By Riad Kahwaji
Changes that have been sweeping the Arab world since December 2010, toppling one authoritarian regime after the other, placed global powers, especially in the West, in a very sensitive and uncomfortable spot. While most people would expect the West to be thrilled to see the wave of freedom and democracy finally spreading in the Middle East, nevertheless the mixed reactions and cautious statements by Western officials to ongoing events in the Arab world have revealed the level of concern these democracies have in seeing changes brought about by the people of the region instead of the foreign powers or the elite (political and military) of these states. Most Arab countries gained their independence in the first half of the last century, with few in the Gulf gaining it in the seventies. Change in some of these countries was brought about by military coup-de-tats that first overthrew monarchies and later fellow military dictators. The current wave of revolutions in the Arab world is carried out by the masses, and not just replacing leaders, but eradicating regimes that ruled for three or four decades. The predominantly domestic agenda of the rebels is yet to impact the foreign policies of the regimes.
The United States and Europe have specific interests in the Middle East region that dictate their actions and policies. These interests, voiced and repeatedly reiterated by Western officials over the past years, appear to be in the following order: Safety and Security of Israel; Accessibility and Security of Oil and Gas Fields; Establishment of Free-Market Economies and Systems and Sustaining Them; Securing Consumer Markets for Western Industries; and Spreading Freedom and Democracy. Arab dictatorships and authoritarian regimes were able to do behind-the-scene pacts with the West to protect their interests in return for providing the dictators with needed international legitimacy and recognition. For these dictatorships foreign legitimacy was more important than internal legitimacy that was secured through an iron fist policy. Some of these authoritarian regimes, like Tunisia, were until recently being described by American officials as a bastion of democracy. Such international legitimacy helped these Arab regimes strive and survive for many years with a formula that protected and secured Western interests.
But now all has changed. The masses have the power and seem to be leading the change in the direction of free and democratic regimes where governments will be very sensitive to public opinion. Hence if the people felt that some or all Western interests are in conflict with their ambitions and national interests, the governments will have to go with the people’s wishes. Recent referendum on constitutional changes in Egypt revealed a new reality and that is from now on elections and referendums in the Arab world will not be predetermined beforehand as used to be during the time of dictatorships where all elections were rigged. Nobody knows who would win in future general elections, and whether winners would help protect Western interests as Washington and European capitals might desire. So for all analysts who are trying to make predictions as to how events could unfold in any future elections and in political transformation should halt and step back and press the reset button to take into consideration all the new realities on the ground that would likely produce new different strategic landscape and political formula.
Future relations with Israel and the fate of the Middle East peace process are at turning points at the moment. Arab masses that have become more powerful and influential in their own respective countries strongly oppose the current extreme right wing Israeli government’s harsh policies of settlement building in the Palestinian territories and the excessive use of force against Palestinian cities and continued occupation of Arab land. The Arab street is also very critical of U.S. and EU policies towards the Israel-Palestinian struggle. Israel is now concerned about its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan in light of ongoing developments. Israel is also as worried about the impact of any change in Syria on the situation in the occupied Golan Heights. Although the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad is yet to sign a peace treaty with Israel, however, it has kept the Golan front calm and stable since the end of the 1973 War. So, this stability in Golan could come to an end if the current popular revolt in Syria succeeds in overthrowing the Assad regime, as many analysts expect. Eventually Arab public aspirations and feelings would impact decision-making and new policies would emerge that would be more critical of Israeli actions and the Western biased stance in favor of Israel. Under such conditions chances of an Arab-Israeli war would be much larger than it was before last December when Arab dictators kept things in check. However, if Israel and the West were to change their policies and return to the land-for-peace formula soon, they could post huge gains and sign peace treaties with governments that enjoy strong legitimacy domestically, and hence peace would be real with a bigger chance of normalization.
There is no telling when the current Arab revolts and revolutions will end and how different the next Arab governments will be. We could be at the start of uprisings and changes that will alter the whole security situation in the region. Foreign powers should observe and weigh the situation weekly if not daily to be able to analyze and assess. There is a new momentum and new players on the scene, and more is expected in the coming weeks and months. Each step by the West in the region must be well-calculated and must take into consideration the empowered masses. The old ways of managing things and conflicts in the region are no longer viable and should be changed soon if the West is to see its interests preserved and protected. Otherwise, future Arab governments will slowly move away from the West and turn East, and will abandon peace with Israel and head towards war. It would be such an irony to see the free and democratic West drift away from the Arab world just when the latter starts becoming free and democratic.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA