By Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui
A vendor’s self-immolation in a tiny town of Tunisia, Sidi Bouzid, triggered an uprising that swept across the Arab region in the spring of 2011. It was primarily rooted in people’s long aspirations for a free democracy, employment opportunity, and urge for dignity. But the euphoria on the streets was very short-lived and six years of uprising has so far failed to achieve anything in the name of democracy or freedom.
The first elected Islamist government in Egypt survived only for a year, democracy in Tunisia is visible in a very scant form, and nations like Syria, Libya and Yemen opted altogether for a different trajectory, which scuttled the emergence of alternate democratic voices. The Arab world has transitioned from a great hope of democracy towards a spiral of fragmentation, insecurity, and fragility as the past six years have witnessed the death, displacement and disappearance of millions, engulfing the region in unprecedented levels of sectarian, regional, ideological, and class conflicts. The transitions in the Arab world, following the upheaval, have witnessed few prominent trends, which can be marked as non-violent like in Tunisia and Egypt; greater degree of constitutional regime and political freedom such as in Morocco and Jordan; sustained violence as regimes fought for survival in Syria, Yemen and Libya and counter-revolutionary move of the GCC regimes.
What has really altered the regional gambit is the Syrian conflict, where the protest and dissent very soon acquired a sectarian dynamics and turned into a war of supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Not long after the protests on the street of Syria, both Saudi Arabia and Iran began to extend all supports to their respective protégés, which gradually changed both the course and orientation of the Syrian crisis. The war for hegemony did not remain confined between two arch regional rivals or to the involvement of Turkey, Qatar and UAE later; it also dragged in Russia which had been missing in the strategic calculus of the region for more than two decades. Similarly, the transition in Libya and Yemen has become hostage to the strategic ambitions of the regional rivals and proxies for their master as both the nations have turned into a zone of tribal, regional, ethnic, and sectarian conflict, sabotaging the prospect for political unity and stability in near future.
The democratic aspiration emanating from the Arab uprising at its inception only morphed into a regional war for a strategic reconfiguration and evolution, where almost every nation has either joined or has been dragged unwillingly. The Arab uprising has not only affected the regional political order but has brought the region again into the fold of global politics, reminding one of a cold war era. Emerging political order is marked by a considerable change within each state, impacting the geopolitics of the whole region, which has been very vital in global geostrategic arrangement.
Emerging Strategic Calculus: Losers and Winners
The visible shift in the regional order is marked by several trends. The prominent among them are marked by discontent against the rulers, deepening sectarian strife, ideologization of regional politics, growing roles of regional powers, and rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. One cannot also ignore the assertion of the Islamist forces, coupled with intra-Islamist conflict and an unprecedented level of their acknowledgement in the public sphere.
It is not merely Saudi-Iran rivalry that characterized the transition but Turkey too has emerged as a major player. Turkey was the first nation in the region to call for resignation of President Assad in Syria and today it is playing a major role in the ongoing negotiation on Syrian conflict. Nations like Israel and Egypt, too, have affected the transition in the region and are deeply engaged in recasting their position in emerging regional order.
Egypt launched a regional and global campaign against the Islamists with full support of the UAE and Saudi Arabia which, along with Kuwait, poured billions of dollars into its exchequer. President El-Sisi took no time in joining the orbit of Saudi Arabia because Egypt had felt deceived and had lost trust in the US’s policy after Mubarak was abandoned by it. By joining the GCC bloc, Egypt tried to erect an anti-Turkey Sunni bloc to combat the rise of Turkey-backed Islamist forces.
If one nation that has really found ample time and space to consolidate itself both politically and strategically, it is the state of Israel. Israel has done so in the context of a volatile situation, where each and every country in the region is either struggling to confront its internal enemy or fighting the battle for others. The common concerns of Israel and GCC nations towards the Islamists might pave the way for deepening ties between two blocs (GCC and Israel) in near future. The return of the army in Egypt has really strengthened the geostrategic position of Israel in the region like never before because both share common interests in their war against terror and radical Islamist forces.
