By PR Chari
There is no dearth of year-end assessments of the major international events in 2011 that were singular. Fair consensus exists that it was a tumultuous year for the international system. There is fair agreement also about the events that caused this tumult, and there could be disputes about their prioritization for taking remedial steps. Several of these events will cast their deep shadows over the course of 2012. The still evolving Arab Spring must head this list, closely followed by epochal events like the Eurozone financial crisis, the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, the failure of the super-committee in the US to credibly address its crippling debt issue, the American withdrawal from Iraq and its impending abandonment of Afghanistan, and, finally, the growing estrangement between China and the US as the latter ‘pivots’ around Asia.
The most significant of these events undoubtedly is the Arab Spring, which embodies popular discontent against the military-bureaucratic autocracies in the Arab Maghreb and Middle East region. In quick succession Tunisia and Egypt witnessed popular revolutions, and a civil war erupted in Libya. These countries saw regime change, which was the prime objective of the Arab Spring dissenters. Civil uprisings affected Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. Besides, major and minor protest movements have excoriated almost all the Arab countries.
The motivating factors include the insensitivity of dictatorships and absolutist regimes to public demands, unemployment–particularly of educated and militant youth who could not accept the status quo, economic downturn resulting in grinding poverty and food insecurity, while wealth was concentrating in the hands of the ruling classes. Moreover, corruption had increased manifold with a concomitant lack of accountability and transparency. The contention between rising aspirations and lack of government response triggered off these protests. All it required was some precipitating event to set off the political earthquake. For instance, the self-immolation of a fruit seller protesting against police corruption set off the revolution in Tunisia that spread to neighboring Egypt, Algeria, Libya and then across the Arab world. Internet and the social media allowed the protestors to communicate with each other without the heavy hand of censorship intervening, or the protestors being detected and punished. But, a common denominator fuelling the Arab Spring was the unwillingness of the rulers to parley with the protesters. What if counterfactual questions are helpful in understanding crises? And, it is worth speculating if a different outcome would have resulted if the Arab regimes had agreed to negotiate with the protestors before their crises reached unmanageable proportions.
The deeper conceptual implications of the Arab Spring have a global remit. Civil society has become aroused now, which derives from the new egalitarianism sweeping over the international system. Small and weak nations have confidently and successfully stood up to powerful countries – the apocryphal example of Vietnam can be recalled here. Interventions by powerful countries in the affairs of weak nations have proved ineffectual, even disastrous – the American intervention in Somalia, then Iraq and Afghanistan for instance. Earlier, the Soviet Union had been forced to retreat from Afghanistan in similar circumstances. It is being argued here that the egalitarianism distinguishing the international system is now being reflected within nations. No longer can autocratic and unrepresentative rulers ensconce themselves in power by controlling the security forces. Nor can they gain office through rigged elections without incurring the wrath of their citizenry. The continuing protests in Russia over efforts designed to continue Putin in power reveals that its civil society has become conscious of their democratic rights. Further, Russian citizens are determined to assert these rights despite efforts by its rulers to suppress their protest. In a sense, the people are forcing their rulers to fulfill their part of the Hobbesian bargain by ensuring the commonweal, and not by perpetuating themselves in power and plundering the nation.
The jury is still out whether the removal of their autocracies by the Arab Spring movement will usher a more democratic era into these countries. In Egypt, for instance, the failure of the protesters to unite and work out a scheme for political reform has ensured the renewed relevance and ascendancy of its military. These post Arab Spring developments will unravel further in 2012. Meanwhile, another interesting phenomenon is worth flagging, which is the growing legitimacy of dynastic succession. South Asia has for long been receptive to the concept of power being reposed in preferred families, and this occurrence can be illustrated by highlighting the dynastic succession principle obtaining in India vis the Nehru-Gandhi family, the Bhutto family in Pakistan, and the Mujib-Zia families in Bangladesh. The Kim tradition is flourishing in North Korea and the succession of the “princelings” in China reveals that other regions have also approved dynastic succession.
Whether the tradition of dynastic succession strengthens elsewhere while autocratic regimes weaken in the Arab world is a development that merits attention in 2012.
Visiting Professor IPCS
email: [email protected]