Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Glimpses of the future

The Arab world continues to seethe, the ramifications of which will extend for years, if not decades, writes Awatef Abdel-Rahman

Al-Ahram Weekly

With the region in flux, the relative shift of power from despotic governments to their nations, rather than ushering in a period of stability and prosperity, has added uncertainty to an already seething scene.

The barrier of fear that had taken hold of this region may have dissipated, but the turbulence is far from over, and the poor and disenfranchised are far from achieving their goals. Many wonder what is going to happen next. With terrorism on the rise, partition in the air, and borders crumbling, the future is far from certain. So, before venturing into any forecasts of the future, let’s take stock of the present.

To start with, Arab decision makers and governments remain puzzled, unable to cope with the fast-paced changes around them. Their puzzlement is not alleviated by the waves of refugees crossing borders, the rise of terrorism in cities as well as in remote areas, and the persistent challenges of corruption in high places. Syria, Libya and Yemen are struggling against overwhelming odds. Egypt and Tunisia are still grappling with democratisation. And Iraq is a fractured phantom of its former self.

Meanwhile, businessmen continue their relentless bid to control or even monopolise the centres of power. Government institutions and parliaments, education and the media, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the hegemony of big business.

To make things worse, the core issue of the Arab world — that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — remains unresolved. Currently relegated to the back burner, eclipsed by the disintegration of Syria and Iraq, the Palestinians are in a worse position today than they have been for years.

In a desperate bid to restore a modicum of stability, governments have unleashed the power of security institutions, which have gone at the business of arresting suspects with fresh zeal, a situation that has led to the incarceration of innocents.

With oil prices plummeting and the economies of many Arab countries floundering, disparities between the rich and the poor grow further, and the young in many Arab countries have grown more restless.

One of the aims of the Arab Spring was the consolidation of citizen rights and freedoms. Little progress has been made so far. Rural areas remain underprivileged, women are still struggling for equality, and the poor are still short of basic services.

In one country after another, one can sense a revival of tribal attitudes and sectarian values. A cultural reversal, in which religious illiteracy seems to have won the day, is undermining hopes of social progress. Furthermore, Western-style consumerism is spreading like wildfire, and local economies seem to even more dependent than before on foreign assistance and guidance.

Ironically, terrorist groups seem to be the main beneficiaries of information and technological advances, so far outsmarting governments and intelligence outfits in matters related to propaganda, recruitment and psychological warfare.

Foreign powers have thrown in their two pennies, in the form of hundreds of sorties and tons of ordnance, in the “war on terror”. But are they really serious in defeating the Islamic State (IS) group? Or are they are manipulating terrorism to suit their own objectives?

So far, we haven’t seen any sign that major powers are disturbed when the victims are from this region. Their reaction is most evident when the terror attacks happen closer to home, as one cannot help noticing in the recent Paris attacks in November 2015. How much of the Western reaction to terror is a true indignation of their feelings and how much is complicity? This is one question that will have to be addressed sooner or later.

Having reviewed the simple facts of today’s world, it is now time to offer a glimpse into the future of the Arab world. Three scenarios come to mind — each is conditional on certain assumptions.

The first scenario is optimistic. In this scenario, tyranny will be defeated, the hold of big business on government will relax, and corruption will be eliminated. But for this scenario to transpire, certain things must happen first. For example, the ruling regimes must succeed in their effort to contain terror. They should also recognise citizen rights and safeguard public freedoms.

In the second scenario, a new generation of the Arab elite will rise to power with a new mandate to reform political and economic life and with a keen awareness of the need to uphold social justice. To succeed, the new elite has to engage the youth in its programmes and introduce programmes for societal progress and inclusion.

In the third scenario, the masses will manage to keep up the pressure for reform, organising themselves through grassroots organisations, and pressing for their rights. For this scenario to happen, civil society groups must create mechanisms to end poverty, improve governance and undermine the recruitment efforts of terror groups.

In considering these three scenarios, one must keep an open mind about which power is greater, and what kind of agenda it may have. Governments, elites and masses all have the chance of shaping our future, and all have their separate or interlinked agendas. Which of these interests will win? This is a matter for analysts to debate and for history to unravel.

One last word: The current whirlwind of changes is likely to last for years, if not decades. It will affect millions in this region and beyond, including the warmongers and robber barons that believe they can hoodwink us into a future of eternal lop-sidedness. The clock is ticking and the pendulum will keep thrusting back and forth before it settles on something approximating a middle point.

The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.

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