between war, international isolation and internal clashes, amidst the fever of “revolutionary idealism”.

The Middle East is now liable to experience a revolutionary clash, under the pretext of freedom and democracy. Many revolutionary enthusiasts will come to realize that the political reality is far more complicated than they expected, and cannot be bypassed by mere slogans. In 1984, and after two years of rejecting a ceasefire proposal with Iraq, Khomeini and his senior aides realized that the country had slid into a state of increasing international isolation, and that their military and economic capabilities had weakened to an alarming degree. Subsequently, Khomeini contacted all Iranian ambassadors based abroad, and told them: “Our relations with other states are not good. We have become isolated. What I want from you is to strengthen our ties with all countries we have bilateral relations with, all countries where we are diplomatically represented.”

In short, the rising expectations in our region could create a romantic utopia that is unfeasible in reality. The youth have managed to topple authoritarian regimes, but do they possess the required awareness to build democratic states that are economically and administratively sustainable? The challenge is indeed a great one. Maybe it is time the youth considered regional stability, because states do not live in separate worlds. This is a fact that the Iranian young revolutionaries failed to grasp.

Published in Asharq Alawsat Neswpaper

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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