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The impact of the Arab Spring on global stability

Read more on:  Arab spring, Mideast, Global stability

12:31 14/09/2011
On Tahrir Square in Cairo

The uprisings taking place in the Middle East collectively known as the Arab Spring are the most pressing issue on today’s international agenda, which undoubtedly will have ramifications for the global stability.

On the local level (Arab countries)

The revolutions in the Arab countries had not been anticipated, as the authoritarian regimes were mainly concerned about Islamic organizations. The surprising background for the revolutionary process was socio-economic, coupled with demands for political freedom. This time, foreign  and defense aspects played minor roles.

In the Arab countries that are currently experiencing revolutionary unrest a well-established political orientation is not readily discernable. However, it does not look like it is the end of the process. While future developments remain unclear, what is evident is that forces in the region are not operating in a vacuum. The following forces are competing for leadership:

1. Democratic forces: they are present and may become a reality. However, currently, the likelihood that the rebels will become sufficiently organized to assume political leadership is not very high. Nonetheless, one cannot rule out the possibility of the rise of the democratic forces in some of the countries.

2. Islamic organizations: the most powerful, influential and organized force in the majority of the countries in the region (be it the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jihadist or other radical groups). The question is whether the Islamic elements throughout the course of the revolutions have turned out to be a decisive factor. It seems that they are players in the ongoing events and in the future they will play a more active role while biding their time.

3. The military: In some places the military have returned to the forefront of the political stage. It is possible that military regimes will emerge in certain countries.

4. The old regimes: There is also a possibility that some of the existing regimes will survive but they will have to establish renewed legitimacy.

It seems that in the given reality in the Arab countries, the real potential power is in the hands of different Islamic organizations. Their possible integration into future governments, at the very least, will lead to their islamization and adoption of increasingly militant positions. Farther into the future, it could result in the fall of the governments into the hands of Islamic forces.

On the Middle East regional level

As a result of the revolutions a new regional reality has been formed in the Middle East. Until recently, in addition to traditional frictions (between religious communities and jihadists), the countries in the region were divided into different camps, competing for regional leadership:

1. The radical anti-western camp, (dubbed the Axis of Evil), supported by certain countries and creating challenges before the international community;

2. The moderate camp, which was made up of the pro-western countries of the region.

Today, a conspicuous fact is that each country in the region is preoccupied with its own domestic affairs. There is hardly any connection between different countries and very little mutual assistance taking place (with the exception of Iran, which is meddling in other countries’ affairs and providing aid to the Syrian regime). In essence, a regional vacuum is being created, which the new local powers will try to fill and create a new regional order.

There are a number of alternatives:

1. The ascendancy of democratic regimes: Even if they do not become absolutely liberal, their exit from the regional radical circle will result in the weakening of the radical forces, including Iran. The regional weight of Egypt and Syria may also decline. As a result of the Assad regime’s fall, the situation will change in Lebanon as well. In this scenario there is a possibility of a regional reorganization that will be moderate and pro-western.

2. In contrast, there is a possibility that the ongoing situation is playing into the hands of the radical camp. That is because the shock that has been inflicted on the moderate countries shows that the backing of the West is problematic and the moderate camp is crumbling.

3. Under certain circumstances Turkey or Saudi Arabia may act to fill the void and work to solidify the region under its leadership. In that case the scenario will be also Islamic but not a radical one.

At least for the moment the likelihood that the region will be reorganized in accordance with the moderate scenario is evenly balanced with the possibility of the radical scenario.

On the global level

In the present time, what is clear to the international community is, that these forces are operating in the region in a new and unknown reality, which will force them to adopt a different attitude.

Generally, the international community believes that what is being done  in the region is correct in order to advance the democratic agenda and to influence future stability, even through the use of force. However, the superpowers’ involvement in the region has given rise to competition among them.

Currently, Russia and to some extent, China, are competing with the West regarding the shaping of the region’s future order. They are acting to advance their own regional and international interests initiating an independent policy of foreign intervention in the region, including by blocking western powers and providing support to some of the region’s regimes.

The western countries are preoccupied with internal problems, which makes arriving at a regional solution difficult and also hinders its diplomatic maneuverability. It is important to bear in mind the cohesion of the western camp as well as the increasing weakness of the U.S. in the region, at least in the eyes of certain players.

Clearly, a new era of competition among the superpowers for influence in this as yet disorganized region as part of the future world order has begun.

To summarize:

It seems that the achievements of the Arab Spring social revolutions are gradually turning into challenges, creating the potential for world instability on all levels, for the following reasons:

1. On the local level, most of the authoritarian regimes will fall or weaken. The possibility that democratic regimes will emerge exists but it is not very likely. What appears to be more likely at the moment is that Islamic anti-western regimes in some form or another and military regimes integrated with Islamic elements will prevail.  The rising power of radical elements is challenging the overall international order.

2. On the regional level, the possible struggle for regional hegemony of the "new" regional power, mainly Islam oriented, is expected to rock regional stability and to lead to international involvement due to negative implications for global stability.

3. On the global level, the competition among the superpowers over regional influence in the Middle East has the potential to lead to global instability through the expansion of this competition to new areas.

However, if Islamic forces seize the power in the region and violence continues the world will change in many ways, creating the potential for global instability.

It seems that at this time it is in the interest of the international community to bring peace to the region and encourage the democratic forces there.


Zwi Magen is Research Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.

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