After the Arab spring

March 21, 2012
After the Arab Spring

Ayman Safadi, MIJ '92, has watched the "Arab Spring" unfold from a unique seat in the Middle East.

After earning his master's degree in international journalism from Baylor, Safadi returned to his native Jordan; over the next 15 years, he headed two newspapers as well as the Press and Communication Department at the Royal Hashemite Court and the Jordan Radio and Television Corporation. In 2009, Safadi held the cabinet-level post of advisor to King Abdullah of Jordan. He later joined the government as deputy prime minister and minister of state, a role he held until February 2011.

Since then, Safadi has served as a consultant on politics and communications in the Middle East, appearing on such shows as MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and the BBC's "HARDtalk."

It is from this distinct experience and exceptional vantage point that Safadi shares his perspectives on this remarkable time in history dubbed by the media the "Arab Spring."

Islamist parties did not ignite the revolutions that have brought down four authoritarian Arab regimes since the "Arab Spring" first erupted in Tunisia in December 2010 -- but they reaped their political benefits. The Muslim Brotherhood Movement and other Islamist parties have won all parliamentary elections that took place in the post-revolutions Arab world. In Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Kuwait, Islamists won the vote. They are expected to come out on top in Libyan elections and are emerging as a formidable force in Yemen and Syria, where almost a yearlong uprising appears on course to bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

These victories for the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, reflect the movement's strong religious appeal, solid organizational structure and effective ability to mobilize followers in ways that no other political forces could. But they were more a reaction to the political and social imbalances that the oppressive policies of the toppled regimes created over the years. Decades of one-party (or rather, one-man) rule stifled political development and produced a vacuum that only the Islamists could fill. There was simply no alternative to these movements, which relied on their religious credentials and utilized their social networks to present themselves as the only credible groups that could relate to people's concerns and help realize their ambitions for a dignified life.

When the people of Tunisia took to the streets in December 2010, after a young vegetable vendor, Mohamed Buazizi, set himself ablaze in a desperate act of protest against his living conditions, they were not seeking an Islamist government to replace the dictatorship of President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali. They were simply rising against poverty, lack of opportunity, political oppression and social injustice. For more than 20 years, Ben Ali ran the country as a private estate. As he and his close circle of associates amassed wealth, Tunisians were increasingly suffering from want. People were angry, but they were scared from the iron fist of a regime that had brutally punished dissent, confiscated public freedoms and sought to control free expression and the flow of information with all available tools.

The self-immolation of Buazizi provided the spark which unleashed people's anger in unprecedented demonstrations that broke the fear barrier and ultimately brought Ben Ali down.

Dozens of satellite news stations brought the Tunisian uprising to the living rooms of millions of Arabs with live, around-the-clock coverage. A new generation of Arabs across the region found in social media a free space to speak, without fear, of the need for similar change in their countries. Arab youth had access to Facebook, Twitter and other social media that governments could not control. Facebook became the new public space in which people organized their political activities and exchanged their views on how to move forward.

The new revolutionary spirit inspired hundreds of thousands of Arab young men and women to walk the path of their Tunisian brethren. It was inevitable that the "Tunisian Spring" would evolve into an "Arab Spring" and spread to other Arab countries where similar conditions of economic frustration, oppression and political marginalization of the people prevailed. Less than a month after peaceful demonstrations filled the Tahreer Square in central Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

The message was clear. The status quo in the Arab world was no longer tenable. Change was imminent, and the question was how it would take place. The Arab Spring affected all Arab countries, but the nature and extent of its impact would depend on the existing conditions in each country and the way in which regimes would respond to the unwavering demands for change.

Dictators miss the message

Libya's longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi acted consistently with his history of violence against his people. For 40 years, he had placed himself above the law as an eternal leader whose right to absolute rule could not be questioned. When thousands of protestors demanded reforms on the streets of the Mediterranean city of Benghazi in early 2011, he dismissed them as thugs and terrorists acting out of a foreign conspiracy against Libya. His reliance on violence to quell the revolution resulted in a 10-month civil war which NATO forces helped the rebels win, but only after more than 50,000 people were killed.

By then revolutions had reached Yemen and Syria. The centrality of Yemen to the stability of the oil-rich Arab Gulf region and to the international war on al-Qaida prompted Yemen's neighbors to work with the international community, especially the United States, on a political solution. The popular demand for regime change was irreversible. The challenge was how to heed it without allowing the country to sink into a civil war that would compromise the security of the Gulf. The regional and international political effort finally achieved a breakthrough. President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February 2012, and his vice president was elected president for a transitional period of two years, after which new multiparty polls will be held.

But Arab efforts to contain the spreading crisis in the region have not been as successful in Syria, another key regional state, where more than 7,500 people have been killed in the regime's violent crackdown on demonstrators since the uprising erupted in March 2011.

The situation in Syria was bound to explode, especially now that people were emboldened by the success of people power elsewhere in the region.

Syrians have been living under the strong rule of the totalitarian Assad regime since President Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in a party coup in 1970. President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his late father in 2000, had ample time to see the uprising coming and initiate a process of political reform, which was all the people initially demanded. He chose not to. He also chose not to learn from the examples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Like Qaddafi did, the Syrian regime remained loyal to its old habits of crushing dissent, but regime violence was only breeding more resistance. Gruesome images of dead, jailed and tortured protestors, which were being reported in real time, were fueling more anger across the country and around the region. The escalating situation prompted the Arab League to eventually call on Assad to allow for new presidential elections under its supervision. The League took the case to the United Nations Security Council when Assad refused its initiative.

