The Arab Spring: Where do we go from here?

Vali Nasr, Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

In less than two weeks I have seen two of the world’s top experts on the Middle East speak at the University of Denver: Columbia Professor Richard Bulliet, and Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Vali Nasr. Consequently, my knowledge and understanding of recent events and the history of the region has probably expanded by roughly 3,000%.

The Middle East and its political, religious and social contours is an area I have always felt shamefully under-informed about. Like a stubborn child who never came to a resolution with a distant parent, I imagined I would be on my death bed regretting this fact, since there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the world sometimes to even begin to know where to start with this hugely complex region. Thanks to the Religious Studies Department at DU, and the Center for Middle East Studies at Korbel, however, it turns out I don’t have to think about that. Instead, all I had to do was show up to these talks and be spoon-fed glorious insights from these Middle East experts.

Besides his previously mentioned credentials, Vali Nasr is about to be most well-known as the author of a soon-to-be released and controversial book titled “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat” in which he critiques the Obama administration’s foreign policy. In doing so, he has become the first leading figure from within the Obama administration’s circle of advisors to provide such an analysis. In today’s talk, he gave a diagnosis of the causes of the Arab Spring, a delineation of its effects to date within the region, and a prognosis of the challenges and opportunities it represents: both for those living through it in the Middle East, and for US foreign policy.

Engaging in diagnosis, Nasr stated that three factors have been commonly highlighted as consequential to the unfolding of the Arab Spring, in which mass uprisings culminated in the fall of governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen: “Bad economics”, “authoritarian fatigue”, and the “youth bulge” (not as embarrassing as it sounds, it turns out). Essentially, the region had been suffering for an extended period of time from poorly managed economies as a whole, characterised by low rates of growth and declining standards of living. Concomitantly, its populations had grown tired of authoritarian governance (Nasr didn’t suggest why, but I suppose one does not need to question why people might tire of authoritarian governance…). Add to the mix the fact that 65% of the population of the region as a whole  today count as “youth” – often jobless and representing a segment of the populace generally more willing to take risks and challenge authority – and the stage was set for a combustible situation.

But why 2010? Nasr proposed several externally-induced factors which interacted to ignite the Arab tinderbox: Access to smart phones, satellite TV and the Al-Jazeera television network in particular, and the issue of food security. Contrary to some reports that place access to online social networks at the heart of the Middle East’s protest movements, social networking and Twitter were not as critical as simply more advance mobile phone technology, claimed Nasr. Looking back to Iran’s pre-Arab Spring uprisings of 2009 he noted that Iranians participating did not even have access to “data” on their smart phones that would have allowed access to online social networks at this time. On its part, Al Jazeera news facilitated a “firewall jumping effect”, by which images of protest spread throughout the region, inspiring similar protest action cross-nationally.

The place of food security in the puzzle of the Arab Spring seems to highlight a growing challenge for scholars and policymakers, characterised as it was by Nasr as representing a clash of “old” and “new” politics. “New politics” in the form of climate change helped precipitate the food security problem which in turn led to a political challenge: droughts and the squeezing of rural economies and rising food prices heightened immiseration and contributed to a willingness to confront authority. It would seem that the fact that “new political” issues such as climate change remain under-operationalised in political analysis suggests one reason why the Arab Spring took so many by surprise. Yet another example, then, of where the rigid compartmentalisation of issues within particular categories of scholarly work  (politics vs. social studies vs. natural sciences…) has been shown to be left wanting as an approach.

Nasr also focused on the role of the “upwardly mobile” middle class in “un-Arab” Tunisia as critical to events. The launch pad of the the Arab Spring, Tunisia, is “un-Arab”, he claims, in the sense that it was globally integrated, had been growing at annual averages of 7-9%, has an 80% literacy rate and a burgeoning middle class. Conversely, its integration and capitalistic character made Tunisia more susceptible than other Arab nations to economic malaise stemming from the global downturn which began with the financial crisis of 2008. Nasr argues Tunisia’s “un-Arabness” was important in the sense that the self-immolation of the now notorious street vendor, upon which mainstream media simplistically heaped primary responsibility for the protests in its initial phases, would have been but a “tree falling in the forest” unheard if it weren’t for the role of an internet savvy and connected middle class in Tunisia. It was they who commented on and reacted to the situation, spun it into a movement, and raised its international profile.

