By Michael Curtis
Whatever happened to the Arab Spring that was supposed to usher in forms of modernity in the Arab world? Remember the expectations of peaceful change, justice, reduction of poverty, democratic institutions?
Surprisingly, small incidents in Arab countries, beginning with the self-immolation for a trivial reason of a 26-year-old street vendor in Tunis on December 18, 2010, led to widespread demonstrations in Tunisia and throughout the area. Though they were not based on any particular ideology, nor articulated in any precise manner, the protests appeared to be concerned with high unemployment, high food prices, lack of freedoms of expression, criticism of arbitrary power and corruption of the ruling person or group, and greater economic equality. Have the lives of the 350 million Arabs in the 19 predominantly Arab states changed in any real way for the better in political or economic terms?
Rather than ushering in harmonious relationships and desirable reforms, the Arab Spring has led to a struggle for power or resources among Islamists, liberals, and leftists, in and among Arab countries. The signature characteristic is violence and sectarian strife, not a democracy or equality. Like the violent and deadly struggles between the different political parties and clubs in the years during the Reign of Terror (1793-4) in the French Revolution, the participants in the Arab struggle have eagerly devoured each other.
The street protests have occurred in the context of economic unevenness among the 19 states. The world is well aware of the fortuitous oil richness of the area that contains almost half of the proven oil reserves, and about a quarter of natural gas reserves. Eight of the countries are wealthy as a result of those resources. In the small country of Qatar, which has become internationally prominent in recent years, its 250,000 citizens have a GDP per capita of $700,000 per person. By contrast, poverty in Egypt has increased.
The world is equally aware of the need for political change. Certainly some changes have occurred as political leaders in Tunisia, Egypt (twice), Libya, and Yemen have been overthrown, and others have been threatened as thousands of people spontaneously took to the streets to protest. The king of Morocco attempted to allay protests, displayed by 40,000 in February 2011, by promising to introduce a new constitution with limited executive power. Similarly, other counties -- Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, and Tunisia, have promised constitutional changes.
Yet few political reforms have taken place in the mixture of undemocratic regimes, eight kingdoms and emirates, republics with authoritarian civilian rule, and military dominated-systems that remains. Hopes for desirable changes in Saudi Arabia, where a small movement of women and the 10-percent Shia minority have been protesting, have not yet led to any form of real representative institutions. Calls for reforms in the six member-states of the Gulf Co-operation Council, Egypt, Libya, and Syria go unheeded. The protests that began in Bahrain in February 2011 were put down by Saudi troops. The Gulf countries have increased controls over free expression.
The unexpected consequence of the Arab Spring is the rise of Islam as a political as well as religious force and the emergence of Islamism -- both the Muslim Brotherhood and especially the extreme Salafists and jihadists who are primarily interested in sharia law. The events have shown, as Bernard Lewis once asserted, that genuine free and fair elections in Arab countries are likely to result in victories for Muslim parties, because they have a network of communication through their preachers and mosques that other political groups do not have.
Islamist groups are prominent in Egypt, where the population of 84 million is intensely divided (between the Brotherhood and secular bodies such as the National Salvation Front and more moderate Muslim groups) over the ouster, by the military headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, of President Muhammad Morsi after a year in power. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahada Movement, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, that won 41 percent of the parliamentary seats holds power. Even in Morocco, King Mohammed thought it wise to the head of the Islamist Justice and Development party as prime minister.
The ostensible usual excuses, uttered during the last sixty years, for the lack of development in the Arab countries -- Western colonialism and imperialism and the existence of the State of Israel -- are no longer viable.
The continuing internal turmoil; the civil wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Lebanon; and the Iran-Iraq war have claimed vastly more refugees and casualties, amounting to perhaps over a million people, than all those killed or injured in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestine as a cause is now not even on the back burner for Arab leaders, though it may be for the bureaucrats of the European Union in Brussels. In reality, that cause was never very meaningful in the light of the expulsion of Palestinians from Jordan in the 1970s, from Lebanon in the 1980s, from Kuwait in the 1990s, from Iraq after the Gulf War, and from Syria during the last two years.
Religious, international, and internal social and demographic factors have brought changes. Tribes and clans continue to be important in states that lack coherent central control. A greater proportion of the populations is being educated, especially girls, who do better than boys in school and constitute a higher proportion than boys of college students. Countries, especially Jordan, are adopting advanced technology. Life expectancy has increased. Youth unemployment is very high. Bitterness between Sunnis (Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia) and Shias in the Muslim world has been increasing as the formerly marginalized Shias attempt to play a greater role.
Finally, perhaps the events of the Arab Spring have brought the realization that Arab states and peoples have squandered their energy and resources on the essentially minor irritant of the existence of the State of Israel instead of using it for the internal reform and modernization of their own systems. Can the Arab peoples admit mistakes, become aware of and attempt to remedy their mistaken priorities, and forego their fantasy of "Jewish conspiracies" and hatred of Israel? Will they recognize that their leaders have used and perpetuated the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for political and economic advantage?
The consequences of the Arab Spring will be invaluable if it focuses attention on the real problems of the Arab world.