Speakers: Dr. Efraim Inbar, Dr. Eytan Gilboa and Dr. Mordechai Kedar, The BESA Centre, Israel
Chairperson: Dr. Arvind Gupta, LBSC, IDSA
A panel Discussion on “The ‘Arab Spring’: An Israeli Perspective” was held on December 8, 2011 at the IDSA. Three speakers from BESA Center, Israel- Dr. Efraim Inbar, Dr. Eytan Gilboa and Dr. Mordechai Kedar expressed their views on the ‘Arab Spring’. The panel discussion was chaired by Dr. Arvind Gupta, LBSC, IDSA.
Tracing the origin of the ‘Arab Spring’ to the developments in Iraq of 2003, Dr. Kedar alleged that it was the wrong propaganda by media like Al Jazeera that connected the spring to the trends in Tunisia. It was noted that the uprisings showed inherent weakness of the Arab world. At the same time, it is very difficult to predict the end of the revolution. Many reasons were cited for the same— lack of democracy in Middle East, failure of secularism, authoritarian rule and ethnic and sectarian divide in the countries. Dr. Kedar said that the democratic process in Middle East was in shackles as politics does not reflect the popular aspirations and lack of secularism in these countries has further complicated the situation which in turn has resulted in the emergence of radical and extremist Islam in the region. The speaker highlighted two major trends in the spring;
The Arab Spring is also about the colonial past of the region and not a sudden phenomenon. Drawing of boundaries without taking into account the tribal/ethnic factor has been cause of unrest in the region. Citing the example of Iraq, it was noted that so long as Sadnam Husain was in power, he could control the sectarian problem of the country but after him the country is still struggling with sectarian violence and conflicts. It was further pointed out that especially in Libya, there are troubles among different tribes on final outcome of the revolution. If different groups are unable to reach an amicable solution then the results could be somewhat dangerous. Such a situation might result in division of the nation on tribal lines. At the same time, the State had failed in replacing loyalty of people, which is another tragedy of Arab spring.
While one sees unrest and uprising in many states, there are a few countries that have been able to control the unrest. These states have survived not because of their huge oil resources but because of homogeneity of society. State is legitimate in these countries and leadership is traditional. However in other cases the regimes have tried to maintain state by dictatorial means and have also been influenced by colonial powers. Finally the speaker warned of possible collapse of regime in Syria and the uprising spreading to Algeria.
Dr Gilboa commented that the external intervention or lack of it has affected events in the Middle East region. It is generally presumed that a country protesting against the authoritarian regime would automatically move towards democracy. However, in case of Middle East there has not been any transition to liberal democracy despite this widespread uprising against autocratic rulers. In fact, what people have not realised is that there has been a move from autocracy to mobocracy or more autocratic rule. It was noted that in the West there was huge enthusiasm about Arab spring and the Western rhetoric about uprisings in Middle East has been almost identical— to condemn brutal suppression of demonstrations, call on leaders to respect peoples’ voices and aspirations, and in certain cases recourse to sanctions. Nevertheless, actions in each case have been varied (be it Egypt, Libya or Syria) even though situations on ground were very similar in almost every country. The speaker opined that realpolitik was responsible for these variations in responses. These have been mainly:
To cite an example, in Egypt regime was not strong enough to survive, there were chances for plural democracy to emerge, and the rebels were happy to be associated with the US, which led to the West supporting the rebels in Egypt. In case of Syria, though the regime atrocities were the worst, there was no condemnation of the same in the UNSC resolutions mainly because of China and Russia. This behaviour is understandable given the fact that there were better chances of al-Assad surviving the rebellion. As the army did not break ranks, there was no alternative, and no fear of regional war because of close alliance between Syria and Iran. It was noted that the most decisive factor in Syria has been the fear of regional war. Therefore, West has adopted a very passive attitude towards Syria.
It was noted by the speaker that the West had failed to learn lessons from history and in this context he cited the example of Iran in 1979 when attempts were made to establish democracy. Instead, it resulted in more Islamic control and suppression. The speaker opined that what happened in Iran then is likely to happen in rest of the region. It was noted that elections should be taken as only one component of democratisation, because even autocracies have elections. He also pointed out that in case of Iran, Gaza, and Lebanon, one saw autocratic rule being replaced by Islamist rule. And same is likely to happen in Middle East in future as a result of this ‘Arab Spring’. He concluded by saying that Middle East can expect a long ‘Arab winter’ before the actual ‘Arab Spring’ sets.
Dr. Inbar said that there was continuous weakening of Arab states as a result of the uprising. The important features of these weakening states include increasing divisions, domestic turbulences and law and order problems. To some extent, this is good for Israel since it diminishes the possibility of a large scale war for Israel and makes it secure to some extent. However, this is not to deny the fact that Israel is confronted with new set of challenges. The uprising has led to the emergence of new elites/rulers who are not sufficiently experienced, are ideologically motivated and less cautious, which is a dangerous trend for Israel’s security. It was pointed out that if there is militarisation of Sanai then it will have serious implications for Israel. He said that already there is enhanced influence of radical Islamic groups; loss of effective control of the State over its constituent territories leading to sub-nationalism and terrorism, erosion in deterrence because of perceived decline of the US in Middle East. There is greater isolation of Israel in the region now after the loss of Turkey and the country is in midst of anti-Israeli, Islamic regimes resulting in posing serious threats to peace treaties.
It was also noted that the Middle East peace process has come to an end. On the decreased US role in peace making, the speaker pointed that the US was not central to peace and the domestic dynamics pushed the peace process. Articulating the on challenges and threats, it was noted that there are threats in the Mediterranean, especially its eastern portion becoming an Islamic lake. In addition, there is also the issue of Suez Canal being ruled by Islamists. Under these circumstances, there is a debate in Israel whether it should move with covert operation or military action. Further articulating his views on what Israel should do to ensure its security, it was pointed out that Israel should prepare for the worst (surprises); invest much in security, secure borders, build large force; deal with Iran; and invest in securing new alliances with Greece and Cyprus. In other words, it is the time for announcing the Israel’s periphery doctrine.
During the discussion some very pertinent issues were raised. These included;
It was noted by the panelists that it will not be possible to engage Iran if the US has failed to do so. Nuclear Iran will be a major source of distabilisation in the region. It was argued that the Palestinians don’t want resolution of the problem rather they want to end the conflict. Moreover, the problem is who do you negotiate with? Therefore in the current situation Israel has to wait and watch. The discussion concluded with remarks by the Chair, Dr. Arvind Gupta, who empahsised upon the role of energy and how this may change the complete scenario in the region. He pointed out that the issue of water, human security, agriculture and food, role of Russia and China in Middle East, nuclearisation of the region and its implications demand more discussion in future.
Report prepared by Meena Singh Roy and Babajee Pothuraju, IDSA.