Arab revolutions have become an international phenomenon. They did not occur in one country but have had a domino effect from one state to another, whether large in area or population such as Egypt or small such as Bahrain. Their types, models and development have differed, but the basic reality is the same: the people are no longer satisfied. Dissatisfaction led to upheaval and rejection of the status quo. This resulted in revolutions of varying force and different levels of foreign intervention, but they all demand “the overthrow of the regime”. The regime not only means the country’s rulers, governments or policies, but also in most cases the way of life is no longer acceptable.
People’s uprisings are complex and at times the people have known exactly what they reject, but more often they did not know exactly what they want. And if they did know what their objectives were, they did not know how to achieve them, whether stopping corruption or establishing a democratic regime. What is important is that this is no longer a revolt of the people, but of an entire region in the heart of the world, located on the largest fuel source known to mankind. In what seems to be a reminder by fate of this important truth, came the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed, where the entire world community panicked over meltdowns at Japanese nuclear reactors. Whatever the outcome, the primary alternative fuel source to oil was dealt a critical blow, which will delay its course for many years to come.
I do not know whether Arab states that announced their intention to pursue nuclear energy as a way of earning world status, or to show that they are no less capable than Iran and Israel, will halt their projects or not. In all cases, Arab oil will continue to be a high strategic interest whether for the US or the world as a whole. From here, we return to the beginning of my article, namely how to interpret the US’s reaction to subsequent Arab revolutions. Why did its interest peak at times and diminish at others, using severe language at times but also sometimes using a softer tone while addressing regimes and opposition to avoid violence. It is easy to explain Washington’s positions through the prism of US interests in the region, and that as long as these revolutions are intent on democracy then the US will be happy. But if the spectre of “Islamism” in its various forms of Muslim Brotherhood, Jihadist, Salafi or Khomeinism, raises its head, then caution is key in Washington.
In fact, the issue is always much more complicated for the US. There are reasons that are directly related to it, such as becoming too close may not help a ruler, but be more likely the kiss of death, and the indirect reason is the state of revolution itself, and its continuously fluid nature. By observing Arab revolutions, it becomes apparent that despite their similarities they vary in duration, intensity, usage of arms, type of incumbent regime, and its ability to manipulate outcomes. This causes Washington to be in a constant dilemma. Simply put, the more variety, the more diverse Washington needs to be in its reactions, especially amidst an avalanche of contradicting advice from think tanks and research centres in the US that hold different views and rationales.
While this is going on in Washington, the reality on the ground in each Arab state is the final decider. While Hosni Mubarak was docile and stepped down 18 days after the revolution began, that was not the case in either Libya, Yemen or Bahrain, nor is it expected to be the same in Syria. Arab societies vary in types and composition such as a quasi-hegemonic river society, to a tribal community, or another with multiple creeds, ideologies and beliefs, or a fourth under one-party rule, or another like Libya which is under the control of the idiosyncratic Colonel Gaddafi and his sons who each have their own agenda. This not only complicates policy, but also makes it heavily rely on luck and perhaps the advice of allies.
The US knows that it can no longer rule the world by itself and does not have the funds or resources, which compounds its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan in light of chronic budget deficits that require severe cutbacks. This is when allies become more important than at any other time, but these allies are also preoccupied with other matters. While Europe is taking a keen interest in the Libyan revolution, it is also grappling with the bankruptcy of Portugal. As for Japan, which has always been a reliable ally, it is dealing with a natural and nuclear disaster and has enough on its plate not to be interested in an Arab state that has finally revolted, years after it was believed that the era of great revolutions had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries.
This means that the US’s influence on Arab revolutions is miniscule, and the White House spokesman can condemn, suggest or demand all he wants but his hold on events is minor. Even when Washington decided to intervene militarily in Libya in the belief that the regime would fall within days, Libyan events have dragged on much longer than anyone expected and all that can be done now is to leave the entire matter in the hands of the Europeans.
This does not mean that the US will not stop contemplating what is taking place in the Arab revolutions. It may be more interested in the phenomenon itself rather than its outcome and repercussions. All these revolutions so far are wrapped in the cloak of democracy, rejecting tyranny, corruption and oppression. At the same time, however, there is a genuine revolutionary force taking part in events that is fanatic, fundamentalist and not interested in democracy as much as it is interested in a form of rule that has nothing to do with democracy as is known to the US or any other country in the world.
This means that whatever happens next, and whether Arab revolutions succeed or fail, the “Arab Spring of democracy” is precarious and surrounded in doubt and uncertainty. It is most likely that the entire region will enter a dizzying phase and perhaps chaos would ensue. This would trouble the decision-maker at the White House, but he will be more concerned not only about what will happen to the price of oil but what will happen between the new Arab governments —whether democratic or otherwise —and Israel. This is the real issue that keeps Obama awake at night these days.
First published in Al-Sharq Al-Awsaton Wednesday, 13 April 2011