The denouement of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria proffers an appropriate time to assess the achievements as well as the challenges that will confront the Arab countries of the Middle East during the next decade or so.
In October 2011, Tunisia, where the “Arab Spring” commenced in December 2010, elected a religiously oriented party proclaiming it would pursue neo-liberal (conservative) economic policies, pro-EU and pro-Western foreign policies. But it remains to be seen whether such policies will be able to be implemented given the nationalist nature of the religious parties. The achievement of the revolutionaries in Tunisia gave hope to the opposition to the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt that the same could be achieved in Egypt. But, although strong religious parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), came to power in May, the subsequent abolition of the newly elected parliament by the armed forces suggests that further democratization in Egypt, even that led by Islamist-nationalist parties, will be difficult to achieve.
Even if the MB parties were able to sustain power, their maneuverability is restricted by the fact that 30 percent of the elected parliament are even more conservative and right-wing (Salafists) than the Muslim Brotherhood. It also seems unlikely that either the MB or the Salafists will vigorously challenge the armed forces’ leadership given the dire geopolitical challenges that Egypt faces in trying to maintain as much of the flow of the Nile River -- the life blood of the country -- as possible under Egyptian control. The US and EU also favor strong armed forces in Egypt in order to maintain as much stability as possible on the western shores of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, vital for the transport of oil and gas from the Middle East to world markets.
What made Libya unique
The third major country to experience a revolution was Libya. Like Tunisia and Egypt, it, too, had faced oppressive circumstances for decades under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. But unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the Gaddafi regime had to be removed by NATO forces which carried out 30,000 sorties, striking some 6,000 targets during the course of the war. The violence of the war not only resulted in immense destruction but also led to more fragmentation among the various tribes, groups and regions of Libya.
Even though, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, a pro-secular, pro-EU and pro-Western government was elected to power in July, the oil and gas fields are still guarded by NATO forces. Following neo-liberal economic policies tightly tied to EU economies, and in spite of a bright economic future, the government will have to satisfy some of the demands of the population that is not participating in the energy economy. Even though Libya elected a predominantly pro-secular, moderate government in July, its strong pro-EU stance will make it difficult to satisfy the religious, tribal, regional and nationalist groups in the country -- many of them armed.
One of the major challenges for the US, and to some extent the EU, in spite of their neo-liberal (capitalist) energy and economic policies, is that they must meet the demands of populations that are now more nationalistic. While in the US, the national media depict many of the political parties in the Middle East, and especially in North Africa, as “religious,” which they are, they are also nationalistic. The populist policies now being pursued in many of the Arab countries are suffused with heady nationalist sentiments. The challenge for many governments and indeed regimes will be to manage this nationalism without the overt suppression of a police state.
It is important to note that the three states mentioned above are North African countries. The results of the Arab Spring in Yemen were unsuccessful due to the direct intervention of the US and Saudi Arabia. Both Washington and Riyadh were intent that no radical and/or revolutionist government would come to power in Yemen that would threaten the Red Sea coasts or the approaches to the Bab al-Mandab strait -- as important for the transport of oil and gas to world markets as the Strait of Hormuz. In this regard, Washington and the Arab Gulf countries share the same concerns as the Egyptian Armed Forces.
The US and Saudi Arabia also moved to quell the Shiite uprising in Bahrain against their Sunni overlords. The US was adamant there be no challenge to the Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain which protects the Western coasts of the Arab Gulf countries from Iranian threats.
The above argument suggests that the Syrian Alawite (Shiite) regime had to go in order to assure the cooperation of the Islamist-nationalist Sunni regimes. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait were all compelled, if not eager, to join the US and EU to institute regime change in Syria. If the Syrian regime were removed, then Hezbollah (Shiite) in Lebanon would be weakened further. This, coupled with the hundreds of billions of dollars to be made available for a new Sunni-dominated regime in Syria, would create a new “Pax Sunni Islamicus” (including Turkey) aligned with the US.
But the developments occurring in the Arab countries, and other Middle Eastern countries, suggest that a more multi-lateral geopolitical paradigm will have to be instituted in the region as a result of the changes taking place in the region to accommodate growing Islamist nationalism -- much of it caused by the decade-long wars of the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
*Professor Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst and the author of “The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011.”