This is a guest note by Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, visiting professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and Associate Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He was also formerly the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.
Which Summer for the Arab Spring?
Six months will have passed since a destitute Tunisian countryside street vendor set himself on fire in an absolute gesture of desperation triggering a wave of uprisings in the Arab world. In that relatively short lapse of time, the Middle East and North Africa experienced arguably its most intense period of social and political change in the contemporary era.
In a region where the executive branch holds all the keys to its nation’s future, no less than four presidents have seen their reign cut short. In Tunisia, Zein Al Abidine Ben Ali fled. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was compelled to resign. In Libya, Mouammar Kaddafi is on the run from his people and from international justice. And in Yemen, Ali Abdallah Saleh, who had already agreed to step down at the end of the year, has been injured and forced to leave his country.
The magnitude of these changes was matched only by their swiftness. Yet the events are still playing out and the coming phase will be as crucial as the first romantic period now coming to an end. In that context, three key questions are poised to dominate the next stage: (i) the likely degeneration of events in Syria, (ii) the difficult but conceivable progress of the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, and (iii) the remaking of the Arab world’s medium-term strategic dynamics in favor of Saudi Arabia.
First, in Syria, the authorities’ misreading of the historical nature of the transformations was a surprise to many as, given the events in Tunis and Cairo, Bashar al-Assad’s March 30th speech could arguably have embraced constructively the legitimate demands for opening in his country. In irresponsibly dismissing the movement, indulging time-honored conspiracy theories, and brutally unleashing police and military against the protestors, Assad has in effect emulated both Kaddafi’s maximalist strategy and Mubarak’s delaying tactics.
The very nature of these revolutions is, however, that they are nationwide revolts, and in Syria the opposition to Assad has now been sacralized as no less than a second national independence. With the mukhabarat going on the offense and the military wavering, the country can increasingly descend into large-scale violence. International concerns about instability in the Levant and Israel’s ambivalence about losing its predictable nemesis will render this equation more complex. But, as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen that may not ultimately be enough to keep an infuriated nation at bay.
Secondly, the coming months will see the plots thickening in Tunis and Cairo but one can cautiously expect an overall continuation in the direction of the initial January and February uprisings. Revolutions are elusive whereas transitions are long, arduous and necessitating building skills rather than merely liberating energies. The power game is currently wide open and the coming elections in October will be moments of truth the aftermath of which equally sensitive.
Both Tunisia and Egypt have, however, what has historically been required for successful transitions, namely educated middle classes and active civil societies. Moreover, the military and the Islamists have so far played by the rules. Though the political contest will be fierce and Tahrir Square likely to be reoccupied now and then by unwavering youth, the two countries may well in the end reach a democratic stability in the coming years on the strength of the legitimate bases being put in place.
Finally, as the region continues to be embroiled in these momentous transformations, the international community is still not clear about how to engage. In the 1970s we had d