Arab Spring: What the revolutions mean for us
30 May 2011
Mladá Fronta DNES
A few months into the Arab revolutions, what lessons for Europe? For Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor at the London University, it should not succumb to the myth of a conflict between Islam and the West and engage in a more ambitious, independent diplomacy.
Imagine that I am a Martian who has just landed on Earth, and I know nothing about the Middle East. How would you explain to me what is happening now in the Arab world?
It's a great uprising for democracy and freedom, independence and human rights. And it’s happening for the first time since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. All the Arab countries essentially grew out of the disintegration of this empire. Some do have a separate history as a nation state, like Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to some degree, but the colonial era had an immense impact on domestic politics. There thus arose authoritarian state structures, because the new states tried to create an idea of what it means to be a Syrian, Iraqi, Jordanian, and so on. The uprisings do have roots within the societies themselves and are calling for a new kind of politics. New television stations broadcast very independently, and that is also something new in this region. Thanks to them, a new kind of political awareness, a new understanding of politics and thus new demands were all able to emerge. These are demands for accountability for those in power, and for social justice.
Does this mean that Arab societies are now overcoming this legacy of authoritarianism? What has actually happened?
To understand the phenomenon of authoritarianism in this region, we must realise that the countries are heirs to a violent period of colonialism and then the post-colonial resistance. The military leaders installed themselves at the top, and not any organically developed structures of state. In Europe, these structures evolved over the centuries. There was the French Revolution, two world wars, Hitler, Mussolini’s wars and Franco’s wars. Civil society in Europe developed very slowly, and so there grew out of it a tried and tested and viable democracy. The Arab world, though, never had that "luxury of having a history." But now the structures that grew from the bottom up have rebelled against the authority of the state and its sovereignty. There’s no road back.
What do the Arab revolutions mean for Europe?
There are many security and strategic challenges, because the political terrain is changing. There are governments emerging that will listen more to their societies, and societies emerging that will demand a foreign policy independent of the West. It is no coincidence that Egypt and Tunisia did not support intervention in Libya. Egypt is also preparing to renew relations with Iran, which until recently was a complete taboo. The EU and the U.S. will have to prepare for situations that will arise in the region, which they will be able to control far less than they were able to just last year. Here we see similarities with Latin America, where the regimes had previously been much more docile with regards to the West. Just as imperialist interventions into their affairs is no longer possible there, no longer will they be possible in western Asia, either.
It is something like a second wave of decolonisation? Less direct political influence of the West, but for all that, greater influence of Western ideas?
Definitely. After all, there was no open anti-Americanism on display in the Arab revolutions. Turkey also cooperates with Europe, yet pursues its own goals as well. Personally, I think it's a good thing. That is, it does help the cause of peace throughout the region. In the Middle East we need a security strategy that does not serve the interests of outside players.
How do you evaluate the policies of the West towards the Arab revolutions?
The European Union should have a policy much more independent of the U.S. than it has had till now. This has been manifested in many respects, like Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and most recently Iran. Europe should pursue its own interests. Iran will have to be drawn to the negotiating table. The policy of marginalising and sanctioning that country has failed. Iran's nuclear project is unstoppable, and there is no military solution. Everybody knows it. And the European Union is a better partner for this dialogue than the U.S., because it’s not weighed down by any historical baggage. Strategic considerations also play a role here. For example, how will we transport oil and gas from Afghanistan in the future? Would it not be better to bring the pipeline through India, Pakistan and Iran than through Russia? Likewise, the Libyan operation was a mistake. Europe is closely intertwined with the Islamic and Arab world and has to admit it.
If the Libyan operation was a mistake, would you rather have seen Europe not intervene in Libya? Even if it meant having to look on as Gaddafi massacred the opposition?
If it had been possible at the outset to organise a conference that brought together the regional players, where Gaddafi and the opposition sat down together, that would have been the right way. If there had been a diplomatic initiative at the very beginning, then I think that Gaddafi would not have reacted the way he did in the end. When you see there is some other solution, you hesitate to massacre your own population. Military intervention, on the contrary, made the violence in Libya worse. You cannot subjugate people by bombing them, or intervene militarily to create a new situation. Who do you think is defending Gaddafi's regime? He still has some support. It's not just down to hiring mercenaries. What will happen with the remnants of that regime? Strategic diplomacy could resolve the deadlock.
Is Libya therefore another Iraq for the West, just closer to the borders of Europe?
Nobody knows exactly what the movement in eastern Libya is. It's far from being just liberals and democrats. There are lots of different tribal forces with their own agendas, and jihadis too. Al-Qaeda is rejoicing over this situation, because these events can be integrated into its world-view of the conflict between Islam and the West. A military solution would not be a happy one.