Unrest in the Middle East: A Conversation With Siddique and Wuite

Abul-Hasanat Siddique and Casper Wuite, co-authors of The Arab Uprisings: An Introduction, talk about the political unrest in the Middle East, the Syrian Civil War, the globalisation of media, and the future prospects for the region. [Note: This article was cross-posted with Foreign Policy Blogs.]

Is the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa home-grown or a Western-sponsored revolution for change?

Abul-Hasanat Siddique: Home-grown. Seeing the uprisings in the region as Western-sponsored “revolutions” is far from reality. Firstly, that view sees the populations in the region as passive recipients. It also negates the Arab people, particularly its youth populations, in their moment when they called or are still calling for freedom and dignity. That would also not do justice to the way foreign governments and local populations have acted on the ground.

In fact, Arab youth movements and political activists have been mobilising for many years. The April 6th Movement in Egypt has been on the scene since 2008. Autocratic regimes in the region, most of whom are backed by the West, have long ignored their disgruntled people. Revolts were bound to happen at some point in the Arab world; a region which has seen poor economic growth, atrocious human rights records, and a growing youth population with high unemployment. Such issues have boiled up and created restive societies throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Casper Wuite: What is true is that in some countries, particularly Libya, home grown revolutions with enough critical mass could simply not to be ignored by the West. The action the West subsequently undertook, however, was never part of a Cold War-type strategy to sponsor certain elements in the region.

Is the Middle East in a phase of transition from “dictatorship to democracy”? If so, will the Arab Uprisings pave the way for transitions in Syria, Jordan, and then Saudi Arabia as well?

Siddique: The plenitude of elections held in the wake of the Arab Uprisings in no way signifies a democracy, but merely a first step. True democratic reform takes a substantial amount of time to achieve; the history of Europe is a key example. Some parts of the region are in this long transitional period. The transitions occurring in countries like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have been rather complicated. However, in time, these countries will make (some) shifts towards democratic reform. This may take several years or even decades to achieve and it will not be easy.

Wuite: The Arab Uprisings are less likely to pave the way for transitions in Jordan and Saudi Arabia although incremental changes have been made particularly in Jordan. Yes, they face the same challenges: a demographic youth bulge and an economic reality that is increasingly at odds with the regime’s existing policies and practices. However, calls for reform are diluted by political and fiscal co-optation in both countries. On the other hand, in Syria the question is not so much whether we will see a transition soon, but rather whether a stable democracy will be its endpoint.

In your view, is Morsi capable of keeping a balance between Islamists and liberal forces within Egypt? Does Egypt dream of becoming a regional power under Morsi, as was the case during the Gamal Abdul Nasser era?

Siddique: At present, the president is clearly failing to keep the balance between the Islamist bloc and the liberal and secular forces. Post-Mubarak Egypt has further highlighted political polarization  in the country. The political unrest over Morsi’s rather inexperienced and poor strategic move with his presidential decree and the ensuing referendum over the new constitution, has further deepened this polarization. Indeed, Egypt’s transition is very complicated and the judiciary is full of former Mubarak-era officials. But there are undoubtedly many within Egypt who are disengaged with Morsi, as they simply see him as a stooge for the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies. What he needs to do is truly engage all groups within Egypt, including secularists, liberals, women, and religious minorities. Indeed, he is the president for all Egyptian people and not one portion of society; he needs to realise this if Egypt is to move forward. Unilateral steps like initiating presidential decrees will not help Egypt; it will simply evoke more and more unrest and resentment within the country.

He also needs to reform the police and security forces. The unrest over the Port Said trials was a reaction against Morsi’s presidency, but also at the corrupt police and security forces. Whether or not Morsi made a deal with the military is up for question, but he very much needs to pursue those responsible for the death of protestors in 2011, and those still unaccounted for. The people want justice to be served.

Wuite: Indeed, many have argued that the current riots are a sign that the standoff between Morsi and the opposition is spiralling out of control. However, not every rioter is a member of either two groups. Many rioters are hooligans upset with the Port Said trials, or are youth settling scores with the police. Yet, one cannot deny that the political polarization is increasingly paralysing the country. What is thus instrumental in understanding the crisis, is that it is not simply that the political arena has lost its primacy of settling disputes to the streets. What has been crucial to the current standoff has been the extent to which democratic procedures and the rule of law have lost their primacy and how the remaining institutions, most notably the judiciary, have been politicized and turned into political fiefdoms.

Siddique: As for Nasser. Domestically, Morsi falls far short of living up to Nasser’s legacy within Egypt despite the late leader having been a dictator himself. Nasser is still held high within the country but also within the wider Arab world. With regards to being a regional power once again: Morsi clearly sees that Qatar and Turkey are making advances in becoming the regional hegemon. Saudi Arabia is shifting away from the fore-front of regional affairs, and Egypt has been in a complicated transitional period for over two years. However, it is highly unlikely that Egypt will return to the heights of Nasser’s pan-Arab dream. Simply put, pan-Arabism, as Nasser dreamed of it, is dead — it has been dead for decades.

