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Saturday, January 14, 2012

A year after Jasmine and Tahrir

It is still early to come to any conclusion about the dénouement of the churning in West Asia. Things are far from settled.

The euphoria generated by the Jasmine and Tahrir revolutions has all but dissipated during the past year. The unrealistic expectations, the hype built up mainly by the western governments and the media have given way to doubt, disappointment and even despair over the fate of ‘Arab Spring.' The concern of most observers in the international community is now focussed on the direction in which “people's movements” in various countries will proceed, and on the loss of lives that occurred in Libya, Yemen and, to a less extent, Egypt, and that is continuing in Syria and can be expected to happen in some other countries in the region in the coming months. It is a sad commentary on the rest of the international community that it unhesitatingly adopts the terminology coined by the West to describe the historic events in West Asia. ‘Arab Spring' or ‘Arab Awakening' is a condescending description; it suggests that the people of West Asia have been sleeping all these decades, not caring for freedoms enjoyed by people elsewhere. The fact is that non-regional governments have been supporting the authoritarian regimes through massive supply of deadly weapons and technology, which were used to suppress the people.

Increased Shia-Sunni tensions

There are some who would like the Egyptians to believe that their revolution would not have happened but for the speech of President Barack Obama in their capital two years ago. The fact is that the people of Tunisia, followed by the people of Egypt, owe their revolutions to no one except themselves; they are the owners of their revolutions. If anything, the intervention of external powers, as in Libya, has complicated matters for the most part, created space for more extreme forms of Islamic thought to gain ascendance and, perhaps unwittingly, greatly accentuated the tensions between Shias and Sunnis. It is still early days to come to any conclusions about the dénouement of the churning in the region. Things are far from settled, except to some extent in Tunisia where it all began a year ago. Some broad trends, however, may be attempted.

Strengthening of Islamist groups

In all countries which have witnessed some degree of protests, Islamist groups have gained significant ground. In Tunisia, a ‘moderate' Islamic party has won plurality of the vote. In Libya, where regional forces are refusing to give up their arms or disband their militias, hard-line Islamists, including loyalists of the al Qaeda, have secured influential positions. Egypt has surprised most observers, including knowledgeable Egyptians, by giving a huge electoral mandate to the Muslim Brotherhood and, more ominously, to Salafists; together, the two Islamist groups will control about 70 per cent seats in Parliament, to the great disappointment of the ‘secular' forces. Similarly, in Yemen, the extremists have gained ground and will emerge as the most influential force as and when President Saleh leaves the country. The same phenomenon is evident in Syria in an acuter form. Bahrain is possibly an exception in the sense that the conflict there is between the minority Sunni ruling family and the majority Shia community.

The success of the Islamists by itself need not be seen as a negative outcome, except perhaps by Israel. Their success is an indication of the disillusionment of people with the ‘secular' authoritarian regimes as well as the reward for the socially useful work they have been doing such as running hospitals and schools. Whatever the nature of the new governments, people will enjoy more freedoms and will have a greater say in running the affairs of the state. The most amazing phenomenon of 2011 is the shedding of fear by the people, first in the Arab world and, subsequently almost everywhere else, including Russia and China. (This does not apply much to India since we always were free and unafraid to protest and demonstrate, although Tahrir Square could have provided some inspiration.) The Time magazine is absolutely right in naming the unnamed ‘Protester' as the person of the year. This means the Islamists, as and when they occupy positions of power, will not be able to manipulate people in any way they like. In the medium term, the Islamists-led regimes will insist, at the least, on all legislation being compliant with the Sharia, whatever it means in practice.

Security forces, the army and police, will continue to wield significant, even decisive, influence in the stability of governments. The Turkish model will not be followed consciously given past history but some variation of it should be expected to emerge at some stage. Libya has to go through the difficult process of creating an army out of disparate armed militias and will take longer to achieve stability. In Egypt, the armed forces, which have been used to wielding power for nearly five decades, will hold on to it for quite some time, especially since they also have significant vested interests in the economy.

More attention on Palestine

The Palestinian issue will receive much more attention and focus from the new regimes, which probably would mean more support for Hamas. Israel, which already feels threatened by Iran's nuclear programme, will be under increased pressure to suspend settlement building. Israel's posture will harden and its military spending will increase. The U.S. is in no position to bring effective pressure on Israel, especially in an election year, but it might appeal to Israel to be more reasonable on the Palestinian track in return for tightening the screws on Iran.

Syrian issue

Syria is a complex case but certain facts are clear. (1) There is genuine popular demand for reform. (2) There is repression and use of ruthless force by the regime — at the same time, it continues to enjoy the support of the security forces and significant sections. (3) There is open intervention by external powers and groups such as the Brotherhood as well as elements subscribing to the al-Qaeda ideology, if not the al-Qaeda itself. (4) Many dissident groups are well armed and have killed a number of security forces. (5) Western powers are determined to bring about regime change. (6) Israel is greatly interested in seeing Bashar Assad removed even if the alternative will be a fundamentalist regime. Its priority is Iran and whatever weakens Iran in the region is considered to be in Israel's interest. Bashar's removal will greatly diminish the Hezbollah's ability to threaten Israel and also reduce Hamas' clout. (7) Unless a solution is found soon, the country will be headed towards a bloody civil war.

The Shia-Sunni tensions and Saudi-Iranian rivalry will intensify. Iraq presents a most discouraging example in this respect. After so many years of American shepherding, society in Iraq remains deeply divided on sectarian fault lines. Prime Minister Maliki, now that he is liberated from whatever moderating influence American presence might have exercised on him, is dealing with the Sunni community in exactly the wrong way. The sectarian violence seems all set to return to the horrors of the 2005-07 period. Iraq's Sunni neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, will definitely intervene to protect their Sunni brethren across the border. It is not a coincidence that Iraq's Shia government has been voting against the Arab League's decisions on the Alawite Shia-led Syrian regime. The Saudi hostility to Damascus has everything to do with the Shia-Sunni divide. Turkey's current antagonism to Syria has many explanations and the Shia-Sunni factor is one of them. The Turkey-Syria-Iraq triangle offers quite a few fertile grounds for conflict — water, the Kurdish problem, Shia-Sunni hatred, etc. There is a tendency to downplay the Shia-Sunni tension but it is very much a fact of the Muslim life and it is better to recognise it.

In sum, the region is likely to remain unstable for quite some time. It would become destabilised should the Iranian nuclear issue lead to extremely harsh sanctions — and the process has begun — or worse, military action.

Some Indian experts would like India to take a more proactive role on the happenings in West Asia, to be on ‘the right side of the forces of history.' It is no doubt good to feel self-righteous and earn an occasional pat on the back from the western or any other government. But it is more important to think of our national interests. Compared to our friends in the West, we are more dependent on the energy resources of West Asia. Most importantly, unlike other countries, we have to worry about 6 million of our compatriots who are working there and sending billions of dollars to their families back home. It makes sense to take a cautious stance, make as thorough an analysis as possible of the evolving situation and try to be on the winning side. That is our challenge. That challenge is coming sooner that we would like, in Iran.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan-THE HINDU

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