The Arab Spring – Internal Pressure and the Scope for External Actors

The Arab Spring is now into its second year and its forward momentum shows no sign of abating. Those who predicted – or hoped – that the spring would be followed by another long winter have been proved wrong. 

Events continue to unfold from Morocco to Yemen and the focus is now on Syria and, once again, on Egypt. The situation in the whole region has been completely transformed and old truths no longer hold.

Lone voices in the region warned years ago that things were brewing under the surface of the much talked about “Arab street.” And some have been calling for a democratization of the region for decades as the only way for it to take on a more prominent position in world affairs.

The now classic UNDP Arab Human Development Report made it clear that the whole region was found wanting in a number of important aspects.

When the Arab Spring erupted last winter expectations quickly rose in the region and elsewhere. Many expected full democracies to blossom over the entire region within weeks.

However, one minor thing was overlooked – democracy requires democrats. And to become a democrat is not as simple as simply changing ones' clothes – it requires a mindset that can only be achieved through determination, practice and patience. And that takes time.

There is a saying that it takes three generations to make a gentleman. To make a democrat can certainly go much quicker in an age where the IT revolution has made everything instantly accessible.

The Arab Spring may have been called the Facebook revolution – but it is not only the IT revolution that lies behind it. Its main origins are to be found neither in cyberspace nor in other external factors, but right there in the refusal of the Arab people to put up with their own oppression any longer.

This is something that needs to be borne in mind by the international actors who have been called upon to react to developments in the Arab world. Populations that have been pushed around by their dictators for so long have simply had enough. What we are witnessing is the collapse of Arab authoritarianism that has dominated the region for half a century.

This fact is limiting the scope and impact of external factors and actors. The main actors are the people most directly involved, and they have taken their fate into their own hands to an extent not seen before in the region.

There are however a number of strong arguments why the world should not stand idly by as huge numbers of people are killed by their own leaders and their henchmen. The duty to protect is an increasingly accepted international norm. Upholding basic principles of international law is in everyone's interest.

Decisive action by the world community is called for not only out of respect for international law and humanitarian principles, but for the sake of consistency too. The more narrow interests of individual countries point in the same direction. To be on the wrong side of a tidal wave that is transforming a whole region does not seem like a wise policy for anyone.

States like Russia will most likely have to choose between Syria and the rest of the region. To an outside observer it does not seem a difficult choice: either loyalty to a dying regime and short-term commercial interests, or new, albeit untried, actors who seem to have both history and the rest of the region on their side in the longer term.

The U.S. and other Western powers have been faced with difficult dilemmas all over the region. Old loyalties have been brushed aside by political realities with delicate balancing acts needing to be performed to preserve positions in a changing region.

The débacle in the UN Security Council over Syria has created a situation where pressure is increasing on individual powers to intervene unilaterally. A situation like the one in Kosovo in 1999 cannot be ruled out, but it does not seem very likely.

Intervention and pushing dialogue are not mutually exclusive tools for the world community to make use of – they may very well complement each other.

It is often said that intervention in Syria is too difficult, with costs high and the outcome uncertain. But intervention can take many forms and does not necessarily have to be a military one. Neither does it have to be a repeat of the Libya scenario.

More severe economic sanctions, including bans on air travel and banking, diplomatic isolation, providing medical supplies and other humanitarian assistance, as well as setting up safe havens near the borders and offering political and moral support are all measures now being discussed by the international community.

A possible worst-case scenario would be intervention on behalf of different sides by different international actors. Regional powers are already backing proxies. It is not inconceivable that a wider confrontation may emerge, involving Russia and Iran on the one side and the West, including Turkey, and a large majority of the Arab states on the other.

The losers in such a scenario may turn out to be not only the people and states directly involved – a wider regional conflict would have far-reaching consequences for the U.S., Europe, Russia and China, as well as for their relations with an Arab world that is finally beginning to find its own voice. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.