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The Arab tumult in its wider meaning

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 04, 2011

    India, as an ‘emerged power’, will be increasingly required to take a position on events and issues across the globe. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council it may have to voice an opinion in the confabulations of the Council. Given that it is an aspirant for a permanent seat, its position will have to be considered and mindful of the type of world order it wishes to create. In this light, events unfolding in Egypt pose a test for India.

    India’s view has been voiced by its foreign minister, "With reference to what is happening there, it is an internal affair of that country...We hope that a resolution would be found which would be acceptable to those who are demonstrating there." In a statement, the MEA elaborated the Minister’s sentiment, stating, "mass protests in Egypt (which) are an articulation of the aspirations of the Egyptian people for reform." It goes on to state India’s hope that, "the current situation will be resolved in a peaceful manner, in the best interests of the people of Egypt." India has managed to balance its preference for democratization, while acknowledging that it is an internal matter.

    The tumult in the Arab world, as rightly observed by India, is an expression by the people for greater democratization. It is important that it be heeded now, lest in light of the youth bulge and demographic indicators the problem resurfaces tomorrow in a violent manifestation. Even if stability is favoured, it must be one that brings about evolutionary democratization. While this has begun in a rudimentary fashion in the Arab states, it needs to acquire both pace and depth. At a minimum, resort to violence should be avoided, even if provoked by elements wanting to profit from anarchy. The attitude of the Egyptian Army thus far on this score is an exemplary precedent. This would help avoid deepening ideological fissures, as was evidenced in the escalatory violence in the early nineties in Algeria.

    There are two reservations to democratisation, accounting for external support to the regimes. One is apprehension of extremists taking over power, using the opening up to their advantage. This is, however, liable to being used as an excuse for self-perpetuation of unpopular regimes. If the threat stifles reforms, then the message would be that the only route to change is violence, which will only strengthen extremist hands. The second is that the regional order will be destabilised since popular regimes coming to power may prove anti-Israel. This is to underestimate the pragmatism and diplomatic capacities of Israel. Incoming regimes would be equally realistic in gauging relative power and the continuing need for external (read US) support. Populist stances endangering survival or the gains of the revolution are less likely in the short term. The interim can be usefully employed to further the peace process in the Middle East.

    The problem of Islamism must also be seen in the context of lack of democracy. Absence of any possibility of opposition to dictatorial regimes in police states leads to extremist takeover of the imagination and political space. They become the only organized opposition, albeit an underground one. This enables them to bid for power. Their presence in such situations does not amount to their automatic elevation nor does their proximity to power automatically mean an abrogation of democracy in future. The possibility of extremists gaining a wider base from which to attack the global order exists. This does not however mean that the people be made to pay for stability in the global order by the curtailment of their democratic rights. With democratization, the ‘pull factors’ existing in the global order that lead to extremism would be removed. This is the way to long term undercutting of extremist ideology.

    While violence has been the way to fight Islamism so far, it has shown limited results and has been at a considerable human price. Democracy is the best antidote. Relying on the best instincts and principles of Islamic societies is a way to defuse the ideological sway of Islamism. The moderate majority can be expected to tie down Islamists. Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia are important Muslim states which have contended with extremism with varying degrees of success indicating that this is possible. The current denial of democracy has as its core the argument, as witnessed in Algeria, that once Islamists seize power it would be the end of democracy. Such thinking has been used to restrict revolutionary Iran earlier which continues to impact on that country’s relations with the west. The logic seems to be that democracy needs to be denied since it cannot be preserved!

    Lastly, authoritarian regimes in Arab lands and in Central Asia are largely supported by external powers. This suggests that there are more important stakes for the supporting powers in such lands than democracy or the best interests of the people in these lands. Quite obviously this has to do with energy security. Democracy is the price that the region pays for preservation of a global order based on access to these resources. This need not be the case, for even if there was democracy, energy flows can still be organised. Even if extremists were to come to power, they would require to profit from the natural resources on national territory. Therefore, there is no need for basing the global order on what critics label as neocolonial linkages with dictatorial regimes.

    Stability is a useful characteristic in a system. A way to defuse the challenge and threat faced by these regimes that make these states dictatorial is democracy. Therefore, for the sake of stability, these states need to be urged along the route of democratization. That this has not happened indicates the gap between rhetoric and practice. The consequence of the terrorist opposition to these regimes is felt in the close vicinity of India, in the form of the presence of al Qaeda and the war against it. The ideological war to claim the religious imagination also has ripples across South Asia. Therefore, it is not entirely an internal matter for these states. Others, including India, have a legitimate interest in ways to defuse Islamism. India’s own example of democracy being the best antidote is a worthy one.

    Given that India will be faced with situations in future in which it would require to take a call, the Jasmine revolution and its aftermath serves as a useful precedent for informing its response. Arriving at a policy position in anticipation for the purposes of consistency may be useful. It would be informed not only by vision but also pragmatism. It cannot be emotional, yet nor can it be indifferent to India’s own historical and cultural underpinnings in favour of democracy. It would require taking into account the existing relationships without prejudicing India’s future relationships. Additionally, given India’s placement in the power hierarchy, it would require to be future orientated in taking its stand. Overtime, these decisions would help chisel the kind of global order India prefers for its continued growth and security.