According to Middle East expert Volker Perthes, the phrase "Arab Spring" is misleading because the Arab World is only at the start of what will be a prolonged period of change. Perthes identifies four factors that will have a major influence on how things develop in the region
In the twelve months that have passed since the overthrow of Tunisia's dictator, Ben Ali, and Egypt's head of state, Mubarak, it has become clear that the return to politics in the states of the Arab world is a complex, often bloody and above all protracted process that has just begun.
Many people spoke of the "Arab Spring". However, this term is seasonal; it creates feelings of impatience and fosters disappointment.
Experience in other regions of upheaval where authoritarian systems were forced to make way for pluralistic or democratic systems indicates that the Arab world is still in the first five minutes of the latest hour of its history. Four factors that are likely to shape the future course of events deserve attention, and in particular the attention of Europe.
The influence of socio-demographic developments
The first group of factors are socio-demographic developments. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab states were sustained first and foremost by 20- to 35-year-olds. Although this age group is better trained than the previous generation, it has fewer opportunities than older and younger generations.
The political upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has done absolutely nothing to improve the social and economic conditions that caused so much suffering in this generation in particular. Moreover, the people of the "2011 generation", the revolutionary part of this generation, did not necessarily emerge as the winners of the elections that have since taken place.
For this reason, we should not be too surprised if this generation continues to challenge transition governments and newly elected authorities. In all likelihood, Europe's main task will be to help these states that are in transformation to give this generation real opportunities for work and participation. We should not overlook the fact that the progression of socio-demographic developments in the various states of the region will be similar but not simultaneous.
For example, a generation that is comparable to the "2011 generation" in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria is only now growing in Saudi Arabia; it will only reach the peak of its strength in a few years.
The role of the military
The second factor is the military. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the military played a positive role by allowing the people to revolt against their authoritarian rulers. In Syria and Yemen, the course of the uprisings will largely be determined by the behaviour of considerable sections of the military. In the Arab world, people often have more faith in the military than in the government; in many cases, it is even a factor of national unity.
That being said, the military is not a neutral and certainly not a democratic player. As is currently evident in Egypt, it has its own interests.
The military leaders have no concept of modern governance or the demands of a globalized economy. The military can prevent chaos and civil war and ensure the transition to a new political order. However, it is not equipped to play a role in a democracy.
For this reason, the EU and NATO should neither court nor ignore the members of the Arab military, but instead engage them in a targeted manner. The states of Central and Eastern Europe in particular, which are now members of NATO, have a particularly important role to play in this respect, namely by sharing their own experiences of reforming their armed forces after a regime change. Nevertheless, the influence of external players should not be overestimated.
Political Islam as a decisive factor
The third factor is political Islam. It is probable that in future, other countries in the Arab world will become more democratic and more conservative at the same time.
The elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco have shown that Islamist parties of different hues not only have broad grassroots support, they also have the edge when it comes to moral reputation. As the political systems open up, the range of political Islamic groups broadens. Instead of being bonded together by political repression, political Islam will itself become more pluralistic.
Above all, this raises the question as to how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or other representatives of the political Islamic mainstream will develop when faced with Salafi competition that is inspired by Saudi Wahabi Islam. Will they become outwardly more conservative in order to win over the Salafis, losing the political centre in the process? Or will they try to seek pragmatic answers to social and economic problems in order to establish themselves as a conservative religious people's party along the lines of the AKP in Turkey?
The best way for Europe to support the latter would be for it to offer open support based on partnership to new governments in North Africa and the Middle East that have been elected in free elections – regardless of their political leanings.
The final factor is regional geopolitics: the upheaval and continuing revolts have had an effect on the dynamics of the region. Egypt, Turkey and the small yet resource-rich state of Qatar, for example, are playing a much more active role in the region than they used to.
The Arab League, which long acted as a club of autocrats, has become a regional organization whose responsibility does not stop at the borders of its member states. Naturally, there are also geopolitical motives behind the steps the league has taken against the Syrian regime.
Israel in particular is having difficulty dealing with the changes happening all around it. Israel fears – and not unjustifiably either – that democratic elections in its neighbouring countries could usher anti-Israeli groups into power. However, instead of seeking to gain the trust of other Arab states by pursuing an active peace policy towards the Palestinians, the current Israeli government is increasingly manoeuvring the country into isolation.
For this and other reasons, new regional crises are a foregone conclusion. In view of the fact that the USA has abdicated its role in Middle East policy at least for this election year, the expectations on Europe will increase. What is needed is crisis management in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, greater efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear conflict with Iran and efforts to foster conditions in Syria that would allow for peaceful change and prevent civil war.
© Qantara.de 2012
Volker Perthes is an expert on the Middle East and director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de