By Arab News
By Talmiz Ahmad
The dramatic developments across the Middle East over the last year, which have witnessed the toppling of four longstanding Arab regimes, ongoing civil strife in Syria, and heightened regional and international concerns pertaining to Iran, affirm that some very significant changes are taking place across the Middle East. However, a closer scrutiny would suggest that in the present scenarios there is more continuity than significant breaks with the past.
Expressions of popular dissatisfaction with the existing political order across the Middle East have been an ongoing phenomenon over the last 100 years, when people in several parts of the Arab world have robustly articulated a rejection of the political and economic malaise pervasive in their polities. However, till recently, most of these agitations took place within a specific Middle Eastern context, through military-led coups, local ideological upsurges such as Arab socialism and Baathism, and over the last 20 years, through the violence of radical Islamism.
What is new now is not the anger and despair of the people but the fact that their articulations have gone well beyond the specific regional context and, with demands for the universal rights of democracy, freedom and personal dignity, are in fact truly global in character.
In light of these universal aspirations, it would at first glance appear surprising that the recent electoral victories in Tunisia and Egypt have gone to Islamist groups. However, given that Islam forms the basis of the Middle East cultural ethos, the triumph of Islamist groups should not be surprising. Still, it should be noted that what is now sought across the Middle East is not the establishment of Islamic states but societies upholding traditional values while functioning within a democratic political framework. The Islamist groups in power will still have to consolidate their popular base not so much on the basis of appeal to Islam but through successfully meeting challenges such as good governance, economic development and the rights of women and minority groups. In due course, as political consciousness evolves, the traditionalist democrats are likely to be challenged by more liberal, secular-minded political organizations.
As in expressions of dissent in the past, the Arab spring is a rejection of Western domination across the Middle East which was enshrined in the Versailles arrangements after the World War I, and consolidated over decades through mutually beneficial collaborations between the West and local potentates, both traditional and revolutionary. Though Western countries were taken by surprise by events in Tunisia and Egypt, they now appear to have reorganized themselves and remain committed to ensuring their continued hegemony across the Middle East through support to local pro-West elements and direct military interventions, when necessary.
Similarly, in spite of popular ferment within its national borders and in its neighborhood, Israel seems incapable of coming up with fresh ideas to respond to the challenge of the Arab Spring. It continues to expand settlements, retard all attempts to revive the peace process, and harp on the Iranian threat, even as it continues to manipulate the American political system in support of its maximalist agenda. It shows little interest in responding to the political and economic aspirations at its people, whose own “Spring” was extinguished by their leaders by whipping up national frenzy on the enduring “threats” to their country.
The situation relating to Iran, too, remains remarkably similar to that prevailing before the Spring: Israel and the West continue to mouth dire threats of war and destruction, while Iranian leaders retaliate in kind, thus setting the stage for confrontation, and possibly armed conflict. The difference now is that the GCC countries, which had earlier made a valiant effort to engage with Iran and seek to moderate its policies, are now deeply concerned about Iranian interference in their domestic affairs, and have rallied together to confront with Iran across the Middle East.
In a larger historic perspective, the Middle East has been the traditional arena for cooperation and competition amongst the Jews, the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks and the peoples of the West (starting with the Greeks and Roman) for at least two millennia. While, from time to time, allies and enemies have changed, the larger interplay amongst them for space and power has remained the recurring motif of the history of the region. Even now, these peoples continue their contentions, swapping friend and foe to suit immediate interests. In that sense, at least, not much has changed in the region in the midst of the Arab Spring.
The author is the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.