Saturday, October 15, 2011

The "New Ottomanism" and the "New Middle East"

I wrote an article about six months ago comparing the Turkish and Egyptian experiences of democracy. Now that, so to speak, the smoke has cleared a little and the pieces are falling into place after these months of the "Arab Spring", it's a good time to look at what is what and who the "winners" and "losers" are from the events of 2011.

At this point there have been three changes of government in the Arab world since early 2011 (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, chronologically in that order); one is on the verge of changing, with its leader in self-imposed exile (Yemen); there is continual mass civil unrest in another (Syria); and a fifth government (Bahrain's) only stemmed the threat of continual mas civil unrest by calling on the support of a neighbour's armed forces (Saudi Arabia) to help brutalise and terrify the majority of its citizens (the Shias). A number of other Arab governments (mostly monarchies - such as Jordan, Morocco and Oman) pre-empted mass unrest by granting some modest "democratic" reforms and subsidies.

That's the summary, and it covers most countries in the Middle East. Each of those individual countries' circumstances are unique in their own way, and I don't want to go into that much detail here. I want to look at who the "winners" and "losers" are from these events, what they mean, and their historical context.
Of the ideas I just mentioned, I'll look at each idea in reverse order.

The historical context of the "Arab Spring", while surprising most of the intelligence agencies in the world (or so it seems), with the benefit of hindsight (and a look at the cycle of ideological movements of the last few decades) things start falling into place.

Most "Middle East experts" say that Arab politics had been in a state of inertia after decades of stifling monarchical or military rule. This was because, some said, the Arabs were incapable of controlling themselves under a democratic regime; they point to the proof of the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran as proof that Arabs are incapable of "democratic revolution".
The irony here is that, in the case of Iran, they had a "democratic revolution" back in 1953 (around the same time, incidentally, that Abdel Nasser of Egypt got rid of the British-backed king to set up a military dictatorship). But Iran in 1953 was too soon for "real democracy" in the middle of the Cold War, so their elected prime minister was deposed by the West and the Shah put back on the Peacock throne. The Shah eventually proved incapable of governing the country effectively, and there was a broad-based revolution against him in 1979, symbolically headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. However, that "broad-based" revolution was soon hijacked by Islamic clerics, reaching a nadir nine months later with Khomeini backing the storming of the US embassy and a referendum that gave all powers to the Ayatollah.
The rest, in Iran's case, is a familiar story. Iraq under its new dictator, Saddam Hussein (with US backing), went to war with Iran, ending eight years later in a horrendous death toll and pointless stalemate. Iran, fancying a stab at proxy-war, supported Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel. Iran's Islamic fundamentalist regime now being ostrasized by the US, with the Cold War still in full flow, the US then armed the Islamic fundamentalist fighters in Afghanistan (which included a group called "Al-Qaeda") to fight against Soviet occupation.
With the effective birth of state Islamic fundamentalism in 1979 in Iran, the nineties saw the the political wing of Islam time to grow in this decade amidst the confusion of the post-Soviet world (such as in Chechnya), as well as (briefly) in such countries as Turkey (in the brief rule of the Islamic "Refah" party).
The turn of the century saw a sudden and dramatic turn of tactics by the extreme side of political Islam. "Al-Qaeda" declared war on the US, attacked a US navy vessel in Yemen in 2000, then spectacularly attacked the US homeland with four hijacked planes in 2001. Islamic terrorism then enveloped many parts of the world, and continues to do so up to today.
The "War On Terror" posed a huge question to the Arab nations of the Middle East, with some Arabs becoming inspired to join in the "jihad" (such as in Saudi Arabia and Yemen). Arab governments, encouraged by the "anti-terror" measures being put through by the US government, and worried for their own safety, turned the screw even tighter on their peoples' rights. As instability became the norm across much of the world, this increased prices and a huge spike in the cost of living in the Middle East, especially after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the resulting occupation, civil strife and insurgency.
So by the end of the 2000s, the Arabs in general were living under regimes that were often not living in the real world; they certainly seemed to act like it, as they were mainly impervious to change, paranoid of dissent, and had a schizophrenic relationship to the West (needing their support economically and diplomatically, but still happy to insult them to their own people for domestic consumption).
Most of the Arab goverments were paranoid of their populations because of the example of Iran that had taken place thirty years before. But, while some of their populations turned to Islamic fundamentalism in either perverse inspiration or desperation, there was another Islamic model that was also on the Arab world's doorstep from another direction: that of Turkey.

