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Cloudy Forecast for the Arab Spring

Tags: Arab Spring , Africa , Egypt , Middle East , Democracy

Sasaki, Yoshiaki (--2015.03)

July 27, 2011

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How far will political transformation spread through the Arab world, and what changes will they usher in? Even now, six months into the so-called Arab Spring, answers to these questions remain elusive.

Awaiting Democracy in Tunisia

In Tunisia, the popular uprising that erupted in December 2010 achieved its immediate goal quickly enough, forcing long-time President Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia in January this year. Yet the promise of popular sovereignty and democracy has yet to be fulfilled. The nation continues in the grip of chaos, which seems likely to end only when the military seizes full control.

The Islamic Ennahda party, rebounding after a 20-year ban, scarcely seems up to the task of leading Tunisia into the future. The organizational and leadership potential may be there, but in the final analysis it is an assemblage of political amateurs. The pitfalls of government by amateurs should be apparent to anyone who has watched Japan struggle under the Democratic Party of Japan. Moreover, if we are to believe Tunisia's first post-election interior minister, Farhat Rajhi, the army would be sure to intervene were Ennahda to seize the reins of government. Is Ennahda prepared for a bloody clash with the Tunisian military?

With executive authority in flux, the powerful Tunisian bureaucracy seems likely to remain at the controls for the foreseeable future. No doubt, elections for a national assembly will be held at some point, but one election is unlikely to stabilize the country. It will take either a series of elections or a military takeover to restore stability to Tunisia.

Egypt at a Crossroads

A similar sequence of events has unfolded in Egypt, where the military controls the government and decides which organizations will participate in the political process and how. While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has promised parliamentary elections in the fall, new parties and movements worry that they will be out-organized by the well-established Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has existed since before the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and has taken root not only in Egyptian society but throughout the Arab world. Assuming that an election is held, observers expect the Muslim Brotherhood to secure between 30% and 50% of the seats in the national assembly, making it Egypt's most powerful political force by far. In that case, Egyptian society is sure to take on a more pronounced Islamic cast. Whether the party would seek to submit the nation to Islamic law is unclear, but it would doubtless attempt to enforce Shariah to some degree.

Because of its organizational advantage over the newer groups, the Muslim Brotherhood would prefer that the elections were held in September as originally planned. The other political groups are pushing for a later date. They make the case that the constitution must be revised before elections are held if the revolution's ideals are to become reality, but their real concern is doubtless buying time to prepare.

The decisive question, then, is which the Supreme Council decides to put first: elections or a new constitution. At this point, it seems inclined to postpone the elections beyond September.

One might conceivably make the case that, now that the US government has resumed formal contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, the military might favor the MB on the assumption that its treatment of the group will emerge as an issue in US-Egypt relations. But this overcomplicates the military's motives. The Egyptian army is a secular and pragmatic organization at heart, and few within it want Egypt to move closer to theocracy. Furthermore, the army regards the proliferation of Muslim Brotherhood members in its own ranks as a threat. At some point, therefore, the military can be expected to begin clamping down on the MB to stem its momentum.

Washington's current posture seems predicated on the misconception that the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate organization along the lines of Turkey's Justice and Development Party. How will its stance change when it learns that the MB is, in fact, an Islamic fundamentalist movement? Could it be that Washington is aware of the MB's true nature—that its various offshoots were behind the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, the birth of Hamas in Gaza, and the rise of Osama Bin Laden? If so, Washington's willingness to deal with the MB may be no more than a temporary expedient.

Whither Saudi Arabia?

After spreading from Tunisia to Egypt, the Arab Spring quickly engulfed Libya, and now the governments of Yemen and Syria are facing similar crises. The monarchies of Jordan and Bahrain are also struggling to restore stability.

In the midst of this chaos, a major focus of concern for the Japanese is the fate of Saudi Arabia, Japan's biggest oil supplier.

So far the Saudi government, with vast oil revenues at its disposal, has managed to keep a lid on things through massive spending on jobs and housing. But handouts cannot solve the Saudi Arabia's basic social problems, and that means their efficacy is necessarily limited.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government has taken vigorous steps to prop up other autocratic regimes in the vicinity, particularly other monarchies. To assist Bahrain, the most endangered kingdom in the region, it not only injected massive amounts of economic aid but sent troops to crush the popular demonstrations. In Yemen (a nominal republic), antigovernment forces have called on the Saudi government to stop propping up the country's repressive regime.

In a bid to support the Jordanian and Moroccan regimes (both monarchies), Saudi Arabia has been lobbying to include them in the Gulf Cooperation Council, even though they are not Gulf states. Perhaps this means that the GCC, formed in 1981 to counter the threat from revolutionary Iran, is now functioning more as a union of Middle Eastern monarchies.

In any case, this alarmed response by the Saudi government seems certain to fuel anti-Saudi public sentiment in the Arab world. At home, meanwhile, scattered protests against the intransigently authoritarian Saudi regime have spread from predominantly Shia areas like Qatif to other cities. If this unrest were suddenly to erupt in a massive uprising, it would send oil prices skyrocketing. The death of the frail King Abdullah could provide the catalyst for such an uprising, especially since the health of the heir apparent, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, is little better than his brother's. All told, it seems highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia can insulate itself from the spreading turmoil of the Arab Spring.

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