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Hichem Karoui: Assumptions about different cases
July 01, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, many assumptions were made about the possible spread of the revolt throughout the Arab world, which assumedly would topple all the regimes-members of the Arab League, one after another. The naivety of such assumptions hardly needs to be overemphasised. The people who made them seemed to exclude the fact that even though the Arabs constitute virtually a single nation, they have always been determined and ruled by varied and contrasted interests, due to the accumulation of multiple historical experiences.

Yet, the logic behind such hypothetical notions is that the Arab regimes are, despite their differences, almost similar. They are assumedly authoritarian and corrupt, and react in the same manner, hurrying up with repression as soon as a problem rises on the streets. As they suffer from a deficiency of democracy, they would end up fighting against their own population fed up with their autistic behaviour.

However, as time elapses, such assumptions become harder to prove, for many reasons.

Firstly, the revolution that signalled the beginning of the change happened in Tunisia. This country, with due respect for its history, has never inspired — and much less commanded the Arab world. Since its independence in 1956, Tunisia has rather lived on the “edge” of the Arab world, turning whole-heartedly towards the northern shore of the Mediterranean. The elite that run the country under Bourguiba leadership were westernised and felt more attached to the West than to the East. Under Ben Ali, the picture did not change on this level. I am not inclined to thinking that while Tunisia needs the help and assistance of the rich Arabs, it still can inspire revolts in their countries. This is quite irrational.

Secondly, if there is a country able to inspire the Arabs, it is well Egypt. Yet, in Egypt, the revolution has not upset really the regime. The military is still running the country and the real power is into its hands. Therefore, I very much doubt the assumption that even Egypt could inspire a revolt everywhere in the Arab world. It did not happen under Nasser — and we all know whom the man was and what he was trying to do. It will not happen under Mohammed Mursi either.

Thirdly, maybe there is an Arab Spring, but even in the few countries wherein the revolt succeeded to topple the head of the state, the reactions were not the same. The time the revolt took to bring down the president was different from a country to another. The transition period is showing up many unexpected problems that question the very direction they are taking.  So, are they similar? The answer is obviously: no.  Are they really heading steadily towards democracy? That still needs to be proven. Therefore, if between the countries wherein a revolt burst out, there is not much similarity, why should we expect the same to happen everywhere in the Arab world? I strongly doubt it.

Fourthly, the basis of the above assumptions may be that the Arab countries participate of the same culture, the same sensitivity, and the same “Arabo-Islamic” personality. Therefore, it is assumed that the Arab citizen and his ruler are expected to clash everywhere the same way it happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. However, admitting the common cultural and psychological ground as true, does not rule out accumulated differences. Precisely, what is happening in Syria shows that we do not constitute a single country, nor do we have a single character. A regime can be authoritarian and give up under the popular pressure, as it happened in Tunisia. It may find a way to manipulate the revolt and retain power, while sacrificing a man (Yemen) or more (Egypt). It may kill, and the extent of the killings may impose exterior interference (Libya and Syria, and Yemen). Briefly, there is no single way and no single reaction, but many differences that impose caution in assessments.

Fifthly, what is there common between the rich Gulf countries and Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or Syria? The answer is not much; apart from speaking Arabic, praying five times a day (for the observing), watching the Egyptian TV series in Ramadan, and sympathising with the Palestinian people. Really nothing, that may inspire or trigger a revolt. The key-element that pushed the Tunisians and Egyptians to express their anger on the streets is deficient in the region. I mean the wretched condition of the majority of people. Look at the countries wherein a revolt burst out: people out there are bound by poorness and misery. The oil-rich Libya was not an exception. Corruption is a real scourge; yet it is common to many countries in the world, included the most developed. But anger accumulates over the years when people feel they are excluded, not only from policy-decisions (because of democracy deficiency), but also from the dividends that enrich a small circle.

Sixthly, I live in the Gulf since almost a year. The streets are full of foreigners. You go to the malls, you see Europeans, Asians, Americans, Australians... if you see Arabs, 8 on 10 cases, they turn out to be Egyptians, Algerians, Sudanese, Lebanese, Syrians... anything but nationals. If the latter happen to pass by, wearing dishdasha for the men, and long dresses for women, be sure they are going to shop from the greatest brands of the world. You go to the malls; you find the shops of Paris, London, New York city... The same coffee shops, the same restaurants... Are these countries wherein a revolution is about to happen? Against what? Against money and wealth? Who would do it? Not those who are populating the malls and the streets, because either they are better off or they are foreigners. So who?

Seventhly, while living here, I discovered that the problems of the Gulf are really different from those of other Arab countries. I am not saying like Voltaire’s Candide, “everything is at its best in the best of the worlds,” but the problems here are different. They are actually related to big interests of international corporations, with a particular focus on the geopolitical configuration and the strategic games of regional and world powers.

In other words, the Arab countries and regions have their specificities. Obviously, we cannot apply the same criteria to different — even opposed cases. We just cannot find the same answers to the same questions. I will go further and pretend that we cannot even put the same questions to all the countries without more distinction.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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