The border of Israel, which is the lifeline of existence for Israel, along with Syria and Egypt, is the safest in today’s time after the return of the army in the Egypt. What makes Israel further safe is Hezbollah’s (another trouble-maker for Israel) involvement in Syria. No military adventure is possible by Syria today against Israel and there could be no talk on Golan Heights because the regime has lost it legitimacy.
Saudi Arabia seems to have lost its position to support Palestine because of its financial constraints. Palestine is likely to lose its prominence in the actual geopolitics of the region because of the emergence of more pressing issues, which make the regional and global leadership to focus on internal tremors.
Iran is the only country which in all likelihood would dominate the future trajectory in the region. It has emerged as the most dominant player in the strategic gambit following the Arab turmoil. It is likely to have full grip over Syria and would enjoy a strategic leverage over Iraq in near future. Iran has emerged very powerful after almost sidelining Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two early powers to muddle in the Syria affairs. Today Iran enjoys a comfortable place in the strategic calculus of Russia, which is likely to play a dominant role in the region. Iran has the potential to fill the power vacuum in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. Iran might use MBH, Hezbollah, Hams, and Al-Quds Brigade and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to dominate the politics in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq.
Once a fulcrum of the regional politics, Egypt seems to have lost its strategic relevance due to fast-changing nature of regional and global politics. Moreover, with the changing dynamics of the country’s internal politics, its economy has become stagnant and its image as a soft power has eroded. Egypt is no more counted as a strategic ally or collaborator in the region because, unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia, it has no networks of regional support for itself. In near future, Egypt will continue to sacrifice its democracy for the sake of security and there is less hope for economic progress. Its ties with Israel will further strengthen and its ties with Turkey seems to be straining more because of Turkey’s constant Islamic rhetoric in foreign policy and Egypt’s continued war against the Islamists.
Saudi Arabia’s policy in the region will be most likely Iran-centric as far as the regional rivalry is concerned. There is little hope that emerging regional architecture would be helpful to Saudi Arabia to achieve its strategic ambitions. It will pursue a policy of counterbalancing or rolling back the influence of Iran in the region. Saudi Arabia’s next move could be to rescue Bahrain because it cannot afford to lose its only close partner after it has lost Iraq and Egypt and seems to be in the process of losing Yemen, too. Bahrain is most likely to be the next hub of proxies in the region after Saudi Arabia’s supposed defeat in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia is not likely to remain a prominent power in the region because its ally, Egypt, is no more prominent and its bad economic situations, unlike in the past, would not allow to boost its role in the region or winning over the adversaries.
Instability in the Region
The region is overall likely to remain unstable because of the consolidation of non-state actors, persistent power vacuum, and fragility in the political system. The deep sectarian and ethnic divide would define the core of the political transition. The states like Libya, Yemen and Syria might suffer a complete collapse and may see the fate of Somalia as most part of the territories have been ceded to warlords and other non-state actors. The Arab region will have a set of accumulated crisis in forms of unemployment, increasing demography, urbanization, and threat of absence of economic reform, apart from the present conflict caused by the uprising. The security issue will be a defining common feature of states policy and in the process, the democracy, the main component of the Arab aspiration, would be the ultimate victim. The persistent conflict will hamper the long-desired economic integration of the region and absorbing the educated class in the job market would be a daunting challenge for the regimes.
The Arab world might also implode because of the severe economic crisis and absence of outlet (read, democracy) for political anger. The Arab region will regress on many fronts and put the development clock several decades back. The appearance of the ISIS has thrown the whole region in complete disarray and its political and economic aftershocks will continue to linger even if the ISIS is eliminated because there are many other outfits, which have the potential to replace it. The issue of economic or political reform would be the last priority for the leadership because the region has reprioritized the security and war against terror at the cost of democracy and freedom.
Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a Delhi-based foreign policy think tank. His area of research is political Islam and socio-political development in the Arab world. Recently he has published a book, Political Islam and the Arab Uprising: Islamist Politics in Changing Time (Sage: 2017). He has also authored “The Concept of Islamic State: From the Time of Caliphate to Twentieth Century: Pre-Ikhwan and Post-Ikhwan Phase” (Lebanon). He writes regularly on political and regional issues in the Arab world.
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