The emergence of a new Arab world?


TODAY’S ZAMAN - Events of historic proportions are happening in the Arab world. What began in Tunisia and Egypt is set to change the face of the Middle East forever. Many in the West are scrambling to understand exactly what is happening. It is similar to the déjà vu of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. How and why in the world have we not seen this coming?

And everybody is asking what will come next. This is a legitimate question. But it is also a misplaced one because it underestimates the significance of what has been happening in the Arab world. One cannot have a reliable forecast without understanding the socio-political dynamics of the Arab world that have led to the ousting of two autocrats and probably more.

A key dynamic is certainly the demand to end decades-long autocracies. Contrary to what some analysts claim, Arabs do not see autocratic regimes as a natural result of their culture, religion or history. They consider these regimes as puppets of powerful Western countries and out of touch with the realities of the Arab world. They have brought neither security, nor freedom or prosperity to their people. So why carry on with them?

This may sound unrealistic at the moment, but removing autocratic regimes in the Arab world and instead establishing democratic governments may open a new page for relations between the West and the Arab world. Working with democratic government as equals, the US may cease to be the protector of oppression and corruption in the Arab world. It may even seize the moment to be consistent in its domestic and foreign policy and defend, for instance, freedom and prosperity for every one anywhere in the world. The same holds true for a number of European countries that have heavy engagements in the Arab world.

The question is whether the US and European countries are ready for this?

In one way or another, a new political leadership will emerge in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. Countries like Yemen and Bahrain will also adjust themselves to meet popular demands for more representation and transparency. The key concern seems to be the composition and direction of this new leadership. Will the Nahda movement led by Rashid al-Ghannushi take over in Tunisia? Will the Muslim Brotherhood turn Egypt into a Shariah state with an anti-American, anti-Israeli policy? Will the new Arab political systems bring Arab societies closer to democracy?

It was these sorts of considerations that created and maintained the status quo in much of the Arab world. Autocrats frequently used several arguments. One was the fear of chaos: If and when I am gone, the country will descend into disorder. This is what Mubarak said only a day before he eventually exited. What he meant was clear: I am Egypt, Egypt is nothing without me! Everybody knows now how the Egyptians responded to this kind of “I am the country” paranoia.

The second argument, more effective in the West than in the Muslim world, has been the fear of an Islamist takeover. When the unpopular autocrat leaves, the Islamists take over the country, turn it into a theocracy, declare war on the West, etc. Israel’s security has its share in this calculation, too. The result: Israel, which claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, lobbies for autocracies in the Arab world. (No surprise that the Israelis were making frantic calls to Mubarak not to leave power until the last minute).

This myth is still powerful in the Western halls of power. But it will eventually go away. Democracy will transform even the most radical movements, whether religious, socialist or nationalist. It is time to overcome the “what if” scenarios, and let the Arabs speak and decide for themselves.

This is the Zeitgeist for the Arab world now.

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