The unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has not stopped, but the feeling of sensational novelty it created in winter is fading. In fact, the preliminary results of the “Arab spring” look different from those envisioned at the initial flowering of public euphoria.
Many think that these events mark a new stage in regional and global history, because these regimes, based on authoritarian one-man rule with only a fig-leaf of democratic procedures, are crumbling.
This may be so. This type of government may have come to the end of the road. The institutional setup of the Middle East, which has remained unchanged since mid-20th-century de-colonization and which has the dubious honor of being the only region in the world that remained immune to the otherwise global change of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, may now start to change. However, the direction this change will take cannot be predicted, and the socio-economic prerequisites for qualitative change have been greatly overstated.
As of late April 2011, Tunisia, where public violence in late January triggered a wave of revolts across the region, has a government that, because of its members’ advanced age, is clearly only a temporary arrangement. It is doing its best to demonstrate its loyalty to the “ideals of the revolution.” But judging by the growing number of Tunisian refugees in Europe, Tunisians do not have much faith that these ideals can or will be implemented.
The situation in Egypt is different, because public demonstrations there ended in a classic military coup, and therefore subsequent events depend on the will, good or otherwise, of the ruling military council. Foreign commentators agree that this would be the best scenario for the region, as everyone seems satisfied with the generals’ ability to maintain control while adhering to pro-democratic rhetoric.
Libya is an example of how a dictator’s strength of will can stop revolutionary momentum in its tracks, despite the involvement of the world’s strongest military-political alliance.
Leadership in Bahrain and Yemen is being claimed by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG), an organization that unites some of the world’s most conservative regimes: they are unwilling even to imitate democracy.
The region’s monarchs want stability at all costs, which explains their foreign policy inconsistency. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are supporting the Libyan rebels, whereas the CCASG is helping suppress rebellion in Bahrain and has called on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign.
It is not North Africa but the Persian Gulf that is the dominant area of the Middle East, and hence the region’s future will depend on developments in the Gulf states. Regional powers’ importance is growing, while non-regional players seem confused. Take Syria: Turkey has tried to help it through the crisis but, as in Bahrain, the shadow of Iran is still discernable.
The redistribution of geopolitical influence has so far been the biggest result of the waves of public unrest that have swept the Middle East and North Africa this year.
The United States has not yet formulated a new strategy for the region, but has frightened off its allies. It turns out that even 30 years of irreproachable loyalty is not reason enough to hope for U.S. protection, as the fate of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak has shown.
The European Union is keeping a very low profile; it has even stopped lecturing its Mediterranean neighbors on how they should live. Europe’s sole concern now is the rising tide of refugees. Those European countries that initiated the intervention in Libya with a view to strengthening their prestige have not attained the desired objective. Quite the reverse: involvement in an internecine conflict has undermined their prestige.
The BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are watching developments from a distance. They (especially India and China) have publicly refused to become actively involved. They hope to fill the vacuum left by waning Western influence in the region. This means that the existing crisis resolution mechanisms, such as the Middle East Quartet, have become completely inadequate.
The Greater Middle East has entered a period of change, which will not leave the governments of regional states untouched. The Western presence, which used to be the dominant factor, has not strengthened democracy in the region; quite the contrary.
On the other hand, the growing importance of regional forces, in particular the Gulf monarchies or large but not particularly democratic South and East Asian states, could strengthen the public’s role. However, it will not be liberal democracy, but something like a cross between Ataturk's Turkey and theocratic Iran.
It could even come to pass that, after this “Arab spring,” some people may be left feeling nostalgic for the preceding winter.
Is Russia unpredictable? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t exaggerate – its randomness often follows a consistent pattern. But is the world at large predictable? The past two decades have seen all forecasts refuted more than once and have taught us only one thing – to be ready for any change. This column is on what the nations and governments are facing in the era of global uncertainty.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.