Future scenarios for the Arab uprisings
While there are four possible scenarios for the future of the Arab uprisings, the most likely is for a process of limited change and the formation of unstable democratic regimes, writes Mohsen Saleh
The state of anxiety and scepticism regarding the future of the Arab uprisings has prevailed widely to include the ordinary man in the street, the leaders in the region and foreign powers besides Israel. The uprisings still witness competing tracks drawn by opposing forces, and hence it is difficult to tell what the final outcomes will be.
Notwithstanding the present writer's belief that the movements for change will eventually fulfil people's aspirations for freedom and dignity, an objective reading of current events reveals four possible scenarios that might come about to varying extents according to the countries where the changes have taken place.
The first scenario involves reform within the internal and regional context of the state.
This scenario is based on the idea of changing the structure of the political system to a democratic one, while being preoccupied with internal economic, security, development and social concerns.
Any flourishing regime, should it succeed in overcoming the challenges of change, will have to face intertwined and discordant forces that cannot be appeased all at once and that will seek to be partners in decision-making, demanding, at times, more than what they actually deserve or trying to foil the system in case their demands are not fulfilled.
At the same time, many may not be able to differentiate between chaos, lawlessness and political opportunism, on the one hand, and freedom and responsible conduct, on the other, in the context of this scenario. Concurrently, opposing forces will try to impose the model of the state that best suits their vision, be it Islamist, nationalist, liberal or leftist, until either one side prevails or all parties get used to respecting the rules of the democratic game.
The new regime will also face different economic, social, educational, military or judicial institutions that have decayed under the former regime and that need rehabilitation in order to launch the reform plan. Ultimately, the new regime might be opening Pandora's Box, especially in dealing with those whose interests intersected with the former regime. It might then need some years to find an effective and transparent system to run these institutions and to integrate them within the reform process.
The new regime will need to find some magic formula to accommodate partisan bickering and external pressures and to deal with the remnants of the old regime and its centres of power within the state. At the same time, it will need to present the masses with swift accomplishments on the political, economic and security levels.
This scenario means the creation of weak, unstable democracies whose leaders will be in thrall to local aspirations and will fear external intervention or regional conflict. They will try to appease the superpowers by vowing not to trespass certain "red lines", while pursuing timid improvements regarding external policies and national issues.
The second scenario is for reform within an Arab-Islamic unitary uprising project. This is the most optimistic and ambitious scenario. The leaders of the movements for change mostly represent Islamist and nationalist trends that realise that the uprisings must not only be domestic projects, but must also be part of a unitary project to deal with the nation's weakness and fragmentation.
The success of any movement for change depends on the successes of other movements and their integration and unity in the face of the remnants of the old regimes, as well as on preventing international powers from controlling any given side.
According to this second scenario, the Arab uprisings did not break out only to express the need for bread, but rather had to do with restoring the nation's dignity, taking back decision-making from external hegemony and emphasising that the first enemy is the Zionist project. Thus, the Arab revolutions should embrace the nation's need for unity and its aspirations for liberating Palestine.
Although this scenario seems logical, the movements for ideological change nevertheless have preferred to focus on domestic concerns, in order to appease the Western powers and to highlight common concepts of freedom, democracy and human rights.
However, these things have been done not because the currents concerned had changed their convictions, but rather because they have realised the need to move within a gradual and peaceful process, as has been the case in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Changing the infrastructure of the old regime takes a long time, and during this period the currents can enhance their status and seek to go beyond uprising and unity projects.
The movements for change are aware of the magnitude of the internal and foreign forces seeking to foil their efforts, and as a result they have not been able to rush into the final stages of their respective projects before strengthening their own positions.
Even those operating within a revolutionary change formula have realised that the uprisings are at risk in an environment that has urged them to seek help from regional and international powers in order to achieve change. Accordingly, revolutionary conduct needs to be limited to regional change.
Nonetheless, no matter how much the Arab and Islamist movements seek to give reassurances, they will eventually face enormous internal and external challenges that may shake their positions unless a new revolutionary spirit arises to animate their audience and express their aspirations. This spirit will not be for bread but will aspire to liberation and unity.
The third regime sees the corrupt regimes reproducing themselves in new colours. This scenario assumes that the changes that have taken place have only affected the head of the regimes, as has been the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, while leaving their institutions and webs of interests intact, especially on the security, economic and judicial levels.
These institutions form the core of the "deep state", and they possess the tools of power and the ability to thwart any root-and-branch changes that might threaten them. Consequently, these forces will seek to accommodate the movements for change and to absorb the manifestations of the revolutionary tide.
