Professor AK Pasha, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)
Professor AK Ramakrishnan, Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU
Although not a single country in the region has escaped the impact of the Arab Spring, much of the reforms and political changes expected in countries ranging from Bahrain to Syria, and even in Oman and Saudi Arabia, have not taken place. The same authoritarian structure, same ministry of interior, same restrictions, the same perception of the opposition or critical views as treason, and even the demands by the minorities as masterminded by Iran or other Shi'ite groups in the region, continue to persist.
In the Gulf region, this is seen as a nightmare scenario. Saudi Arabia is terrified of any change which could weaken their total control over power. The only change in peaceful way in the Gulf region has been in Kuwait, where the Prime Minister was forced to resign. The new government has been formed but the demand, mostly from the merchant or middle classes, is now to have an elected PM. Hopefully, the long standing demand of the opposition in Kuwait to have a member selected by the National Assembly as the Prime Minister of Kuwait would be resolved peacefully.
The real pressure for change would be in Bahrain. Although a majority of the opposition comes from the Shi’ite community, a growing number of Sunnis have also joined the movement against autocratic rule in Bahrain. It is important to note that there is very little impact of Iran on the Bahranian movement. The Bahraini Shias are closer to the Shi’ite community in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia and to the Iraqi Shias through ethnic tribal bonds. Thus, more than Iran, it is Iraq that is going to play an important role in the transformation of Bahrain. Any transformation over there would have a domino effect on Saudi Arabia. All the reforms promised so far by the government have not materialized. There seems to be no middle point between the agitators and the ruling family in Bahrain.
The Yemeni issue is still unresolved. Ali Abdullah Saleh still wants to dictate terms to the new government. Although one or two relatives have been removed, his party still wields considerable influence - this is a classic divide and rule policy of the big neighbours, the Saudis, who wish to keep Yemen boiling. They do not want political reforms in the periphery of their kingdom for the fear of the impact it would have on their own citizens.
In Syria, Damascus and Aleppo, which contain more than 60 per cent of the Syrian population, are largely peaceful. There is no fencing of the border towns and people can easily cross with weapons supplied by various interested parties included Qataris, Saudis and Jordanians. This is a problem that is largely created by outside neighbours. As long as Russia and China support Bashar, there is no way that the US, Saudis or Qataris can do anything. They might agree to more UN peace observers but they can be kicked out any time.
The other issue, which has largely been ignored, is the assumption that everything is quiet on the Palestine front. It is not. The Arabic press in these countries demonstrate that the underlying point is the injustice that has been done against the Palestinians, especially the Israeli policy of grabbing land and stonewalling all peace efforts.
The latest news from Egypt is that they have stopped the flow of gas to Israel. There have been periodic blasts at pipelines. There would be a tremendous mass demand to do something about the crumbling infrastructure and the economic situation in Egypt.
There was no statement from India that the democratic aspirations of the Arab people were welcome. If such a stance had been taken, it would have added to India’s influence in the region and assisted its political calculation.
The Egyptian transformation has been significant. More important than the Presidential elections is the drafting of the constitution. Debates are taking place about such a process and especially about the role of sharia within the new political setup. However, the South African constitution, which enshrines a variety of rights, has not been a feature of such debates. More intellectual efforts are needed to bring such experiences of constitution-making into the forefront of such debates. The new constitution is going to be important in Egypt, especially for the minorities, and women. They cannot afford to sit back and the let the process be dominated by powerful political elements. Things are still in a flux and have not settled down completely, and therefore the opportunity to intervene is still available.
The other factor is Islamism across the region. A whole range of dynamic changes within the Islamic world have been noted. Expecting democratic transition in any one of the countries without the participation of these groups is asking for too much out of that system. It is also important to note that a number of old Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have evolved and transformed tremendously over the years. Its place on the far right has been taken up by other groups. It has become important to recognize the demands of the younger generation. This does not mean that Islamic organizations like MB would have one position on issues. What is important is that the far right is consolidating itself within the group and thus more have to settle for the middle ground in political opportunities.
However, the younger groups now feel that the fruits of their hard work are being reaped by the organized traditional groups. But they are not as traditional as widely believed; they are changing. However, for the younger generation for whom new democratic aspirations have been raised, it is a continuing process. So now they have to fight against people with whom they had participated in the overthrow of the earlier system. The fight now is more difficult because there is a level of legitimacy for these groups.
New forms of political discussion and debate have come up in spite of the repressive political systems that exist in the region. Although such debates and discussions still take place, the translation of these debates into political practice is going to be a tough process, especially as compared to before. This is due to the fact that the momentum that existed earlier has been slightly undermined.
With Libya, the momentum was almost hijacked. An almost traditional, tribal kind of politics has returned. Moreover, in the case of Bahrain, no one perceives the Saudi intervention as a foreign intervention – it is as if they had a right to intervene. Only in the case of Libya and the Syrian situation is the case of foreign intervention mentioned. In Bahrain, the momentum for change still exists.
Finally, the Arab Spring is not a lost cause and will continue to have long-term implications. The new ways of imagining citizenship and political identity also include a sense of self-worth and dignity, more so than democratic aspirations. There are no immediate resolutions for it. Thus, that level of activism within the public sphere across the Arab world is going to be an ongoing factor.