“Arab Awakening”: Divergence In The Arab World – Analysis


By Ravi Sundaralingam

‘Arab Awakening’ is how the turbulent events in the Middle East collectively described by some Arab scholars and many commentators. They go on to make some bold statements such as, “Failure cannot be a prefix for Arabs”, “Suggestion that Islam and democracy are incompatible are proven to be wrong”.

In the wake of the ‘liberation of yet another Arab country’, Libya, the real meaning of the terms Arab world, democracy, Islam, and ownership, which are very much at the centre of “Arab Awakening” would go though serious analysis. Meanwhile, the implications of the events for the region, and those around it would also be subject to much speculation.

Brief notes on ‘Arab awakening’ (Dec 2010 – Aug 2011)

Egypt: Only procedural amendments to the constitution pushed through a referendum after “six days of debates and discussions on TV channels”, in a country where for forty years no discussion on ‘politics’ was allowed. Former army friends, the military consortium running the country, wheeled Mubarak to the court on his “death bed” charged for ordering the killing of the protestors.

The “democracy now” protesters are now caught between the junta and the Islamic Brotherhood.

New rulers have ‘relaxed’ attitude towards the Gazans, which has a negative implication to the Israelis. No fundamental change in its relationship with the West.

Libya: Just as Saddam’s regime Gadaffi’s was never a strategic for the West impediment since the collapse of the ‘communist world’, even for the support he had given to global ‘terrorism’, including the support to rid the apartheid regime.

Instead, his malleability, non-ideological and ‘maverick’ nature, as a spoiler in the Arab League, and as the feudal lord of the world’s 2% oil wealth were helpful to maintain ‘stability’.

However, his ‘Africanism’ and spread of influence towards the south were irritations for the West and others, who have designs in the resources rich ‘Black Africa’.

As Saudis sent their troops into Bahrain to suppress Shia majority’s demand for democracy, the US 5th Fleet stationed there started pounding Gaddafi’s army, and his palaces. France-UK were already well placed on the ground organising some tribes and presenting military activities for the ‘rebels’. Some US leaders disaffected by the France-UK lead in the North Africa, but use provides required military support without much noise.

One time champion of Nasser’s pan-Arab Nationalism, Gaddafi is friendless in the region. Saudi Arabia, place of refuge for the like of Idi Amin Dada, conqueror of the British Empire, alleged cannibal, who deported the entire Asian population from Uganda to the UK, wouldn’t show mercy.

The changes in Egypt, and few adjustments in Tunisia and other North African nations, meant Gaddafi’s usefulness is overstated and Libya seems to be an important piece in a big puzzle.

Tunisia: Elections to a Constituent Assembly to be held on 23 Oct 2011, general election postponed. Party that ruled until now is dissolved.

Morocco: Arab Awakening has induced a reforms in Morocco, where the king has gifted the parliament with more power, and recognised the “rights” of the local tribes, but kept the control of the military, security, and executive control for himself.

Algeria: No changes, except for the removal of 19 year old emergency rule.

Bahrain: One the other side of the Red sea Saud family, owners of the oil filled peninsula in the desert was sending its troops to help its Bahrainian cousins suppress the Shia majority’s call for democracy.

Yemen: where thousands of people were on the streets daily to demand the removal of the dictator Abdallah Saleh, and had even an armed rebellion by the tribal coalition the dictator belonged there is eerie clam prevails, and Ali is still conducting business from his convalescing bed in Saudi Arabia.

Syria: In the northern corner of the ‘Arab land’ another tyrant, son of the previous tyrant, is putting up a fierce for survival killing thousands of ‘rebels’ with the support of his Iranian friends. ‘Arab brothers’ have also disowned Assad, it seems. Insult to the intelligence may be, the Kingdom actually withdrew its ambassador from Syria in protest against its treatment of the protestors.

In view of these developments, how much of the claim about Arabs and, Islam and democracy in the Middle East are factual and how much is wishful thinking, is a debate that is bound to start at some point.

However, outside ‘Arab world’ watchers may have noticed a few points they really didn’t expect.

“Syria is not Libya or Saudi Arabia”, means more than that meets the eyes.


The ‘all-round’ development of a society/country is reflected by the methods adopted by the protesters in each country, and the degree to which Muslims are willing to accept ‘democracy’ as part of their lives, despite the apparent arguments against it in the holy texts.

Not all Muslims societies will accommodate ‘Jihadi’ way to give oneself up for a cause. Some may have learned from its mistakes, counting the human and material costs alone. Perhaps, they realised by giving their lives up without even a thought of taking another life serves their particular situation.