Those Turkish politicans who had been involved in the ill-fated administration of the "Refah" party in the mid nineties had learned their lesson by 2001. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AK party, was one of them, and he saw that it might be possible to "break the mould" of Turkish politics by producing a mass-supported, more modest, Islamic party that would appeal to the average person.
Although had been a democracy for most of its time as a republic (see my earlier article from six months ago comparing Turkey and Egypt), it also suffered from a straightjacket of a powerful military, an immovable civil code and a strong secular tradition. But in 2002, the AK party easily won the national elections.
The AK government under Erdogan went on to prove the critics at home wrong by creating a vibrant and rapidly expanding Turkish economy, a stable government, and a more balanced foreign policy.
The last point is the one that most interested Arab governments; prior to the AK government, Turkey's relationship to the Middle East (except Israel) was indifferent at best. By the end of the 2000s, Turkey's AK government was paying far more attention to the Arab governments than any previous Turkish government; the AK government's "good neighbour" policy of paying attention to all its neighbouring relations - the EU, Russia, Iran, the Middle East and so on.
Arab rulers probably thought that it was just good business sense on the part of the Turks; what they thought that their populations thought about it may not have been on their mind. If that was the case, it was to be a huge mistake.

So the factors that led to the "Arab Spring" can be traced more exactly: the economic instability caused indirectly by the "War On Terror"; the increased security measures against the native Arab populations (excused by the "War On Terror"); the rise of political Islam and the example of good government and good relations offered by the moderate Islamic government of Turkey. Oh, and also the new possibilities brought about in the last few years through social networking. All it then needed was a spark.

The "Arab Spring", therefore, was a result of the changes in political Islam, radicalised after the 1970s, which (for the majority) had matured by the beginning of the 2000s into something else; less extreme and direct, more pragmatic and moderate. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had the effect of transplanting an embryonic (if anarchic) democracy in the heart of the Middle East. The argument that this created a positive example for other Arab populations is, putting it politely, unproven. The Middle East for the past thirty years had been dominated by two Islamic fundamentalist powers: Iran and Saudi Arabia; one pro-West, one anti-West. The emergence of Turkey in the last ten years as a regional power changes the game; if Egypt, now more openly democratic, follows the Turkey model as seems likely, then the Middle East will become even more an even playing field rather than a battle of wills between regional powers.

I talked before of "winners" and "losers".
The prime "winner" of the Arab Spring, apart from the Arab populations themselves, is undoubtably Turkey. Turkey is the exemplar that the people behind the "Arab Spring" most readily follow; its influence in the region, already important as a power-broker and an economic bridgehead, is bound to increase. And the wily Turks are never likely to miss an opportunity to make a wide-ranging, long-term economic investment, as can be seen in Libya and elsewhere. Erdogan is the Arab populations' role model, at least until they find their own in their respective countries. This is what is meant by the "New Ottomanism": moderately Islamist Turkey regaining its former power and influence across the wider region more than a century of being either on the sidelines or the pawn of other powers.
Then there are the "losers". Strangely enough, the losers are mutual antagonists: Iran and Israel. The loss of Iranian influence is obvious enough to see; its ideological war to impose and encourage its view of Islam across the Middle East has clearly failed overall. Although there are more extreme Islamic elements within each of the countries touched by the "Arab Spring", they are clearly a minority, and the moderate view is bound to win in the medium and long term. Iran as a power is distrusted by the Arabs in general (except for the Shia Muslims), and the Arab governments in particular. Iran's only real ally in the Middle East, Syria, is fighting its own battles from within, and the ruling regime is utterly discredited. Secondly, Turkey's diplomatic focus on the Arab world, and its canny re-positioning strongly against the human rights violations of the Israeli government (especially after the "Mavi Marmara" incident), puts Israel in a corner. The only Arab government on good terms with Israel had been the former regime of Egypt; no longer. Israel is truly without friends in the Middle East or even in the neighbouring locality.

The "Arab Spring" has also put fresh impetus into the cause of the Palestinians: if the Palestinians were really smart, Israeli Arabs would organise mass demonstrations to bring Israel to a standstill, and use Erdogan as their diplomatic attack dog. That would be something that might make even the unswervingly loyal US question its principles.

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