Post Arab Spring, challenges exist – both for the region, and for the US. “The Arab Spring was to the Middle East as a whole what the US was to Iraq,” said Nasr: A “seismic shift” which has opened a Pandora’s box, wherein an internal identity crisis is now playing out. While this analogy may involve a somewhat uncomfortable glossing over of the top-down/dubiously-motivated nature of the US-imposed Iraq War, in contrast to the organic, bottom-up nature of the political earthquake that the Arab Spring represents, it is nonetheless pertinent in a limited but important sense: like Iraq, the region now needs to settle an identity crisis, which relates to who gets access to political power and the “spoils of the State”. This crisis primarily revolves around the status of Sunni Arabs versus Shia Arabs in various countries, and ultimately extends to who speaks for the Arab world as a whole. In this regard, Nasr echoed Professor Bulliet of Columbia, who argued that we have entered a critical phase in which it must be determined where political authority lies in the Arab world, having shifted throughout this millenia from the Caliph (supreme religious leader), to Mecca, and now – towards Islamic political parties seeking power through the ballot box.

Nasr characterized the Arab Spring, by its nature, as having left Arabs “empowered but leaderless”. It was an “amorphous” movement and one which different groups have now sought to assume dominion over, but with unassured success, because they (for example, Morsi of Egypt) never represented its charismatic leader. Nonetheless, liberal forces are disorganised, argued Nasr, and political Islam in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood is assuming an advantageous political position in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is in no small part because it has acted in many ways as a “defacto” government in many countries since prior to the movement, providing social services where governments failed and having a grassroots “relationship with society” that liberal forces lacked.

A related consequence of the Spring is the morphing of Al-Qaeda into a political movement. In this regard, Nasr had a slightly different take on the effect of the Arab Spring on Al Qaeda than that of  Professor Stephen Zunes, Chair of the University of San Francisco’s Middle East Program and another analyst of the Arab Spring who spoke at Korbel earlier this month. While Zunes suggested that the Arab Spring had somewhat disempowered Al-Qaeda, drawing wind from its sails by demonstrating the power of non violent social movements to achieve political change versus terrorist organisations, Nasr extended this analysis, adding that in response, Al-Qaeda has shifted to take on an increasingly political form. In this regard, Nasr noted that in Syria Al-Qaeda is going by another name, calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra (the al Nusra front).

This outcome, said Nasr, is just one of many that the US did not anticipate. The question now for the US is “how to ride this tiger”. Effectively, the aftermath of the Arab Spring reveals a “big hole in US strategy,” he argues (here echoing Pankaj Mishra, in his recent talk to Korbel). Underlying this is the fact that the US has been accustomed for too long to viewing the Arab world as a unified region, largely dominated by dictators who supported US interests. Within this framework, there was no “Balkan scenario”. Now, however, infighting dominates. As Korbel’s Dean Christopher Hill, the discussant at the event, noted afterwards, the US tends to focus on “politics” above all in considering how to formulate its response to complex situations. In the Middle East, where issues of “faith and identity” come before politics, this subverts a nuanced reaction to the evolving reality in which politics plays a supporting role.

All the while, the “bad economics” which helped bring the Arab Spring to fruition have only gotten worse. What little economic growth there was, what little foreign direct investment, has fallen off precipitously, leaving yet more room for disenfranchisement, discontent and instability. In this regard, Nasr called for more economic and financial engagement from the West, in the form of IMF loans, among other things.

While I know far too little about the Middle East to critique Nasr’s analysis and recommendations, this issue of the IMF’s role I found challenging, particularly given Nasr’s emphasis on joblessness and declining living standards as major challenges facing the region’s governments. As we have seen in Greece, IMF programs come with conditions – austerity (less government spending), cuts in the public sector (more unemployment). They are painful and mostly induce further social dislocation and instability – not to mention protests and even the rise of extremism. Contary to Nasr’s claim that there has be effectively zero engagement on this level with the Middle East, the IMF has in fact been in talks with Egypt over a bailout, which comes with a massive and politically unpopular austerity package.

I put it to Nasr after the talk that IMF engagement may only lead to more instability in the region (at the very least in the short to medium term). He in turn emphasized that something must be done to turn around the “bad economics” of the Middle East, adding that it should not be the IMF acting alone, but instead the IMF in conjunction with aid packages and other economic support from the US and other western economies. I would still question whether IMF structural adjustment is the most productive answer, if loans came in their usual form. But then again, I’m not the Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies…

(And if anyone comments to ask me why I am writing verbose summaries of the content of events I’m attending instead of writing my actual coursework – I’m flagging you as spam! But no, in all seriousness, it’s called the journalism sickness. I’ve recognised it as a problem, and I’m dealing with it…;)

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Posted on February 26, 2013, in Josef Korbel School of International Studies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. NNAHDHA, THE ISLAMIST EXTREME RIGHT PARTY, CANNOT ENSURE STABILITY IN TUNISIA !
    par Nour Kas, jeudi 27 décembre 2012, 20:40 ·

    Marketing is not my special field, so I will not use the words “Moderate Islam”!