Unless some stories from the regime are credible, the bravery of the Syrians is rarely seen in history. Only Indian independent, South African anti-apartheid and Palestinian Intifada struggles come to mind. Face the tanks and the snipers unarmed, knowing some amongst won’t definitely return home, but still believing in the cause and non-violent methods, one needs unimaginable amount of bravery and human quality, which can only be gifts to the humanity.

These developments alone have deeper meaning and far reaching implications for countries and people everywhere in the 3rd world.

Connection, hopes, Arab bifurcation

France and UK, the old colonial allies in the Suez campaign, now with new historic strategic and military understanding, seemed to have taken charge of the affairs in North Africa, while US paying is heed to the events beyond the Red Sea.

Growing demand for better quality of life have introduced new factors to the evolving dynamical relations within countries and the region, which will no doubt condition the local/global powers in their decisions. How they are different in different zones will eventually decide the trajectories of the individual countries and the region.

Is it then possible to find connections between characteristically different events, which apparently have sequential relationships? Lumping a few observations together with an idealised divisive line couldn’t lead anyone to anything.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” observed Tolstoy. Perhaps, it is easier to find common features when analysing successes. Or we may become so preoccupied with success we may have lost our ability to understand unhappiness. May be, Syrians have seen the connection for allowing its Kurdish population stripped of citizenship and their lives under Assad clan’s emergency since 1963. Libyans perhaps, see their backwardness and tribal conditions for all the petrol money, in relation to their life under Gadaffi’s dictatorship during the same time period.

The terms ‘Arab world’ or Middle East hardly do justice to the social, economical, ‘psychological’, and ethnic differences among the Arab speaking societies.

If there are lines due to them differentiating the ‘Arab people’ into ‘regional groups’, we can note in their history, ethnicity, social advancements, and expectations the North African communities are vastly different to those in the Arabian peninsular, and the northerners are far removed from them both.

This generalisation of the political processes and history, and the strategic condition that varies, allow us to recognise two separate, but interlinked trends in the ‘Arab world’, (i) a graded process of ‘democratisation’ and (ii) a process of strategic reorganisation.


Democratisation of the third world is an uncomfortable proposition for any power, not only the West; corrupt, unaccountable dictatorial government is always preferred. If such process takes hold in a country all would ‘work together’ to put a break on it, and reverse it if possible, unless there are tangible advantages for pressing an issue. When a whole region affected it requires a regional strategic plan within a global program, and ‘working together’ is an impossibility. Disadvantaged powers have to ‘manage’ the ‘damage’ and wait for different factors to emerge when the “dust settle”.

All are aware how imperialist West assassinated every democratic leader in the 3rd world, and destroyed the possibility of even planting a seed of democracy. Western people however have been ensured of its privileges, we would argue subsidised by the powerless in every society and, in particular the people of the 3rd world. Their middle classes in the 3rd world have always appreciated the fruits of democracy, often mistaking them for the affluence of the West, until the value of human rights are incorporated into the definitions of democracy.

The reorganisation of the global economy has made the West less dependent on the cheap raw materials, but the ‘free capital’ in its possession is always looking for cheap labour. Further, the conversion of the old ‘socialist systems’ into (i) serving, therefore, dependant and (ii) competing primarily for material resources, therefore, strategically opposing, capitalist economies. West has succeeded with its consistent effort to make the ‘security council’ irrelevant and thereby, the UN redundant. That meant only its arms on the ground such as UNHC, are considered useful by the West to any process along with NATO, and parallel global/regional strategic/economic organisations.

As a result, the West can turn the history on its head and appoint itself as the Tsar of ‘democracy’ of the world, in its new crusade, with human rights as a weapon to further its ‘interests’.

Having spent the post ww2 period supporting national and social struggles, Russia and China, have their roles reversed as new-capitalists. Always repressive and anti-democratic at home, they are now forced to fend or prop up ideologically dilapidated/ failing regimes for ‘strategic reasons’, but mostly commercial reasons.

West can take advantage of all these, and the differences in dynamics in the ‘Arab world therefore, is in a position to reshape the strategic conditions in the region; similar to the opportunity it had at the turn of the 20th Century.

Different trajectories in the ‘Arab world’

The collapse of the Euro into its natural north European zone may be a blow to the vision of a EU wide financial zone. Despite false accounting, banks collapses and printing paper money at will, the Dollar has been retained as the world currency, one of the consequences of the US invasion of Iraq. However, sluggish economy, debt, challenge from other economic powers have also weakened US’s position as the absolute power.

These offer the prospect of (i) effective leadership, taken up by the UK-France-Germany in a financial and UK-France strategic alliances, (ii) greater cooperation and flexibility with the US, and (iii) enlarging the EU zone.

Given these conditions and providing our reasoning have connection to realities we can envisage two different strategic developments in the region: (i) Extension of the EU security zone, and (ii) Arab zone in the Indian Ocean.

