Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The coming Arab world

Yearning for popular representation, the dominance of political Islam and the rise of anti-rationalism will continue to define the Arabs' options, writes Ezzedine Choukri Fishere *

Predicting is a risky business, particularly in the Arab World where actors don't fail to surprise. Yet, those actors do not operate in vacuum.

Today, the Arab world is traversed by three powerful undercurrents that empower and constraint actors, making certain developments more likely than others.

The first is a deafening yearning for popular representation; too many social groups feel that their regimes do not defend their interests. A "legitimacy deficit" is growing in many Arab countries and becoming unsustainable.

The second undercurrent is the dominance of the "political Islam" discourse and its success in pushing competing discourses into political irrelevance. The third is a continued rise of "anti-rationalism" at the expense of scientific and critical thinking.

Unless miraculously reversed, these three undercurrents will empower those who seek to restructure Arab states and societies according to a populist, belligerent and exclusionary definition of identity.

Chief among the empowered are those advocating the "Islamisation" of the state. How far will they go depends on the country and circumstances. Some regimes might recast themselves in an Islamist outlook. Other regimes could be genuinely Islamised by new elites rising from mainstream Islamist movements. Taliban-like regimes are unlikely to emerge in large countries, but they might succeed in marginal areas. Islamised states are expected to allow some political freedoms that are today repressed. But they will also impose rigorous boundaries, the transgression of which will be severely punished. The "freedom space" within these boundaries will be subject to political struggle. Current autocratic forces in Arab societies and states will become the beacon of a new authoritarianism that will be resisted by advocates of a freer interpretation of Islam. In other words, today's struggle around political freedoms will continue, but under the hegemony of political Islam.

Populist and anti-rationalist intellectuals will also be empowered by these undercurrents. Filled with a sense of helplessness in front of an overwhelming injustice, too many Arabs find comfort in irrational explanations of their predicament. They are more prone to blaming rather than introspection, complaining rather than practical remedies and waiting instead of pro-active measures. Instead of analysing the roots of Arab predicament, the majority of Arabs will find solace in psychologically comforting narratives informed by national myths and collective denial. As a result, the study of history and social sciences will suffer, reducing further the ability of Arab societies to monitor and correct its pitfalls and break the lock of its downward spiral. The production of art will also become less interesting, except in literature where creativity can fool censorship more easily. The basic values of modernity -- such as freedom, equality and reason -- will be increasingly defined as attributes of undesired "Western culture" and duly undermined.

The study of "hard sciences" will also suffer. Certainly, the new regimes will try, for practical purposes, to salvage some of whatever remains of scientific research and infrastructure. But the weakening of rational and scientific thinking in society as a whole, coupled with the absence of effective links between scientific innovation and economic activities will make any Arab scientific achievement rather an exception.

ALONE AGAINST THE WORLD: What Arab regimes are likely to gain in political legitimacy are almost certain to lose in their ability to act effectively in the global arena. Increased political participation means that governments will take public opinion into account more seriously. The emerging belligerent definition of Arab identity will therefore tempt -- or push -- governments to embark on external adventures they cannot win. Traditionally, Arab regimes dealt with this by ascribing failure to outside conspiracies. This, in turn, exacerbates public belligerence, putting further pressure on Arab states to show firmness in dealing with the outside world. This dynamic ultimately fosters a pattern where states look for symbols -- rather than substance -- of power and adopt a rhetoric divorced from policies, while societies succumb to a "waiting" attitude; waiting for something to happen that would improve our lot -- a next American administration that will be fairer to Arab causes, a next Israeli government that will heed the calls for peace, or a next ultra- nationalist hero that will deliver us from evil.

Anti-American sentiments will increase with every failure, and talk of "addressing the historic grievances of the Arab world" is likely to become the new cliché of Arab diplomats.

For obvious reasons, Washington is not expected to respond with meaningful measures. However, neither anti-American sentiments nor the nonchalant response from Washington will seriously undermine US relevance in the region. American interests and ability to protect them as well as the pragmatism of Arab states including those run by Islamists is unlikely to witness major transformation in the next decade. Some regimes will perceive a strong alliance with the US as crucial to their security. Others will strive to stay on the good side of the US while criticising American policies occasionally. And some will oppose US policies more or less actively, without managing to turn their limited successes into a pan-regional trend. In this regard, the situation will not look very different from how it looked since the 1950s.

While the European Union will continue to play an accessory role in the region, Arab-European relations will come under increasing pressure. Identity politics, immigration and Arab communities' issues will increase the level of tension between the "two sides". Europe will also serve as a lightning rod for Arab resentment of the "West" in general and the United States in particular. Episodes like the Danish cartoons, the Pope's statements or the Swiss minarets will almost certainly reoccur, with a hardening of the positions of the parties. "Dialogue among cultures" will continue to be a useful business for bored writers and retired officials, but largely ineffective.

Arab share of world economy will plummet, with some pockets of economic effectiveness surviving. The Arab winners of economic globalisation will occupy affordable niches in the global economy (such as running call centres, facilitating tourism, or exporting fresh vegetables and flowers, etc). The losers will survive on leftovers and social solidarity networks. The expected broadening of political participation will militate in favour of more social justice. Yet, there is no guarantee that this will work: many participatory regimes survived with a widened gap between rich and poor.