They might show patience regarding the changes that have taken place, but they will nevertheless eventually try to foil them through lawlessness, economic deterioration, antagonising external powers and media incitement. They will then present themselves as new saviours, whether on the back of tanks through a military solution, or one based on a World Bank formula for economic salvation. Consequently, hopes of realising the projects behind the uprisings will be frustrated.
Some quick wins will be presented in coordination with Western forces that will support those options that are concordant with their policies. However, these options will be reshaped to extend the life of the corrupt regimes before uprisings break out once again.
The state of confusion recently witnessed in Egypt falls under this third scenario, including the efforts of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to derail the uprising and presenting Ahmed Shafik as a presidential candidate, the abolition of the first genuine People's Assembly in the history of the country and the attempts to strip the new president-elect of his authority.
The fourth scenario sees the fragmentation of the region on a sectarian and ethnic basis. This scenario is related to the power of foreign influences to recast the map of the region and the region's susceptibility to ethnic and sectarian divisions. It is also based on the vision that the revolutions have had on undermining central governments and internal security.
Under this scenario, those from the same ethnicity and minority groups would unite to protect themselves. It is also based on the idea that some ruling powers (old and new) would fall back on their caste or minority group to protect themselves and to enforce their influence. This would cause others also to form parties and to seek to control their various areas, deepening rifts in the region.
In this scenario, Israel and other hostile forces would only have to encourage the state of division on the political, media, security and military levels and enhance feelings of hatred under the pretext of defending the rights of minorities and sects.
This scenario has been discussed by many Zionist and Western authors and intellectuals, including Bernard Lewis and Aluf Benn. For them, it heralds the transformation of Israel into a natural entity, since a "Jewish state" would not be deemed an anomaly when surrounded by Alawite, Sunni, Shia and Maronite countries.
Given all the above, the causes determining the most-likely scenario that will in fact emerge includes factors such as the ability of the movements for change to maintain the revolutionary momentum and the support of the masses until they have brought about change. It includes the ability of the movements for change to present charismatic popular leaders that are capable of leading the course of the change and of filling the political vacuum, and it depends on the ability of the movements for change to form wide national alliances that overcome political blackmail, foil the return of the old regimes and prevent fragmentation and internal wars and conflicts.
Other factors include the ability of the movements for change to isolate the foreign factor (especially the American one) and to curb its influence on national decision-making. There will be a need for the movements for change to present the masses with tangible successes, especially on the tracks of security, the economy, corruption and enhancing freedoms. The ability of the movements for change to address national issues, especially the Palestinian issue, in a way that reflects popular will and the aspirations of the nation will also be important.
While it is difficult to analyse the intertwined factors in every country, a general course might show the following three factors. Firstly, that the peaceful change process in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen helped maintain the "deep state" to a large extent, in addition to keeping the remnants of the old regime in influential positions. Secondly, that the US and Western powers still retain significant capacities in the security, media, political and economic fields in those countries that pursued the peaceful track or the revolutionary one. And thirdly, that the forces for change have not been able to achieve decisive results in a number of countries, and their parties or trends have not been able to achieve a large majority that would allow them to fulfill their programmes without impediments by other forces. They have also not been able to put forward charismatic leaders that would enjoy the support of the masses.
Accordingly, the scenario for the foreseeable future will most probably be for a limited change process heading towards the formation of unstable democratic regimes and the accommodation of the Islamists, who will face double-edged challenges. There will be a chance for the latter to develop their abilities, increase their expertise and expand their popularity. If they do not do so, they will shrink as a result of various mistakes or practices, not to mention external attempts to demonise them and to foil their efforts.
There will also be a developing state of scepticism regarding the future of the region, due to the competition between the forces for change, on the one hand, and the remnants of the old regimes and external forces on the other.
This state of instability does not only open the way for the return of the old regimes in new forms or appearances, but it also paves the way for a wider state of depression and violent reactions in the form of a new revolutionary tide that would be stronger and more decisive.
Regardless of any wishes for the uprisings to fulfill their missions through a revolutionary, unitary project which would establish a free state that reflects the nation's will, religion and culture, the current facts undermine the crystallisation of this scenario and make it close to wishful thinking.
However, one can never tell what the future may hold. A year and a half ago, thinking of changes of the sort that we have witnessed would have been dismissed as so much craziness or wish fulfillment by those working in the field of strategic studies.
The writer is director of Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations.