Wither the Arab order?
Will the chaos of the Arab Spring give way to a new order, or lead to protracted anarchy, asks Abdel-Moneim Said
In articles appearing on these pages last year I attempted to discern the contours of the future of the Arab order in light of the upheavals that have been dubbed the Arab Spring. I must confess that my attempts were sometimes wide of the mark, apart from the observation regarding the burst of activity and confidence on the part of the Arab League. Suddenly this institutionalised embodiment of the old (pre-Arab Spring) Arab order seemed ready and willing to supervise, in coordination with the international community, the processes of change, thereby acquiring legitimacy and some sources of strength regionally and, perhaps, internationally as well. This occurred in its clearest and most positive form in Libya and to a lesser extent and in a less effective way in Syria, where spring is still characterised by searing temperatures and rivers of blood.
The differences between the Libyan and Syrian cases reflect the inevitable changes that have occurred in the components of the Arab order, due to the rush of developments and complex interactions of the "transitional periods" in the countries of the Arab Spring that have cast their shadow over the situation in Syria, both delaying and raising the costs of its logical conclusion, and which have also affected the Arab Spring projects in Sudan and Mauritania that have yet to enter the arena of revolution. Nevertheless, on a broader level, the Arab order is being swept by a powerful tide of youth, complete with youth's inherent impetuousness, love for simplicity, disinclination to prudence, and distaste for complexity and ambiguities.
This youthful current is fed by other forces who dream of civil society, who rebel against the traditionalism that keeps their societies struggling in the backwaters of a modern world brimming with advanced technology and wealth, and who long to build societies capable of advancing into and staking a prominent place in that world. However, the region is also rife with some well-organised forces that have spent decades trying to breach the walls of the palaces of power and that have recently been handed an unprecedented, and indeed historic, opportunity to channel that current in another direction. Moreover, these forces have displayed no shortage in political cynicism when it came to using the original revolutionaries, when circumstances required, to accomplish certain ends of their own, after which the revolutionaries were perfunctorily dumped and left stunned and floundering on the river banks. For examples of this, one only has to turn to the daily press and read what happened to the "national front" that was formed between the Muslim Brotherhood and the revolutionary forces before the announcement of the final presidential election results.
The Muslim Brotherhood has become a primary feature of the new Arab order. It has reached power, or won a major share of power, in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, and currently it is in the forefront of the opposition in countries in the grips of revolution, such as Syria, as well as in countries whose "traditional" leaderships had long imagined that they enjoyed sufficient religious immunity only to find the local Muslim Brotherhood chapters knocking at the doors of power brandishing the banner of religion and Sharia law or, if that fails, wielding democratic demands as their weapon, once again. Consistency was never an issue. The Muslim Brothers change their roles and postures according to the demands of the available opportunities. Where the legitimacy of religious claims can't strike, perhaps the legitimacy of the democratic ballot box can.
To some extent, the situation today is reminiscent of the 1950s when military coups became "revolutions" through government drives to intervene in and control education, healthcare, the market and the media, to which was added a dose of "Arab nationalism" whose chief source of energy and legitimacy was the Palestinian cause. This "ideology" also steered these revolutions to military defeat and to economic impotence, after which the regimes simply continued to decay until virtually nothing was left of the old revolutions but dilapidated and occasionally ludicrous structures and institutions (see the Gaddafi syndrome in Libya and the workers and peasants parliamentary quota in Egypt). Finally, with the outset of the second decade of the 21st century, the "system" began to topple, yielding to widespread anarchy that sometimes goes by the name of "transitional phase" and at other times is called civil war, which so far has reached its most extreme expression in Syria.
At the regional level, what the revolutionary regimes of the 1950s and 1960s produced was the "Arab Cold War," the dynamics of which Malcolm Kerr discussed at length in his excellent book with this title. This war was not just the regional mirror of the global Cold War that was raging at the time between the USSR-led socialist camp and the US-led capitalist camp. It was also a manifestation of a deep rift between Arab states, not so much over the idea of Arab nationalism per se, but over their radicalism or conservatism with respect to this idea. More importantly, it was a regional power struggle between the oil producing countries and riparian countries, and between those that sought to export revolution and those that refused to import it.
Out of that morass there eventually emerged a kind of system, in the sense of a set of arrangements and patterns of interaction that can be identified institutionally or at least as modes of behaviour determined by convention or exigency, or perhaps an order, in which there is a clear power structure with a set rules for how states should work together and press for their demands. That system or order produced the alliances that confronted Israel in the October 1973 War, that addressed the challenge of "globalisation" and its first democratic waves through the affirmation of "Arab moderation," and that confronted the peril of terrorism globally, regionally and nationally.
Like it or not, that system or order has collapsed. At first, when the revolution erupted in Tunisia I, like many others in Cairo, held that Egypt is not Tunisia. But when the torch of revolution was raised in Tahrir Square, all other iconic squares around the Arab world became an object of speculation and the question arose as to whether the rules of the game between Arab states would work towards the creation of a new "order" or "system" that would manage the spectre of total anarchy in some rather large swathes of the Arab region.
The region has experienced quite a few outbreaks of chaos even before the Arab Spring. Iraq is a prime example. So too is Sudan, where anarchy continues to strike deep into Darfur and Kordofan and where secession proved the means of handling it with respect to South Sudan. However, the revolutions of the Arab Spring have produced new instances, in spite of the electoral processes and in spite of the differences between Libya, Yemen and Egypt, which has had an established state for more than 5,000 years. Now, with the Syrian crisis, the situation becomes more ominous yet, for the anarchy there has dimensions that extend across the borders with Turkey and touch upon the long-standing and intractable Kurdish question, and with Palestine and the Arabs' central and eternal cause, and with Lebanon and Lebanon's plexus of unresolved problems and tensions that date back to the height of the old Arab order, and with Iraq where social and political divisions extend all the way to Tehran.
This time it is not a question of another Arab Cold War, even if there has emerged a number of signs pointing in that direction. Rather, the issue in essence is whether there will be an order at all, whether as a structured balance of powers or as systematised mechanisms for collective management of problems, or a massive state of anarchy that engulfs the whole of the region's societies, borders, and ethnic groups, and that is fuelled by age-old rancour and hatreds. The situation may look like something from Europe of the 19th century, but it has no counterpart anywhere else in the world of the early 21st century.