The Arab spring will die out

21 juni 2011 | Nieuwsanalyse – In the Arab world a strong leadership is needed that protects the countries from fracturing due to infighting by clans and religious groups. The Arab spring will not be fundamentally changing this.

Most of the Northern African and Middle Eastern countries are ruled by families, tribes or clans. Powerful rulers guard the social cohesion that is regarded to be under constant threat from an unstable mix of – religious – groups, supposedly wrecking unity. The world, led by The United States and Western Europe, was careful to take action against the repressive violence of Arab leaders, as they should have been.

Since the war in Iraq in 2003 we know that Middle Eastern leaders do not stand a chance when it comes to surviving a Western military campaign. Mr. Hussein was ousted quicker from his post than Mr. Gaddafi, who is still controlling parts of Libya. The West also knows that ousting a country’s leader is one thing, but rebuilding and uniting a country another. Troop numbers in Afghanistan are still close to their highest level ten years after the war started. So, with the Arab uprising unfolding in the region the US and its allies were not eager to engage their overstretched armies in a new protracted war. Instead they used the UN platform for a broadly supported military intervention to remove Libya’s leader.

The resolution finds its roots in the fact that the ‘freedom loving and democratic world’ cannot stand by when civilians are being slaughtered by its ruler. Something that is reminiscent of the events after Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s. From a Chinese, Russian and to a lesser extent German perspective they understandably abstained. It clears them of responsibility when things go wrong, but it will not harm them either when the Gaddafi regime is unseated. Furthermore, with an eye to creating a precedent – a foreign intervention in domestic affairs – this was the right thing to do.

Protesting in the Arab world continues, but it does not seem to be progressing towards a different political outcome. Even though the rulers of Egypt and Tunisia fell, the kings of Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco are offering concessions that keep them where they were. Syria seems to be under Assad’s control. Yemen has been one of the weakest states, and with its leader out of the country collapse seems imminent.

The Arab leadership is privileged and has power over its people. In some countries they are important trading partners for the West or of strategically importance. They rule because they have obtained the right – or fought their way – to it. They view themselves as, and probably to a certain extent are, the embodiment of a country’s cultural heritage. Their rule creates unity in a state that is under threat from ethnical or religious groups. Most Arab states exist because of their leaders’ ability to govern, mostly with a strong hand.

Even if the West wants to make a point and to stop the ongoing violence against protesters, they cannot. NATO feels the strain of the lack of political and military support within its own ranks. Politicians are treading carefully when it comes to supporting or recognising opposition forces. There is a feeling of being on a moral high ground, though without the confidence to uphold it. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taught the West valuable lessons about governing in the Middle East. Rebuilding a country on a plural political system, when its existence was strongly tied to an autocratic leader or religious group, seems to be either nearly impossible or slow at best. It takes longer than the public is willing to bear.

Authoritarianism is viewed differently in the Arab world. An Arab democracy would resemble Turkey or Pakistan at best, where the military has a role in politics. There is a need for strong leadership that protects the countries from fracturing due to infighting by clans and religious groups. The Arab spring will not be fundamentally changing this. For the West the Middle Eastern wars and Arab uprising show that exporting out-of-the-box democracy has been a failure. It has been a costly learning experience and will most likely be a turning point where the West might start to look more inwards. The time of Western moral grandeur is over. The Arab protesters will come to understand that as well.