The Pyrrhic Victory of the Arab Old Order

27.02.2017

The old Arab political system’s restoration is a Pyrrhic victory. A considerable effort was spent to stop the Arab Revolution – which may have well ended in violence and chaos anyway – but no viable alternatives were offered. Quite often, the remaining energy is diffused in quixotic battles.

The first three months of 2011 will be remembered as a time of revolution in the Arab World. In almost all of the Arab League’s postcolonial states, people took to the street or expressed their anger online, against a political system that restricted political and economic participation. It was thought, by then, that a Fourth Wave of Democracy was rising. Western – or westernized – observers labeled it the “Arab Spring”, comparing it to events from their own history.

This wishful thinking, of course, vanished away in the course of two years. Although limited reforms were introduced in the social, political and economic systems of most Arab states, many old regimes were able to consolidate their cracks, especially the rich Gulf countries and Algeria, where billions were pumped into the economy. The rest of the region sunk under economic and social constraints, while many young people were seduced by the lure of violent extremism. Civil wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen led to the quasi-destruction of these republics, and the risks of civil strife pushed the Egyptian army to stage a coup in July 2013. The summer of 2013 can therefore be taken as the end-point of the Arab Revolution.

Furthermore, we entered an era marked by popular passion towards nationalism, in opposition to globalization, and an expansion of authoritarian rule, as the anti-thesis of democracy. Such cycles are frequent in history, with city-states becoming empires and then disintegrating into city-states again (Akkad, Athens…), or with republics becoming hereditary empires and vice-versa (Rome, France…), etc. The current global context will therefore benefit the postcolonial Arab political regimes, modeled on nationalism and authoritarianism.

It is nevertheless delusionary to think that the Arab World is back to its pre-2011 condition. The initial hopes for idealistic liberalization may be long gone today, but reality on the ground is changing fast, and not necessarily towards a consolidation of the old order.

Violent extremism is rising among the youth of all Arab countries. Police and military brutality has reached new picks. Civil wars are expanding security threats in the three main parts of the Arab World: Syria/Iraq in the Levant, Yemen/Iraq/Somalia in the Gulf, and Libya in Northern Africa. Inefficient and corrupt bureaucracies are slowing the pace of progress. Non-state actors are burgeoning, and their dynamics are little understood by the ruling juntas, cliques and families. The meddling of foreign and regional powers – Americans, Europeans, Russians, Turks and Iranians – in Arab politics has rarely been so heavy. Internal crises in many of these hegemons, moreover, have economic and security repercussions on their Arab partners. Climate change presages years of drought and heat in the region. Etc.

The old Arab political system’s restoration is, seen from this perspective, a Pyrrhic victory. A considerable effort was spent to stop the Arab Revolution – which may have well ended in violence and chaos anyway – but no viable alternatives were offered. Quite often, the remaining energy is diffused in quixotic battles.

The mid-term future of the Gulf countries, for instance, is threatened by desertification, radicalized and hardly-employable youth, and lack of revenues due to energy resources’ shortages. Yet their governments are diverting their efforts towards preparing war with Iran. Another example is the Maghreb, threatened by the same problems and requiring a joint effort. But the leadership of its two hegemons, Algeria and Morocco, keep fighting over the Western Sahara.

The old Arab system is partly restored, but it cannot survive without internal reforms. It cannot prosper without understanding the frustration of its younger generation, and redrawing its priorities, starting with climate change and scarceness in natural resources. The atmosphere of hatred – of Islamists towards secularists, or of nationalists towards anyone opposing them – needs to be checked, at the level of education textbooks and public broadcasting. As long as these issues are not addressed or simply postponed, the long descent into the abyss will continue.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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