Oil-dependent countries whose oil production decreases will see their economic standing getting equally depleted. As fresh inflows of cash dwindle, these states will discover the limit of their skills at financial management and overseas acquisitions. Through crises and schemes, their assets will erode both at home and overseas. Adjustment to neo-poverty will be particularly difficult for those who have known nothing but senseless spending. Late-hour attempts at moving to the new world economy will come too late. The lack of scientific infrastructure and culture will make themselves painfully felt.

CONFLICTS AND LEADERSHIP: It is unlikely that the Arab-Israeli conflict will see a meaningful settlement in the coming decade. Not that it is an impossible conflict to resolve, but the attitudes and predisposition of the protagonists and external parties make its resolution highly improbable. When the way forward gets blocked, the Arab-Israeli protagonists go further apart, intensify their conflict and wreak more havoc on their neighborhood. Therefore, it is safe to expect this conflict to remain a key feature of the region in 2020.

But the PA is likely to surprise everyone and survive. Following Abu Mazen's departure and subsequent attempts by the "old guard" to cling to power, a new generation who grew up in the West Bank and Gaza will take command. As the prospects of a permanent solution with Israel dim, the differences between Hamas and Fatah will narrow. Both movements will share -- alternately or in parallel -- uncertain influence over Palestinian areas from which the Israelis will have withdrawn. Simultaneously, Israel will tighten its grip over Jerusalem and the less populated areas in the West Bank. Occasionally, attacks and reprisals will create a sense of urgency, spurring efforts to look for solutions, only to dissipate quickly. Amidst general fatigue, a realisation settles in concerned headquarters that a permanent solution is unachievable, while Arabs' sense of historic injustice deepens.

The Gulf states' dependence on American security umbrella is slated to increase, especially in light of developments inside Iran and Iraq. The eventual neutralisation of the Iranian nuclear facilities and possible destruction of its industrial infrastructure will scar the Arab psyche and accelerate the demise of "moderates" without necessarily empowering the "radicals". The subsequent sanctions regime, similar to the one imposed on Iraq after the 1991 war, will weaken Iran's regional influence. Following American withdrawal from Iraq, the ensuing civil strife will keep Iraq busy with itself. Other regional powers will make sure that the remaining Iranian power gets sucked in the Iraqi stalemate.

Minorities-related conflicts, whether ethnic or confessional, should be expected to emerge or intensify in heterogeneous societies such as Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Conflicts over allocation of water resources could also emerge between Arab states and their neighbours.

These conflicts are likely to heighten, but not resolve, the perennial conundrum of leadership in the Arab world. A rejuvenated Egypt might be tempted to try its hand once again at it, only to discover that it has to share leadership if it is to succeed. Sharing, however, will remain difficult. Entrenched rivalry, free-riding and lack of trust among Arab regimes will hamper any attempt to build a collective regime of leadership. External alliances will remain a preferred option.

HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN: In sum, the coming Arab world, we will have little to contribute to the world -- economically, culturally or in the domain of scientific knowledge. Arabs will continue to make outstanding achievements, but only in their individual capacity. At the same time, we will continue to contribute disproportionately to world conflicts. As societies, our agenda will be dominated by frustration and resentment more than it is today. Arab states' agenda will be more dominated by strategies to evade responsibility, cover-up impotence, and manage the insolvable conflicts between political realities and rhetoric. In this, the coming Arab world will not look very different from how it looked over the last 10 years.

Obviously, I am assuming that existing undercurrents will continue to shape the choices of Arab actors. But, as Leonard Cohen' song goes "there is a crack in everything; that is how the light gets in". The crack in the desolate scenario I described above is the possibility that more moderate elements in the Islamist and/or populist elites decide to steer their angry supporters away from revenge and towards a pragmatic and forward-looking political programme. Such a programme would build on the deep seated grievances, but with the realisation that these grievances can only be remedied, not undone, and only in partially. It would commit the state to help the victims of injustice in Palestine, Iraq and Darfur; not by succumbing to their desperation but by restraining it and leading them back to hope. Such a programme would therefore direct the public's anger towards rebuilding Arab capabilities -- not as tools for future vengeance, but in order to provide ourselves with a decent life. It would take pride in Arab and Muslim cultural heritage, but recognise that it is part of a broader and dynamic human civilisation. Like all cultures, it has practices that bring the best out of its people, and others that outlived their usefulness. Unless miraculously reversed, present undercurrents will empower those who seek to restructure Arab states and societies according to a populist, belligerent and exclusionary definition of identity.

Prediction is a risky business, partly because it is impossible to know whether the relevant actors would see the crack, seize and widen it until the light gets in, or will shut their eyes in reflex when the thin rays of light occasionally make it through. Unfortunately, there is no sign so far that the relevant Arab actors are aware of this kind of light, let alone interested in seizing it.

* A novelist and diplomat. He now teaches political science at the American University in Cairo.

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