Much of the hope and fervor aroused in the Arab world by the revolutions of 2011 had, by the spring of 2012, been dispelled. Instead, disillusion and anxiety are now widespread, together with growing economic hardship.
On the surface, the revolutions have radically transformed the political landscape by ousting leaders who had dominated their respective countries for decades--Muammar Gaddafi in Libya since 1969; Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen since 1978; Hosni Mubarak in Egypt since 1981 and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia since 1987. Although battered and destabilized, Syria's Bashar Assad has so far managed to survive the uprising in his country. Yet much the same forces that toppled the others have challenged him. The Assads, father and son, have been in power since 1970, and the Baath Party they head since 1963. These long tenures of power have inevitably led to widespread abuses and political fossilization. A radical reform of the Syrian political system, whether led by Assad or someone else, seems unavoidable.
The revolutions are the result of the coming of age of a new Arab generation for whom the old leaders--with their autocratic habits, one-party systems and corrupt entourage--had become an intolerable anachronism. Activists of this new generation were the rebellious leaders of the so-called "youth bulge", which has afflicted every Arab country almost without exception. Arab fertility rates in the last half century have been too high. When Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in Egypt in 1952 there were 18 million Egyptians; today there are 85 million--a demographic explosion that country after country across the region can match.
Economic growth has been unable to keep pace with the needs of rapidly expanding populations. Overburdened government services are unable to cope, especially in the fields of health and education. Most important of all, jobs have become very scarce. The main motor driving the "Arab spring" has been the frustrations of semi-educated youth for whom there are no jobs, together with the glaring grievances of urban and rural poor, who see no prospects of a better life for themselves and their families.
The post-revolutionary awakening has been rude. In several countries, especially in Egypt and Yemen, powerful vestiges of the old regimes are still in place, while the economic situation in all of them is today a good deal worse than it was under the old dictators. Egypt and Tunisia have lost their vital tourist income, together with inward investment. Indeed, capital has fled. Yemen, the poorest of Arab countries, afflicted by armed uprisings in both north and south, is a "failed state", dependent on charity from its Gulf neighbors. Libya has substantial oil resources but has yet to tame warring warlords or produce a coherent government whose writ covers the whole country. Syria's economy has suffered severe damage from a 13-month uprising and from international sanctions. Trade is virtually at a standstill and unemployment very high. Those with little or no savings have suffered the most. Even if the current ceasefire holds and a measure of calm is restored, it will take years for tourists and investors to feel confident enough to return.
The Islamic wave sweeping the region as a result of post-revolutionary elections has attracted much foreign concern. What sort of rule is to be expected from the Muslim Brothers who, in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia--and of course in Syria as well--have been repressed for decades, their leaders imprisoned or driven into exile? Will they seek to impose Islamic sharia? Will cultural life and the status of women be affected? Will they be hostile to western interests?
In fact, the Islamists are unlikely to have an easy ride in power. They will have to wrestle with severe economic problems. Their electorate is bound to be disappointed when they fail to show speedy results. In addition, they will also have to reckon with forces in society who will not welcome their advent. In Tunisia, western-educated middle classes will act as a counterweight to the Islamists; in Egypt, the army is likely to keep the Muslim Brothers on a fairly tight rein; in Syria, hard-core Islamists face strong opposition from minorities such as Alawites, Christians and Druze, as well as from the professional and merchant classes in the big cities.
Nevertheless, the electoral triumph of the Muslim Brothers in country after country does point to a rejection by the Arab masses of a western model of society. In states like Egypt and across North Africa, there is a palpable yearning for the revival of an Arab-Muslim identity, with its own social norms, family values and cultural traditions.
To that extent, is it far-fetched to see the Arab spring as only the latest phase of the long-aborted Arab struggle for independence?-Published 19/4/2012 © bitterlemons.org
Patrick Seale has written numerous books on the Middle East. His latest is "The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East" (Cambridge University Press).