The West celebrated 9 November the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that was a turning point in the post-World War II era. The division of Europe between East and West came to an end, and two years later the former Soviet Union faded into a distant past. With its disappearance, the Warsaw Pact veered into oblivion.
For the first time since 1945, the world became unipolar with the United States, the sole superpower, uncontested and unchallenged. It was a New World Order where freedom and democracy became codewords for the new international system that ran parallel to globalisation.
The scenes of East Germans, with hammers in their hands, bringing down the Berlin Wall, inspired many nations around the world to break free from despotism and authoritarianism. The concepts of free markets and open borders became slogans for the future.
However, the winds of change had not swept south across the Mediterranean, and throughout the Arab world. It would have been a great opportunity for the Arabs to follow in the footsteps of the Europeans and begin to open up their political systems gradually, through well-thought out measures and steps to lead the Arabs on the road to political and non-sectarian pluralism. But the Arabs were not at the rendez-vous and, consequently, paid a heavy price years later.
In the past 30 years, the Arab world has witnessed great upheavals that have had a highly negative cumulative effect on its chances of catching up with Europe and the rest of the world in political liberalisation and the instantiation of democratic regimes.
One year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraq stunned the world by invading Kuwait, claiming that Kuwait was part of Iraq and naming it the 19th governorate. Iraqi recklessness and adventurism set the Arab world many decades back, and left the Arabs in a state of shock that destabilised the Arab system as a whole. This recklessness reverberated 13 years later when the United States, on false assumptions and reasons, decided to invade Iraq in March 2003 to bring down the regime of former president Saddam Hussein. The results have proven catastrophic, not only for the Iraqis, but for the Americans, the Europeans and the Arab world, and particularly the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The unintended consequence was the emergence of Iran as a regional hegemon with vested interests in the region.
Iran succeeded in extending its reach through pro-Iranian Arab militias and political forces in the heart of the Middle East, thus posing a threat to Saudi Arabia’s role and influence in the region.
So, the Arab world entered an era of strong competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran along sectarian lines, Sunni versus Shia. This confrontation between the two regional powers has consumed Arab politics for years and led to competing alliances within the Middle East with Egypt almost caught in the middle trying to chart a course aligned with Saudi Arabia but short of getting entangled in any military conflict that could break out.
All the while, the Palestinian problem has remained unresolved despite the Madrid Peace Conference of October 1991, and the Oslo Accords of 13 September 1993, between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel. On the contrary, the amount of Palestinian territories that Israeli settlers usurped from the Palestinians has increased, and the two-state solution, that was adopted by the UN Security Council in 2003, is almost doomed.
The unprecedented terrorist attacks against the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 changed the world and Arab regimes. Terrorism gained ground across the Arab world, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Saudi Arabia was not spared, either. The fight against terrorism has become a national priority for many Arab countries.
In the midst of these challenges and threats, a wave of mass popular protests, known as the “Arab Spring”, engulfed the Arabs. Although this wave of protests was seen as an irresistible call for freedom, it was, in fact, a protest against social dislocation and economic marginalisation. Of course, the lack of basic freedoms across the Arab world in the age of the Internet was an anomaly. However, the fact remains that the basic driver for the popular uprisings was mostly economic, with an outspoken minority calling for more democratic regimes. The end result of these upheavals has been the growing influence and strong presence of political Islam in Arab societies which are ideologically opposed to the basic principles of democratic systems; namely, the peaceful transfer of power, and deep respect for the rights of minorities, as well as women’s rights. The groups that come under the heading of political Islam draw their legitimacy from Islam and present themselves as the true — and almost the sole — custodian of this religion. Their concept of democracy is limited to the ballot box.
The “Arab Wall” is not expected to fall soon as long as these political, security, economic and social challenges and threats remain unsolved and unmet. Another systemic hurdle is the absence of a new generation of rulers and politicians who genuinely believe in the ideals of freedom and democracy. There are a few who call for a radical change in direction but they are not in a position to steer their countries on this road. Another obstacle in the face of opening Arab regimes is the fact that the majority of people don’t think in terms of nations but think, rather, in terms of sect, clan, tribe or profession. The concept of the modern state as a polity that rests on pluralism and the rule of law is still a far cry in this part of the world.
Maybe in a generation or two, things will change for the better provided that regional challenges are dealt with, including terrorism, sectarian polarisation, the Saudi-Iranian confrontation and the Palestinian question.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.