Where are the founding fathers of the “Arab Spring”?

By Adel Al Toraifi

Is there truly an “Arab Spring,” or is there in fact a conflict internally against the authorities, and externally between the countries that we consider influential in the regional balance of power? The truth lies between this and that. There is no doubt that there has been a transformation –on the surface-within the actual shape of government, its symbols, and its main pillars. In other words, there has been a change of leaders without there being any ideological or social changes affecting the citizens and the wider culture of governance in the region. Strong popular uprisings are still being staged across Arab cities and districts, and a state of congestion and rebellion prevails amongst a broad category of the youth generation. Yet part of this congestion and rage can be attributed to the economic situation, especially with soaring food prices since 2007 and worsening unemployment since 2008. The congestion can also be attributed to the stagnant situation in a number of Arab societies with regards to reform, political participation, corruption and the total exclusion of the opposition from government.

We should also notice that we have experienced some sort of disguised military coup d’etat in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where the army, or parts of it, have seized the initiative and dissociated themselves from the head of state. Perhaps this explains why the Syrian uprising is stuttering, because it can be considered as civil strife (without military support) in the face of an imposing regime, indeed, more violent than all its predecessors. In Yemen as well, tribal and sectarian alliances have played a significant role in reaching the current impasse between the president and his opponents, at least so far.

The congestion can also be attributed to the stagnant situation in a number of Arab societies with regards to reform, political participation, corruption and the total exclusion of the opposition from government

However, the plain truth is that we are not facing a genuine change in the ideas or characters of the region, in what has been termed the Arab Spring. There are no “Founding Fathers,” nor is there an intellectual or cultural elite with a realistic project to change the ruling regime, raise the political awareness of the masses, or achieve the desired regional balance of power.

However, the plain truth is that we are not facing a genuine change in the ideas or characters of the region, in what has been termed the Arab Spring. There are no “Founding Fathers,” nor is there an intellectual or cultural elite with a realistic project to change the ruling regime, raise the political awareness of the masses, or achieve the desired regional balance of power.

A clear attempt is being made to portray the popular uprisings witnessed by some Arab states as “revolutions,” which will entail a change in the way of thinking and the nature of politics as we know it. Some have described what is happening as a democratic “revolution” against despotic and authoritarian rule. Yet reality shows that there are neither ideas nor political or intellectual elites who can lead the process of change towards a better future for the region. Rather, the traditional political factions and religious activists are attempting to ride the wave of change, although, as we can see, they have no intention to implement the change required in our region. In more than one country, some of these political and religious figures at the forefront of the scene have rushed to manipulate public issues and causes with the aim of achieving personal or political gains in the midst of the existing security and political chaos.

In a climate rife with political and emotional agitation, we can distinguish between three levels of the existing crisis in the Middle East: The first level is an internal one, where political factions compete to seize control of the political scene. The second is the regional level, where discussions over the distinctions between monarchies and a –populist- republics have surfaced. On the third level, the international level, some western states—including the US—have placed their hopes on change, in the belief that regime change will result in creating a better environment. Such a belief is a misconception based on “interventionist liberalism,” which portrays the Arab countries as currently undergoing a troubled phase in order to become liberal economies. Those who adopt such an illusionary conviction fail to realize that “freedom” in the American context does not necessarily mean freedom in the Middle Eastern context. In the former case, freedom means an individual’s freedom with regards to economic options and individual rights, whereas in the latter case of the Middle East, freedom means getting rid of foreign occupation and regimes that foster ties with the west.

the plain truth is that we are not facing a genuine change in the ideas or characters of the region, in what has been termed the Arab Spring

At the regional level, the attempt made by the Gulf States to include Jordan and Morocco in the GCC is evidence of a serious existing geopolitical vacuum, which has prompted these monarchies to approach one another and cooperate, despite the significant distance between them. This is because regional countries such as Iran, Syria, Iraq—and even Egypt—now have become unreliable to the Gulf states with regards to their foreign policies.

At the regional level, the attempt made by the Gulf States to include Jordan and Morocco in the GCC is evidence of a serious existing geopolitical vacuum, which has prompted these monarchies to approach one another and cooperate, despite the significant distance between them. This is because regional countries such as Iran, Syria, Iraq—and even Egypt—now have become unreliable to the Gulf states with regards to their foreign policies.

The most convincing evidence that the Arab Spring may be faltering, in a country like Egypt for example, comes from the fact that those in the interim—and unconstitutional—government are more concerned with pursuing the “remnants” of the past regime, releasing fundamentalist prisoners, and paying useless regional visits under the slogan of encouraging foreign investments. This all is happening at the time when Gulf and foreign projects in Egypt are being illegally nationalized. The government is doing so instead of addressing the deplorable economic condition, which we see everyday with the lack of wheat and fuel supplies, stagnant public corporations and banks, and the uncontrolled security and sectarian chaos.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, once said: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Perhaps, this is what we lack amidst the current chaotic stage.

First published in Asharq Alawsat Newspaper on  19/05/2011.

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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