After the Revolts: Arab-West Relations (Part 1/2)

After decades of secular dictatorships, how will a new Middle East and North Africa alter centuries-old Arab-Western relations? This is the first of a two part series.

Since December 2010, the Arab revolts have shaken an entire region. Uprisings, initiated by youth activists, have undoubtedly changed the history and makeup of the Middle East and North Africa. Long-standing autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were overthrown as a consequence. With their causes rooted in a variety of political, social and economic factors, issues such as a demographic youth bulge and widespread unemployment have created restive societies throughout the Arab world.

Having started with peaceful demonstrations, the situation in Syria has turned into one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 21st century. The ongoing civil war began as genuine calls for reform, but has since turned into a proxy-war with its geopolitical shockwaves being felt in neighboring countries, including Lebanon.

As violent protests in Egypt have escalated, the transition period proves to be turbulent and complicated.

The political upheaval took the United States and the European Union off guard. After decades of cooperation between the West and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Islamist parties have since risen to power.

As Yana Korobko notes: “The fateful events of 2011 brought monumental changes to the politics of the Middle East and its relations with the Western countries.” In September 2012, US President Barack Obama infamously stated that Egypt, with its new government, should neither be considered an ally, nor an enemy. After decades of secular dictatorships, how will a new Middle East and North Africa alter centuries-old Arab-Western relations?

Yana Korobkovice-president of the Institute of Peace and Development, speaks to Fair Observer's Manuel Langendorf and Abul-Hasanat Siddique about opportunities for the West in the region, the rise to power of Islamist parties, and the Syrian Civil War.

Manuel Langendorf: What is your evaluation of the responses of key Western states, including the United States, France and the UK, to the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)?

Yana Korobko: The fateful events of 2011 brought monumental changes to the politics of the Middle East and its relations with the Western countries. Even the term “Arab Spring” was “part of a US strategy of controlling the movement's aims and goals” and directing it towards an American-style liberal democracy. The term first appeared publicly when Marc Lynch, an American professor, referred to it in his article published in Foreign Policy. So, the Arab Spring is one of the results of the political activity of the West. 

With the beginning of the Arab revolutions, many people tended to think that justice would triumph over the dictatorships. As soon as any revolution is over, there usually comes a dangerous period. Like with the events in the Middle East, the initial euphoria of the democratization movements was rather exaggerated by the West, which was fully sponsoring them. Referring to the speech of Barack Obama: “Our signal is simple: if you take the risks and commitment to reform, you receive the full support of the United States. We should also start its efforts to expand its influence beyond the social elites to make contact directly with the people who will shape the future with the youth.” Nevertheless, it is still unclear whether the Arab Spring will have a long-lasting and cardinal outcome for the relations of this region with the Western world, taking into consideration the Islamist regimes that came to power.

Abul-Hasanat Siddique: Should the Arab Uprisings and the transitions appearing in (some) countries be deemed an opportunity or a threat to the West?

Korobko: The Arab Spring has rather a positive effect for the West, which opened a new page in their relations that would never be the same after the 2011 revolutions. For example, it revived the hopes of Washington to resurrect the idea of the Greater Middle East, proposed in 2004 at the summit at Sea Island (USA). Then, the American initiative involved extensive political, democratic and economic reforms in the region in exchange for large-scale financial aid from the West. The Arab revolutions have given an unprecedented opportunity for the West to create a new economic and political model for the region, which would reduce instability, radicalism, terrorism and eliminate these threats for the West.

Langendorf: What do you see as the most pressing topics in Arab-Western relations at the moment? Has there been a significant change in recent years?

Korobko: Arab-Western relations are the most controversial ones in world history. First of all, because of the so-called “Islamist threat,” an enemy was fabricated by some Western countries to take full control of world politics. Such an inclination for domination urges a country to realize self-expansion by all possible means, including manipulation, which inevitably increases other countries' sense of insecurity and provokes the feeling of fear. Since the end of the Cold War, the main enemy of the West, the USSR, has disappeared, and in order to dominate in “real politics,” the Occident had to create another enemy.

In my opinion, the second serious challenge in Arab-Western relations is to fight unfairness concerning the double standards of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which throughout the years has been demonstrated in some of the following cases:

  • The non-implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions compelling Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
  • No international sanction has ever been adopted against Israel (except the case when the EU banned the import of Israeli production in Palestine).
  • Contrary to what happened in other places (i.e. East Timor, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, etc), the Palestinian resistance to occupation doesn't appear to be legally recognized by the international community.
  • The policies of the International Atomic Energy Agency are firmly implemented with regard to the Arab countries and Iran, however, Israel does not fall under the same category.

And many other examples can be cited like these ones. Nevertheless, both parties should learn to overcome this heritage of mistrust. It is true that the Europeans have accumulated many psycho-social traumas in their relations with their Muslim neighbors. For instance: the Spanish conquest by Arabs; the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans; and so on. From their side, the Arabs have their own traumas, like the one created by European colonial policies. The recent invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies has only revived Arab wounds. That war reinforced the feeling that the West wanted to become the authority for the riches that the Arab world possesses, for instance, oil.

Unfortunately, so far, nothing substantial has been done to cure this suffering and, as a result, the anamnesis is only expanding. From the point of view of stability and peaceful coexistence, the solution should be found on the perceptional level in the form of an open dialogue between equals, and the Arab-West relations will become stabilized as a consequence of that.

Siddique: Why is Obama heavily reluctant to become involved in the Syrian Civil War?

Korobko: Many American experts consider a possible military intervention in Syria as a strategic mistake. Even if Obama takes such a decision, for Washington, it will turn out to become a layout of power demonstration over the key Russian satellite state since the time of the Cold War and, therefore, gaining new benefits in the region. While awaiting the resolution of the Syrian War, the relations between Russia and the US remain diplomatically polite without direct confrontation. This can be described as a “cold peace” — none of the parties are willing to give up, and no one wants to compromise. Russia assesses the American concern over Syria as an intervention into the zone of Moscow’s vital interests. It’s not surprising, as the history of Russian-American relations reminds us of the effects of a “zigzag” — with its ups and downs. Their consequences in the Syrian case are unpredictable. The situation remains very delicate.

*[Note: Read the final part of "After the Revolts: Arab-West Relations," on June 12. This article was produced in partnership with the Foreign Policy Association.]

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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