The most striking of the new phenomena has been the triumph of Islamic parties – in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and perhaps one day in Yemen and Syria as well. We don’t yet know how the Islamists will behave in government. Will they adopt the Turkish model of Islam allied to secular democracy, or will they slip back into Salafi fundamentalism?
In the mid-1960s, when I was a foreign correspondent for the London weekly newspaper The Observer , I was sent to follow Zhou Enlai across Africa, ending up in Mogadishu. The prime minister of the People’s Republic of China was an austere figure, very conscious of his own importance. Closely surrounded by his aides, he was not easily approachable. But, in one of our rare conversations, he told me that he had advised Egypt’s ruler, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, to adopt the Chinese model of one child per family. Nasser had replied: ‘I need young fingers to pick the cotton!’
Nasser should perhaps have taken Zhou Enlai’s advice. Egypt’s population statistics are a nightmare. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 there were just 3 million Egyptians; when Nasser took power in 1952, there were 18 million. Today, there are about 83 million, crammed into the Nile Valley and the Delta, on little more than 3% of Egypt’s land area, and increasing by nearly a million every year. The result is that all government services are under great strain, while educational institutions are hugely overcrowded. With rare exceptions, schools and universities turn out semi-educated young people for whom there are no jobs.
Youth unemployment has been the main motor of the revolutions across the Arab world. And unemployment, in turn, is the product of the demographic explosion. Egypt’s experience is mirrored in most Arab countries where, almost without exception, fertility rates remain too high. In Yemen, for example, the rate is over 5 – that is to say more than five children per mother. In 1965, Syria’s population was about 4m; today it is close to 24m. In country after country, unemployed urban and rural poor have been the foot soldiers of the revolution.
In 2011, a young generation happened to come of age just when dictators in several Arab countries were approaching the end of their careers. The situation was thus ripe for an explosion, and should have been predicted. Muammar al-Qadhafi of Libya had ruled since 1969; Ali Abdallah Salih of Yemen since 1978; Husni Mubarak of Egypt since 1981; Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia since 1987 (having replaced Habib Bourguiba who had ruled since 1957). In the Gulf state of Bahrain, Khalifah bin Salman has been the powerful prime minister since 1971, overshadowing his nephew King Hamad, while in Syria Bashar al-Asad has ruled Syria since 2000, having replaced his father Hafez al-Asad who took power in 1970 and ruled for thirty years.
In every case, hungry young protesters, eager for a better life, clashed with autocratic old rulers trying to keep them down. In the West, the Arab Spring has widely been interpreted as a desire for freedom. In fact, the prime demand of the great majority of the protesters has been for good governance rather than democracy – that is to say for jobs, for an end to police brutality, for an end to the excessive privileges of a corrupt class of crony capitalists close to the ruling families. The protesters want a fairer distribution of the country’s resources and a better life for themselves and their children.
Of course, in each country, an educated minority has campaigned for greater political freedom as well –for free expression and a free press, free and fair elections, an end to one-party rule and an independent judiciary. But most Arab countries have had little experience of democracy, and little knowledge of how it works or how to put it in place. In Syria, for example, 40% of the population is under 14, and only 3% is over 65. This means that very few people have any recollection of what political life was like before the Ba‘th party came to power in 1963. When the old structures of power are torn down – as is now happening in several Arab countries -- it will not be easy to rebuild new ones. The more violent the revolution, the more difficult will be the task of reconstruction.
The most striking of the new phenomena has been the triumph of Islamic parties – in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and perhaps one day in Yemen and Syria as well. We don’t yet know how the Islamists will behave in government. Will they adopt the Turkish model of Islam allied to secular democracy, or will they slip back into Salafi fundamentalism? Whatever the answer, I suspect that their prime goal will be to introduce good governance rather than Western-style liberal democracy – that is to say, their priority will be to provide jobs for the unemployed, welfare programmes for the poor, a good deal less corruption, and a fairer distribution of resources.
It is worth remembering, however, that in several Arab countries Islamists have suffered decades of persecution at the hand of Western-backed Arab autocrats. In Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria and elsewhere, members of Islamic movements have been hounded, jailed, tortured and killed in great numbers, or have simply fled abroad. Once in power, it would be surprising if they did not seek revenge against their enemies.
Islamic parties have done well at the polls because they have long distinguished themselves by their welfare activities in favour of the underprivileged. They are closest to the common people. Another of their assets is that they express the frustrated ambition of the masses to affirm their Muslim-Arab identity. Most Arabs – with the exception of small Westernised elites – are God-fearing, socially conservative and attached to their traditional way of life. The Arab Spring, therefore, is more than a revolt against long-entrenched dictators. It is also a rebellion against foreign values -- and foreign military intervention. What the Islamist movements have in common is an ambition to satisfy the thirst of the populations for an Islamic version of social justice free from foreign tutelage.
Across the greater Middle East – from Tunisia to Afghanistan and the many places in between – one senses a rebellion against attempts to impose a Western model of society on the Muslim world, and against submission to Western strategic interests. We may indeed be witnessing a new chapter in the Arabs’ long struggle against Western imperialism, which began after the First World War, was defeated in the 1920s and 1930s, only to be frustrated again by the emergence Israel after the Second World War.
What is the geopolitical scene in the Middle East today? There is no doubt that the United States and Israel are attempting to bring down the so-called Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah axis, with its extension to Hamas in Gaza, which has emerged in recent years as the main obstacle to U.S.-Israeli regional hegemony. In 2006, Israel tried but failed to destroy Hizballah in Lebanon; in 2008-9 it tried but failed to destroy Hamas in Gaza. Israel wants the freedom to strike its neighbours at will, without being hit back. It does not want its Arab neighbours to acquire the means to defend themselves. Its objections to Iran’s nuclear programme are of the same nature. Iran’s nuclear activities pose no ‘existential’ threat to Israel, which has ample means to deter any attack. But if Iran acquired the means to produce atomic weapons – even without actually doing so -- it would greatly restrict Israel’s freedom of action.
So, driven by Israel and its powerful American friends, the U.S. is imposing crippling sanctions on Iran and Syria. Britain, France and other European countries are following America’s lead. In punishing Iran, the excuse given is Tehran’s nuclear programme; in punishing Syria, the excuse is the continuing bloodshed. But the real reason is that Iran has challenged America’s hegemony in the Gulf region, while Syria and its allies – Hizballah and Hamas – have made a dent in Israel’s military supremacy.
Just as pro-Israeli forces in the United States drove George W Bush to invade and destroy Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, so the same forces are now driving Barack Obama to halt Iran’s nuclear programme –and, if possible, bring down the regime of the Mullahs in Tehran.
The Middle East is in urgent need of a counterweight to U.S. and Israeli pressure. Russia has an opportunity to introduce some balance in the region. Both Iran and Syria need protection from the current attempts to overthrow their regimes and restore US-Israeli hegemony. Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful industrial purposes under IAEA supervision must be recognised.
In Syria, a means must be found to end the bloodshed, and create the climate for a dialogue between the government and the opposition. An active Russian diplomacy -- perhaps in partnership with Turkey or in association with its BRIC partners, Brazil, India and China – could play a role in cooling tempers. The immediate danger lies in the increased militarisation of the opposition. Without a negotiated end to the crisis, Syria could descend into a bloody civil war on the Iraqi and Lebanese model. In such an outcome, there would be no winners, only losers.