Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera English’s senior political analyst and the editor & host of Empire, which examines global powers and their agendas. He was previously a professor of International Relations at the American University of Paris and a fellow at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes et Sciences Sociales. An author who writes and speaks extensively on global politics, Bishara is an authority on many of today’s most relevant global issues, US foreign policy and the greater Middle East.
The Arab revolution puts regional and international powers on notice as it pushes for the removal of autocrats.
The Arab revolution is on the march, and there is no turning back.
Sweeping transformation is coming – sooner rather than later – but, just as Arabs realise change is a must and are making it happen with much fanfare, their regimes and many world leaders don’t seem to get the message.
Americans, Europeans and Israelis – like Turks and Iranians, as well as Russians and Chinese, or even Brazilian leaders – are yet to internalise the dramatic transformations in the Arab region and change their policies accordingly.
They’re either playing catch up, hedging their bets or are terribly indifferent to the spirit and magnitude of change at play among the Arabs.
Some of the world’s powerful capitals might find it easier, safer even, to continue to deal with those Arab autocrats they’ve dealt with over the last several decades. And yes, it’s easier to manipulate dictators, bribe their technocrats, or for example, sell them useless expensive weapons.
But must long term European, African and Chinese ‘national interest’ come at the expense of Arab rights and progress?
Whatever they do – or don’t do – is bound to affect their interests in the region for long time to come.
Dictators and friends
Clearly foreign leaders are approaching the Arab revolution from the perspective of their national interest, however they define their mission, or whichever way that might translate into reality.
So that after much hesitation and double dealing, the Obama administration seems to have adopted an ad hoc, country-by-country approach that weighs the merits, benefits and liabilities of change in any given country.
And hence Washington remains uncertain about radical democratic changes in Egypt, pushes for regime change in Libya, procrastinates in Syria, takes a late and weak stand on Yemen’s wobbly 33-year regime, and embraces the autocratic regime in Bahrain.
The same could be said of Europe’s leading powers, albeit with few nuances here and there, as in the case of Germany that has avoided military involvement in Libya and is indifferent to the uprising in Bahrain.
Western sceptics and hyper-realists reckon that change isn’t necessarily better than the status quo; that Islamists might be gaining momentum; and argue for a ‘better the devil you know than the one you don’t’ approach.
Considering it’s been easy for Western powers to make clients out of autocrats and do good business with dictators, they are probably worried that the newly elected, accountable and transparent governments might be more resistant to their pressures and dictates. As they should.
Either way, the overzealous French president Sarkozy and the hyper British prime minister Cameron, are quite eager to force their way back to the Arab region from the Libyan gate with a hope of re-dividing it into areas of influence in light of the relative US strategic downsizing under president Obama.
For their part, the three non-Arab regional powers – Turkey, Iran and Israel – who’ve long competed over influence in a divided and torn Arab landscape, have been caught off-guard by the breathtaking upheavals in the neighbourhood.
This is especially the case considering that over the last few years, all three have exploited the deep divisions in the Arab world that followed the Gulf war in order to advance their national interests and even assert their hegemony in the Arab world.
Since the revolution started, Israel, for example, has lobbied Washington to keep Mubarak in power and asked for billions to shield itself from ‘the Arab spring’. Tehran has made out of Bahrain’s Shia majority its cause célèbre, and Turkey has hedged its bets on Libya and supported the Syrian regime’s stability as part of its new strategic sphere of influence.
That’s not to equate Ankara’s attempt to improve its diplomatic interests whilst advancing its economic and strategic interests, with Israel’s belligerent attempts at intimidation through two wars against the Palestinians and the Lebanese, or with Tehran’s attempts to champion pan-Arab causes internationally while at times pushing for sectarian agendas regionally.
Because of their proximity to the Arab world, these three regional powers are bound to be affected by the new Arab strategic configuration in a greater way than the distant West. And that’s why they’re expected to change their strategic calculus accordingly.
So far however, they’ve pursued an ad hoc and case-by-case narrow approach, similar to that of the Western powers that doesn’t, or wouldn’t like to, see the Arab world emerging as a bullish new force on the regional or world stage.
Needless to say, the Russian and Chinese silence has been deafening. Since they abstained at the UN Security Council on Libya’s resolution 1973, Moscow and Beijing have buried their heads in the sand.
The Chinese leadership would prefer it if the whole Arab revolution ‘challenge’ went away or resolved itself sooner rather than later. In fact, Beijing has censored news of the Arab revolution in Egypt and elsewhere, probably for fear that its population might get the wrong, or rather the right, idea.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Arab revolution has come against the backdrop of the international economic crisis, and therefore seems to reject both models at hand: the neo-Liberal ‘Washington Consensus’ or the predictable autocratic ‘Beijing Consensus’ that seemed to gain currency since.
And then there’s the African Union leaders and envoys who’ve sadly tried this week to revive the dying Libyan regime by advancing an initiative that foresees keeping Gaddafi and family in power or in the political landscape of a future Libya!
Like the rest of the Arab world, Libya is in dire need not for stability but for change. Not for mending fences with its 40 year old dictatorship, but for removing the dictator and its dictatorship.
Alas, some of these African leaders probably feel like they owe Gaddafi for the support Libya lent them in previous years or would rather limit Western military intervention in their continent, but that should in no way blind them for doing the right thing by the Libyan people.
Missing the point
It’s basically business as usual for many of these foreign leaders, and establishments, who’ve grown used to treating the Arabs piecemeal.
Lacking a strategic outlook, not to say the imagination to envisage a transformed Arab region, they insist on more of the same narrow geopolitical approach to a new Arab awakening that holds the promise to bring about a more peaceful, more prosperous, and more constructive player in regional and global affairs.
Alas, complications, setbacks and contrasts among various uprisings in the Arab region are providing Arab leaders with the alibi to insist that they’re “different” and that what applies to their Arab neighbours doesn’t apply to them. It also gives justification for foreign powers to pursue more-of-the-same cynical zero-sum policies towards the Arab region.
That’s why eventually, it’s up to the Arab revolution to put regional and international powers on notice as it pushes for the removal of Arab autocrats.
Fortunately, Western and international public opinion is very supportive of the Arab revolution, certainly more than their leaders.
The strength of the Arab revolutionaries lies not only in their defiance of dictatorship – impressive as that is – but in their cross-regional unity that pushes for change.
Their power lies in the fact and reality that their revolution is Arab in its scope, Arab in its identity and pan-Arab in its geography.
Whatever happens in one Arab country ends up effecting what happens in another, such as the Arab domino effect. As the Yemeni and Libyan regimes fall, as they must, the Arab revolution will once again gain momentum and global recognition as it did after changes in Egypt and Tunisia.
Meanwhile, it’s going to be indispensable for Arab revolutionaries to unify their slogans and goals across the region. Their pursuit for justice, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom from want is one and the same, and must be underlined in every street and every public square and chat room.
Eventually, the transformations blowing through the region will touch every child and adult, effect every family and neighbourhood, rewrite school books and reinvent the human landscape in the entire region.
And above all, it will end peoples’ fear, and decades of oppression.
Remember, the revolution is Arab. And it’s personal.