    By Nour Kas

    Tunisia’s social and economic situation, after the Revolution and especially after elections of October the 23th 2011, reached a critical point. Unemployment rate is increasing more and more, Trade Balance is in deficit ; actually Tunisia dispose of only 90 days of import , knowing that the main economic activity, tourism, is very badly affected by violence which is reigning in the country, especially after elections; this makes usual clients of Tunisia take another touristic direction, Morocco, Spain ..Inflation reached the highest rate never seen since many years; about 5,7% . So, poverty rate is growing and this provokes social instability!

    In the other hand, Tunisia is considered as being the more modern and secular country in the North of Africa and very near of occident. Historically, native people didn’t really or deeply suffer Arab traditions, since its strategic geographic situation made it as a bridge, so people embrace Islam but remained basically Berber and we can say that French colonization which is different of Anglo-Saxons colonization strategy based mainly on economy more than cultural, had a meaningful impact on people way of living. For those reasons, the Islamic ruling party created a gap between them and people by aiming a social change which shocked a large part of the Tunisian society and especially their electoral strategy lead by Rached Ghannouchi which consists in dividing Tunisians into Muslims and “Koffars” (anti-Islam). This division to reign, was not only a very bad idea , even if it allowed to convince the more naive Tunisians, but it is one of the cause of instability since it created hate, feeling of revenge between people and consequently , Tunisians are upset and angry at the USA plan of Politic Islam !

    Now the question is : how can Tunisia reach stability? How can we save its economy and make more social justice? Is Ennahdha qualified and adequate for this period? Is this extreme right party policy appropriate for our social- economic situation? Is this conservative extreme party representing the majority of Tunisians and able to reconcile with Tunisians after having divided them? Do they have a social economic policy for a very “tired” Tunisia economy? Do people of Tunisia trust Ennahdha anymore after having discovered threatening signs of religious and very conservative dictatorship?

    Ennahdha is not as moderate as they say and as they wanted to convince international opinion particularly the United States even if some of them, who constitute the “shop window”, are . This party has a large hard wing and this explains the fact that in “Majless of Shoura” ‘ s elections won the hardest as Sadok Chourou, H Ellouze etc… and part of them are salafys. This hard wing even others considered more “light”, are prisoners of an ideology so whatever they decide is linked with, which wouldn’t always match with the hole society aspirations neither with democracy. In the other side, moderate or not they all have to refer to the “Majless of Shoura” where decisions are taken!

    Ennahdha as an extreme right party and specially as a religious party (see coran about social and economic statements) support strong social hierarchy, here we can mention what Rached Ghannouchi said “ God hate poors” !!! And the problem here is not Islam of course but the interested intention of its interpretation! So what about social inequalities, being now the most urgent problem? Do we need now, in this critical economy situation an ultra liberal party? And what complicates the situation is the fact that ministerial posts are not assigned to the right persons , I mean with the criteria of competence but rather with a spirit of revenge and victimization while Tunisian people suffered a lot of nepotism during Ben Ali ruling !

    Added to this, Ennahdha without corruption cannot have a majority in elections, they need to pay electors and forgive corrupted businessmen to have their support that’s why there’s no real reform in justice and tribunals and cannot be a representative party. They also show signs of dictatorship as they aim to dominate media and press, they have created a “parallel” violent police called leagues of Revolution “protection” that aggress journalists, citizens and opposition parties and this is very dangerous for stability, democracy then foreign investment .

    Another dangerous tactic of Ennahdha is paying hooligans to appear as salafys in order to let international opinion particularly the USA one, distinguish between them: Ennahdha as “moderate” and those false salafys as being the radicals , then convince the USA that Ennahdha is the only party that can calm extremists ! The result is disgusting and terrible for Tunisian people and for the image of Tunisia abroad!

    Now, most of the real salafys soft and jihadist, consider Ennahdha party as an enemy so hope not to expect terrorism from hard ones ! And the mistake of Ennahdha is that the moderate ones didn’t control the hardest who deal with radical salafys ! Added to this, The Ennahdha party is now divided between Rached Ghannouchi clan and Hammadi Jebali Clan!

    Finally, Tunisians people and the socio-economic difficult situation, need a central and moderate liberal party which represent the Tunisian culture, gain trust of national and foreign investment to save our economy, a democratic party non violent able to apply the law on all citizens without electoral calculating ! We need a central party that doesn’t treat citizens of “Koffars” or “zero,..” or RCD … when they protest peacefully as Ennahdha leaders do and this is due to their psychological problems as ex prisoners ! A party that ensure peaceful cohabitation between Tunisians whether they are Muslim secular or salafys or atheists or jewish …

    FREE Tunisia !

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