EU and North Africa

The North Africans have a closer relationship with Europe. In the classical times they were an integral part of the Greek and Roman empires. Many works assumed to be by Greeks or Romans were by Moorish scholars, who had adopted Greek or Latin names. The Moors built the first university in Europe and, many classics considered fundamental to European ‘renaissance’ were actually recovered from Moorish translations. The Moors ruled most of Europe, and their influence can be seen everywhere. It shouldn’t not be a surprise to see, even the Islamic parties of the region accepting European influence and embracing democracy as a means for their empowerment.

It is therefore reasonable to consider the British-French direct intervention in the context of past including the colonial time, together with the aspirations of the North Africans, a construct a path away their cousins on the other side of the Red Sea.

If so, one can speculate the events in the region as part of a process of integration, (i) to advance from the tribal conditions to integrate their aspirations through national institutions, and (ii) for increasingly closer relationship with Europe, and a ‘practical’ union within EU.

There have always been attempts, though fanciful at times, from classical to colonial times to integrate the North African landmasses with the Europe.

Eastward expansion of EU has now come to its natural end, and its real power zones and borders are properly established. Those within it have subscribed to the very basic ideal of democracy and a capitalist economy.

For the affluent communities in EU, the supply of cheap labour to maintain the services within, and for production elsewhere to maintain the ‘way of life’ have been the primary concern. With it the problem of ‘regulating’ immigration has also become an important issue, which finds expressions through the enactment of immigration laws and racialist or anti-Islamic rhetoric.

EU’s eastward expansion has helped to contain Asian immigration, as those in the ‘front line’ are now members with incentives, and with vast surplus labour pools in direct competition with non-European immigrants.

However, its Southern borders are open seas and too porous, and those at the front line have logistical difficulties and lack the resources to prevent humans and contrabands reaching the mainland. North African states are used, and the bureaucrats have the financial incentive to encourage them as transit points for the African migration into Europe, a particular problem for the UK-France and Germany.

Therefore, extending EU’s southern borders to include North Africa, with different immigration and economical relations afforded to its recent members, would make sense on this issue alone.

There are other incentives such as fuel security, productive use of the semi-skilled human resource, etc, go without elaboration, all associate purely with commercial activities.

If oil & gas and uranium deposits are abundant in these areas, only few miles away from Europe, why should EU be held to ransom by the Russians or compete with others in the Central Asia?

‘Black Africa’ will be now on the EU border where the competition for its fertile lands and natural resources are becoming hotter. French, unlike Britain have maintained direct colonial grip outside the North African ‘Arab’ borders, especially in central Africa, which is an advantage. Their military presence in most these countries would help to strengthen EU’s new border and its control over the vast natural riches of central Africa.

On the social front, if South Africans, Filipinos and Indians can man the call centres, why waste the human resources at the doorstep, allowing them to breed Islamic extremism and anti-West sentiments?

However, encouraging the process of integration within and into EU, and creating an Extended EU Security zone have greater advantages for the West and other global powers. Perhaps, that would explain the reason for the support from all in Libya to rid of Gaddafi.

We should also note, how the Red Sea geographically& historically and Israeli-Egypt peace treaty strategically mark the bifurcation of the process in the ‘Arab world’.

It will separate the processes in the conservative Arab lands on the other side of the Red Sea, which will ‘free’ the global/regional powers to focus on the newly emerging strategic situations in the Indian Ocean.

It will also give fuel security to EU and others, by being in control of it supply side thereby, the strategic dependency on the Arab peninsular, which alone has many implications to the region and the world.

It will help to moderate the reach of the regional ambitions of Turkey and Iran.

It will allow the Israel-Palestinian-Lebanon conflict to be addressed within a NATO guaranteed EU ‘political framework’, stretching the arguments applied in Kosovo.

Arab zone in the Indian Ocean

It is the development among the North African ‘Arabs’ and Syria that separates the dynamics the rest of the ‘Arab world’ as a different entity.

The process in the Arab peninsular, other than Bahrain, is different in every aspect to that in the North Africa or Syria. Installed by the British and propped up by the West and petrol billions, the Sunni kingdoms and principalities see themselves as the bastion of Islam and Islamic culture. Unlike the situation in the North African states including Egypt, there are no moderate Islamic alternatives here; state Islamism and radical militant Islamism are the two choices.

Their opposition to Shia power of Iran and its affiliates, and commitment Sunni Islamic states against all others are a help and hindrance in the long run for the West. Nevertheless, the West will go along with these ultra conservatives until the next phase of events dictate it otherwise.

Since Indian Ocean is a vast area with numerous regions and zones, with many competing global powers, drawing any conclusions from the events in the ‘Arab world’ is almost impossible.

(The author is the Academic Secretary of ASATiC- E-Address: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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