The crisis in Syria is not expected to end any time soon. The government has the backing of a strong security apparatus. It is also supported by segments of the population wary of the uncertainties a regime change would bring, including many in Assad's Alawite sect, which constitutes about 10 percent of the population. The regime's intransigence also stems from its ability to count on the backing of its long-time allies in Iran to provide economic and military aid and on Russia and China to block international action in the U.N. Security Council.

The Assad regime would have been able to avoid the crisis had it understood the lessons of developments in other Arab countries that refused to bend before the strong winds of change. The Arab Spring offered both a challenge and opportunity. To authoritarian regimes that refused to part with the tools of the failed past, it represented a threat to their very existence. But to others who recognized the inevitability of expanding people's participation in the political process through institutional democratic processes, the Arab Spring offered a valuable chance to renew their social contracts with their people.

Opportunity in reform

It was in "republics" with the worst records of totalitarian rule and human rights abuses that the crises developed into full-fledged revolutions. But in Arab states with a history of open and benevolent political traditions, the Arab Spring accelerated the reform processes.

By any real standard, the Moroccan Kingdom enjoyed a much more vibrant and open political system than its neighboring Tunisia or Libya. Its reaction to the Arab Spring reflected that reality. King Mohammed VI wasted no time in putting an amended constitution to a public referendum in July 2011. That was followed in November by new elections that carried the main opposition party, the Islamist Justice and Development Party to the prime minister's seat. Change was happening peacefully.

Jordan has offered another example of how to turn the challenges of this unprecedented change in modern Arab history into an opportunity to push forward a comprehensive reform process. Two main factors are enabling Jordan to manage the challenges of the Arab Spring. The first is the country's history of political openness and tolerance as well as the strong base of popular support for King Abdullah II. The second factor is that the king was quick to react to the regional crisis as an opportunity to push forward stalling reform efforts that had not gone as fast as they should have. He put political development at the top of government priorities and announced a road map to move forward. The constitution was amended and a new election law is being developed to allow for new elections after which the government would be formed from the largest parliamentary bloc. Jordan still faces enormous challenges, mainly those of offering opportunity to a young population of which 70 percent are under the age of 30. But it is on the right track as the political process evolves. The kingdom is gradually delivering long overdue political reforms and is thus protecting its stability amidst the uncertainty of a new regional era.

An uncertain future

Over a year after revolutions changed the political face of the Arab world, there are still no certain answers about the course its future will take. The only certainty is that the Arab world will experience difficult growing pains before it finds its new path.

Islamist parties that took power for the first time in their history will have to prove their ability to lead and address their countries' numerous economic and social challenges. The opposition seat provided them with the comfort of not having to deliver on big promises and general slogans. Now they will have to develop economic policies that create jobs, offer health insurance and fight poverty. They will also have to prove their commitment to the democratic process that brought them to power. They will face the challenge of reconciling their slogans and often emotional rhetoric to the realities of the complex web of international relations.

But it is not only the Islamists who will face the challenge of evolution in the new Arab world. Liberal and secular forces, whose weakness the Arab Spring has exposed, will also have to earn a place in the still hazy political spectrum. Many of the votes the Islamists won were protest votes against the status quo. They were not necessarily an endorsement of the ideologies and policies of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements. In the political vacuum that resulted from decades of political underdevelopment, Islamists rose without a challenge. But in this era of people power, they can only be challenged at the polls, and that can only happen if new political forces emerge in political groupings to which people can relate.

Secular and liberal movements have been exposed as elitist trends that have little presence in Arab societies. Now they face the challenge of building grass roots support and developing their credibility as a viable alternative to the Islamists. Rising to this challenge will prove a lengthy and difficult process given the association of many of them with the failed models of governance that have provoked the revolutions. But there will be no shortcuts to this process.

In countries where the Arab Spring has had a softer impact, governments will not be able to stop the revolutionary tide unless they reduce the trust deficit with their people. That too will be a lengthy journey which will have to start quickly, with governments committing to genuine reforms to develop participatory, democratic, accountable, transparent governance structures. Unfolding events in the region are proving that there is no other path to stability.

The broader picture

Changes within the Arab world will not alone determine the future of the region. Relations with Israel will have an enormous impact in shaping the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has for decades been the root cause of conflict in the area, fueling anger across the Arab and Muslim worlds. More than two decades have passed since the peace process was launched in Madrid in 1991, but the conflict is as far from a resolution today as it ever was. The Arab world reached out to Israel with an initiative to bring about a comprehensive settlement, based on the internationally endorsed two-state solution. Israel brushed aside the initiative.

A more democratic Arab world will be more assertive in challenging Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories. In the new Arab world, Israel will be more isolated and the injustice it is inflicting on Palestinians will be less tolerated. New military conflicts will be unavoidable -- unless peace is reached.

As the Arab world redefines itself, it will have to develop new systems of government that can address peoples' aspirations for political freedoms, economic opportunity and social justice. But they will also have to address their peoples' demands to bring justice to the Palestinians.

Israeli politicians first reacted to the Arab Spring by saying it proved that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was irrelevant to the Arab people. That was an unrealistic conclusion. The Palestinian issue was at the heart of Arab politics in the old Arab Order. It will remain so in the new order that is emerging out of a cry for freedom and democracy for all Arabs, including the Palestinian people.