The chill of spring

From Tunisia to Egypt, the Arab uprising is belying its promise and lurching towards socio-economic meltdown

Chill winds are blowing through the lands touched by the "Arab Spring". Hailed by many as the harbinger of a new era of Arab democracy, it has fulfilled, so far, few of those lofty expectations.

In Egypt, a resurgence of political turmoil, together with an ongoing socio-economic meltdown, is creating a widening gap between the challenges facing the government and its ability to meet them -- making a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions an ever-more likely prospect. With foreign reserves dwindling rapidly and unrest, either raging or simmering across the country, driving off tourists and investors, the country's ability to procure vital imports is being tangibly imperilled. Although Egypt was teetering on the brink of political and societal collapse well before the advent of the "Arab Spring", the January 2011 revolution still marks a dramatic acceleration in the deterioration of the parameters of Egyptian society and the performance of its economy.

Mohammed Morsi's government is facing an impossible impasse. To qualify for much needed IMF assistance, it needs to undertake tough austerity measures. However, as much of Egypt's impoverished population is heavily dependent on government subsidies, it is difficult to see how he could undertake such measures, likely to inflame further violence, and risk losing even more support for his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. The eroding coherence and capability of the government in Cairo could have serious repercussions for Israel. For it undermines its ability to maintain any semblance of law-and-order in Sinai, which is descending into a lawless no-man's land, controlled by criminal gangs and jihadist warlords, able to threaten its long southern border and tourist hub of Eilat with increasing impunity. Clearly this could endanger the durability of the Egypt-Israel peace accord, a longstanding cornerstone of regional stability.

Elsewhere the outlook is hardly less bleak. For example, Tunisia, the "poster child" of the Arab Spring, seems to be lurching towards the wintry brink of Islamic extremism. Last October, a piece in The New York Times, entitled "Tunisia, a sad year later", expressed bitter disappointment in the socio-political developments, and growing consternation at the creeping ascendancy of extremists, flouting the law with impunity in the face of government impotence. This slide towards coercive radicalism is taking place despite the fact that moderate secular parties won a clear majority in the last elections, yet seemingly lack the political acumen to confront and contain their more resolute and radical rivals.

The murder this month of prominent left-wing secularist Chokri Belaid, head of the Democratic Patriots' Movement, and leader of the Popular Front opposition coalition, whom some saw as a vital linchpin in galvanising effective political resistance to the Islamists, seems to be merely a continuation in the escalating spiral of political thuggery. Significantly, the night before his death, he reportedly declared "All those who oppose Ennahda [the ruling Islamist party] become the targets of violence."

Although suspicion seems to focus mainly on Salafists, some seasoned analysts see a seamless interface between Salafist elements and the Muslim Brotherhood, in which Ennahda has its roots. Indeed, according to The Guardian, opposition parties are demanding the government shoulder responsibility for Belaid's killing, since "it had failed to curb intimidation, violence and threatening language used by radical preachers and on extremist websites". The killing has brought Tunisia to the brink of the sort of political polarisation it had managed to avert since the ousting of the Ben Ali-regime in January 2011, and which the current government seems unable to stem -- raising considerable uncertainty as to how events will unfold.

Similarly, in other countries, the challenge to the old authoritarian regimes leaves little room for optimism. Syria seems to be descending in to a bloody vortex of chaos. Although the Assad-regime appears to be drawing to an excruciatingly slow, but inexorable, end, there must be grave concern for the future. The opposition is made up of a wide range of diverse elements -- several of them, such as the al-Nusra Front, embracing extremist Salafist ideology -- with scant coordination among them. This was highlighted by the burst of outrage sparked by the announcement last month by the designated leader of the coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, of his willingness to enter into negotiations with the Assad regime. Significantly, there appears little to unite the disparate anti-Assad forces other than their enmity towards the regime -- leaving room for a profound sense of unease at to how they will conduct themselves once they succeed in toppling it.

The post-Spring Arab-world seems to be tottering between anarchy and tyranny with few other stable outcomes on the horizon. It seems unable to emulate the countries of central Europe, where, with the exception of the former Yugoslavia, transition to post-Soviet democracy was far more orderly. Its lack of solid civil society institutions and political traditions seem to favour the more extreme elements.

Israel and India are islands of stable democracy embedded in a vast geographical expanse where turmoil and tyranny are far more the rule than the exception. The two countries may soon find themselves having to face a mega-mélange of failed/ failing states with enfeebled central governments, unable -- perhaps unwilling -- to reign in extremist militant elements, bent on exporting their radical doctrine on a global scale. For them, and the rest of the democratic world, the Arab Spring has brought much cause for concern.

The writer is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies

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