That said, Morsi wants to develop further foreign ties. If his domestic policy fails, he at least wants his foreign policy to be worth something. If his foreign policy is to be deemed a “success”, however, a drastic development needs to be made with the Israeli-Palestinian peace-process. Pressure will need to put on the Palestinians, namely Hamas, while the US will finally need to act as a genuine peace broker.

Did the Syrian conflict begin as a genuine uprising or a proxy-war? Will Bashar al-Assad fall to the opposition as with Libya?

Siddique: A genuine uprising that has turned into a proxy-war.There is a belief by some that the Syrian Civil War was instigated by a Western-led conspiracy to overthrow the Ba’athist regime in a bid to derail its ally in Iran. Notably, this is the same view held by Bashar al-Assad and his aides. The problem with that belief completely negates the start of the unrest in Syria, and the history of the country under the Assad family. Let us not forget that the Syrian people rose up peacefully in a bid for genuine reforms as their counterparts had done so in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and so on. But they were met with force from the state. As time went by, some in the opposition took up arms to defend themselves. At the same time, however, some radical and extremist elements (with an affiliation to Al-Qaeda) in the Syrian opposition (some foreign) have capitalised on the conflict and begun calling for an Islamic state.

The Syrian people, those opposing the Ba’athist government, be they secular or Islamist, have genuine grievances against the Assad family which has been in power for over 40 years. Viewing the whole war, from the initial peaceful uprising, as a Western conspiracy ignores those grievances and sees the Syrian people as passive bystanders. The Syrian people should not be seen as a pawn for the US, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, and Iran, but instead as people who want their freedom and dignity.

As for Assad falling like Qaddafi did in Libya: the situation is different. The opposition in Libya had a base of “operations” in Benghazi. From there, they made advances westwards and were then backed by NATO airstrikes. That isn’t the case in Syria, as the armed opposition have only seized fragments across the country. There are also divisions within their ranks. In addition, while the Syrian Uprising did not begin as a sectarian battle, sections of the protagonists on the ground now see the civil war as a conflict between Sunnis and Alawites (and the wider Shi’a region). If Assad does fall, there is a genuine fear that the Alawite community could be targeted by extremists. Unlike Libya, the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict today has meant that sections within Assad’s ranks are reluctant to defect to the opposition, and will continue to be reluctant unless genuine security promises are made. With the current stalemate, the civil war could last for a substantial amount of time. As with the Algerian and Lebanese civil wars, a negotiated settlement seems to be the only way forward. Whether the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition agree to any settlement is highly questionable.    

How do you view the role of media coverage in “bridging the gaps” or “widening the gulf” in the Middle East?

Siddique: News media coverage and social media has been quite key in the Arab Uprisings, and with modern conflicts in general. A cousin of Mohammed Bouazizi — the Tunisian street seller whose self-immolation ignited the uprising in Sidi Bouzid — highlighted this very well. The cousin had sent mobile phone footage of the aftermath of Bouazizi’s self-immolation to Al Jazeera, who broadcasted it. Subsequent videos were sent to the broadcaster of the unrest in Sidi Bouzid. But as the cousin highlighted: protests in the Arab world are not unheard of, at least in the country (in question) itself. However, if the footage of the unrest hadn’t been shown on the news, it would have been as if protests hadn’t happened. It’s the whole “tree falling in the woods” issue: if no one hears about a protest, did it really happen?

And it is due to this, the globalisation of media and its technological developments, that coverage of what is happening on the ground can be disseminated on an astonishing scale. Social media, and the wide-availability of satellite television, has allowed for videos, messages, and so, to be distributed to wide-spanning audiences much faster. This didn’t happen in the 1977 Bread Riots, or even in the Gulf War; the Gulf War was CNN’s moment to shine — there was no pan-Arab broadcaster like Al Jazeera. However, today, the biggest factor is that autocratic regimes can’t control these media developments. They have been hit by the reality of globalisation. Media is indeed helping to “bridge the gaps” between what the state allows and what its people want; the people who are getting the message out by whatever means necessary. Protests or conflict, no matter how big or small they are, will now always be “heard”.

How do you see the future scenario of the Middle East? Will stability be reached or will anarchy prevail?

Wuite: I agree with Stephen Waltz who argues that future scenarios of the Middle East can roughly be divided into three situations. Optimists will argue that the road will be bumpy for a while, but that the Arab Uprisings mark the end of an era of regional stagnation and will give way for economic development and liberal democracy. Others exercise more caution and argue that as political dynamism returns to the region, we should be careful of what we wish for. In other words, under the influence of popular sentiment, more capable and competent Arab regimes will not necessarily be more compliant. Lastly, pessimists will argue that although the Arab Uprisings will succeed in overturning a number of regimes, stable governance will not replace them everywhere. Instead, extremism and sectarianism will be rife in some countries.

Personally, I believe that any positive change will only be incremental and that given the state of the economy, social and regional polarization, and continued fiscal and political co-optation in the region, we should be cautious when it comes to the outcomes of the Arab Uprisings in most countries and flatly pessimistic when it comes to some others.

*[The Arab Uprisings: An Introduction is available to purchase at Amazon. A paperback version is available at the SlimBooks store.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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