Interview with Arnold Hottinger

"There's a New Non-ideological Political Power in the Arab World"

The uprisings in the Arab world have to a certain extent turned existing political systems upside down in the authoritarian states of the region. The Middle East expert Arnold Hottinger talks to Mona Sarkis about the consequences of the protests, and what is likely to happen in the future

Arnold Hottinger (photo: Mona Sarkis)
The end of ideology: Middle East expert Arnold Hottinger has observed a "deep change in mentality" in the Arab world

​​ Dr. Hottinger, Egypt and Tunisia are the Arab countries which, as you put it, have the "first act" behind them, and have toppled their dictators. They now face the second act. What might that look like in Egypt?

Arnold Hottinger: The army there took over power with promises, but it's not yet clear whether the Egyptians will get what they wanted: genuine elections, free political parties, freedom of information, an independent judiciary. The army, whose commanders are deeply rooted in the existing system, is not used to having to submit itself to the state. At the same time, it has to take account of the feeling in the lower ranks. The lieutenants think much the same as the students, and, unlike the army command, they don't have positions or privileges to defend. That's why the army didn't shoot at the demonstrators: it wanted to prevent the possibility of a split within its own ranks.

The main issue is now: when will there be elections, and what will they be for? A president, a parliament, or a new constitution? It's too early to speculate about individual candidates, like Amr Moussa or Mohammad elBaradei. They don't have parties, and it will depend on when the elections take place as to how well they're organised. You can't build real democratic structures from one day to the next. On the other side, you have the economy, and the economic issues work in exactly the opposite direction: the longer the transition takes, the less likely there is to be, for example, foreign investment, which is very important for the country.

You mention elBaradei und Moussa – in the West people tend rather to speculate, sometimes in a very tendentious way, about the chances of the Muslim Brotherhood.

photo: dpa
The fear of the Muslim Brotherhood is great in Europe. Hottinger finds that "laughable." The Muslim Brothers are a diverse group which stands for democratic values, he says. Pictured: Mohammed Badie, head of the Muslim Brotherhood

​​ Hottinger: Europeans think they have a political understanding of the Muslim Brothers. That's nonsense, because the Muslim Brothers are in the process of splitting. There are those who want democracy – the others want democracy too, but in an Islamic form. In addition there are breakaway groups like "Wassat", who aren't Muslim Brothers at all any more, and they also stand for basic democratic ideals. This fear of the Muslim Brothers is laughable. They are no longer the bogeymen which they were perhaps in 1949.

What effect might the fall of Mubarak have on policy towards Gaza?

Hottinger: The peace agreement with Israel will continue, but an elected parliament will without doubt not maintain the blockade of Gaza. This would accelerate the loss of power of Fatah, which has already started, and could benefit the pragmatists in Hamas.

Libya is still fighting to free itself from Ghaddafi – and many people fear a civil war there.

Hottinger: It seems to me that we already have a civil war, although it's being fought with light arms and not with heavy weapons. Ghaddafi can't send his tanks to the east; there's a good chance that many of his troops would change sides, and he knows that. That's why he's deploying them only in the area he already controls, around Tripoli or in Azzawiya. All he has left are the African mercenaries – the troop he established during the war in Chad. So a no-fly zone would be useful, so long as it wasn't restricted to the Mediterranean coast, but also extended to the southern area of the country in the Sahara.

But the Americans are over-extended, they don't want to get involved in another war, and they say to the Europeans, "Go on, do it yourselves." The Europeans say, "OK," but, as usual, they get bogged down in the details of agreements and organisations.

Insurgents in Libya (photo: dapd)
Hottinger believes that the current situation in Libya qualifies as a civil war. A no-fly zone would benefit the rebels, but there isn't enough international support for it yet

​​ While it appears that the whole population in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are demonstrating, the situation in Yemen seems to be different.

Hottinger: Yes, that's why it's more political and less sociological. In Yemen, I also see the danger of a "failed state." The situation is very complex. It's clear that the south wants to secede. But it's not clear if that's also the aim of the Ismaili-Shiite Hutis in the north. I'm not even sure if all the Saidis agree. Either way, the Saidi tribes have had to put up with a long history of foreign domination, and they want more power for themselves now. That is clearly one of the reasons behind the protests by the Hutis.

But I don't know whether they, as a Saidi sect, have their own ideological aims, or whether we're seeing a Saidi resistance to the central power of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a. Saleh has been playing the tribal game very successfully for decades. If he goes, there's no-one who can do that as well as he can.

The tribal element will remain, since Yemen is far too varied to allow a normal democracy to be established. At the same time, the non-tribal population – the urban dwellers, the students – is larger than the tribes, and that will weaken them in the long term. It is the non-tribal population which is the main element in the demonstrations. The army still seems to support Saleh. But Yemen is politically divided and economically exhausted. There are shortages of water, money, petrol. And it's unlikely that someone can come along who can hold all that together.

In Syria the situation seems particularly calm, in Saudi-Arabia there have been only isolated incidents, but in Jordan there seems to be a genuine struggle for power.

Protests in Jordan (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
There's protest too in Jordan: the king rules on his own and relies on the support of the wealthy Palestinian elite, while the majority is suffering from increasing commodity prices

​​ Hottinger: The crucial point in Jordan is: will there be a regime in which the king is involved, or will he rule the country on his own, as he has done until now. In addition to the concentration of power, he has also angered the Jordanian tribes in that he has let himself be supported by an "upper class" of Palestinian families. Economically speaking, they are often more competent and have succeeded in getting rich more quickly. They are the only source of financial support for the royal family. The Jordanians don't like that, they feel that the country belongs to them. And, at the same time, the ordinary people are having to cope with rising food prices.

If one considers the many other conflicts in the region – Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, and also Iran – one might think that 2011 will be the 1989 of the Middle East.

Hottinger: It won't happen that fast. But something has started. There's a new non-ideological political power such as there has never been before in the Arab world. All of a sudden, the people don't talk about nationalism or Islamism, they talk about concrete things like freedom of opinion or a functioning parliament which will provide the framework for a sensible economy. This revolution reminds me rather of Germany in 1848: that revolution may have failed and we ended up with the German Empire for a time, but it led to a deep change in mentality which took root in the people. That's what will happen in the Arab world.

Interview: Mona Sarkis

© Qantara.de 2011

Arnold Hottinger was born in Basle, Switzerland, in 1926. Between 1961 and 1991 he reported on the Arab and Muslim world for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung from Beirut, Madrid und Nikosia. Among his books are "The Arabs: Their History, Culture and Place in the Modern World", (new edition, 1982), as well as, in German, "Gottesstaaten und Machtpyramiden" ("Theocracies and Power Structures" – 2000), "Islamische Welt" ("The Muslim World" – 2004) und "Die Länder des Islam" ("The Countries of Islam" – 2008).

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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