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September 04, 2011, Sunday

The Arab Spring and its losers

Who are the losers after the Arab Spring? Only Qaddafi and Mubarak? If the Arab Spring is an international phenomenon, who are the losers at the international level? Indeed, the Arab Spring is changing the dynamics of the Middle East.

The foreign policies of Middle Eastern states will change. We are observing the birth pains of a nascent regional order. How will the new regimes position themselves in global politics? The former regional equilibrium, set between 1948 and 1978, is out of date. The first crisis between post-Mubarak Egypt and Israel, which erupted two weeks ago, amounts to the first shift in the nascent tectonics of the Middle East. Therefore, another equally important question is whether some states can adapt their foreign policies to the new Middle East.

So, how about the global players? Almost a year into the Arab Spring, it is very easy to evaluate some global actors' policies as failure. It is currently possible to identify some of the losers in the situation, now that the first budding of the “spring” has passed.

The EU, for one, deserves to be labeled a loser. Despite the good performance of several of its members, the EU once again proved that it lacks the tools or the vision of a global player. Ironically, it comes across as a defender of the status quo, bereft of the capacity to inspire or support the Arab masses' quest for democracy. Turkey's self-generated soft power works more effectively among the Arab masses, and its vision is much more accessible to the people of the Middle East. The Arab Spring is clear proof that the EU cannot formulate and practice a common foreign policy encompassing the Middle East.

Iran is another loser, having failed to understand the message of the Arab masses. Iran's reaction has been to ally with authoritarian regimes like the one in Damascus. Its decrying the revolutionary mode of the Arab masses as an American conspiracy is anachronistic, and may harm Iranian interests in the region.

However, Iran's support for the region's authoritarian rulers was to be expected: That major Sunni-populated states such as Libya and Egypt were headed by authoritarian rulers in the past paradoxically increased Iran's leverage, both in the region and globally. It is because of them that Iran wielded disproportional power in the Islamic world. Islamic global politics became polarized by the downgrading effect of the authoritarian rulers of major states like Egypt and Libya, so Iran emerged as a spokesman of note. The authoritarian regimes of those Sunni-populated states perplexed their populations. Iran benefited considerably. If the Arab Spring can unleash those big Arab Sunni populations even to some degree, Iran's field of maneuver will definitely be reduced. A climate of competitive politics will loosen Iran's leverage in the region.

It is worth remembering that Libya, a state of only 6 million people, had revenues in 2006 amounting to $38 billion from oil exports. Yet this huge resource produced nothing at the global political level due to Qaddafi's autocratic rule. Western pundits like Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution, who argue that Iran will benefit from the Arab Spring, should be read with caution. This argument might have merit with regard to places like Bahrain. But in the bigger picture, Iran's position will not look good once the authoritarian rulers in Sunni Arab states lose their grip.

Other actors, such as the African Union, Germany and Russia, can be added to the list of losers. Most pointedly, at the last summit of the African Union, the governmental incapacity of African states was cast in high relief by the Arab Spring. No doubt, cautious African leaders preferred to keep silent, knowing their political systems to be the potential targets of democratizing movements. A careful perusal of the summit speeches makes it clear that the last thing many African leaders want is to see the Arab Spring manifest as an African Spring.

Is Israel on the list of losers? This might surprise some, but the answer is no. Despite the fragmentation of its domestic politics, the Netanyahu government has been successful at keeping Israel's profile low during the Arab Spring. Israel has carefully refrained from attaching itself to any authoritarian Arab leader, even to its former ally Mubarak. Yet Israel's critical homework is clearly set: It must work out a way of adapting to the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Its successful completion of this task is germane to the survival of the Jewish state.

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