During 2011, the Arab political world was transformed as hard-line dictatorships were removed by a movement fronted by a new generation of well-educated, communicative and assertive citizens. Tired of inherent corruption, police brutality and economic mismanagement, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets with a will for change and democracy. In a matter of weeks, decades-old autocracies fell in both Egypt and Tunisia. Whilst across the border, a popular armed rebel movement, backed by NATO, dethroned a former Arab revolutionist turned tyrant, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi.
Yet a year after the start of these successful rebellions there is an increasing amount of uncertainty across the region, and worryingly beyond. New fault lines are developing within these new democracies and the avenues of new media are being stifled by the traditional realms of international diplomacy. In Bahrain, little support has been given to the oppressed Shia majority, whilst in Yemen, the West was reluctant to see President Ali Abdullah Saleh replaced. All the while in Syria, the death toll continues to rise as the international community struggles to deal with the brutal excesses of the Assad regime.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a youthful generation looked forward to a new set of ideals at home and abroad. Yet that generation, now part of the political elite, find themselves coupled with an economic crisis and an ever-mutating world. The tide of the past two decades has made them increasingly fraught and reluctant to react. They have come to learn, with great expense and millions of deaths, that the succession of democracy and elections does not necessarily lead to economic growth or security. A decade of war in Afghanistan has caused no ends of trouble and still no long-term solution lies in place. Iraq, Pakistan and Syria are all issues that could easily explode beyond borders. Sclerotic institutions such as the UN hold legitimacy, but lack authority. Whereas regional bodies like the African Union (AU) and the Arab League remain divided by stasis and affliction.
The Arab Spring appeared different because the uprisings were led by an internal opposition. International voices highlighted their commitment to human rights, political reform and democracy, but nothing beyond. The memories of Algeria and Iraq meant that the West was reluctant to commit to anything other than rhetoric. Yet here were revolutions that were relatively bloodless and demanded change with so called ‘Western values’. The Libyan revolution required NATO help and incurred losses, but with an ultimate desire for freedom.
However, the flourishing hope appears to be diluting. Syria is fast turning into a cauldron. The UN ceasefire appears to exist purely as a memorandum. Russia and China indignantly reject any action towards President Assad, whereas other Western powers remain divided on whether to arm his opponents. Meanwhile; Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are concerned at the subversive role played by Iran and Hezbollah. In the past year alone, over 9,000 people have died due to the violence, if this turns into a regional war then who knows how big the death toll will become.
In Africa, unrest is dispersing across several countries. Guinea-Bissau suffered a coup d’état, Nigeria is dealing with a violent insurgency in the north. Tuareg mercenaries, armed by Colonel Gadaffi, have captured the northern half of Mali, including the town of Timbuktu, and have declared independence from Bamako. Whilst in the east, the bloodless secession of South Sudan from Sudan is fast turning ugly. Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir recently called his former countrymen ‘the enemy’. Already factional fighting and bombing has occurred across this fragmented, yet, oil-rich region. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended over 50 years of civil war, a legacy that left over two million dead. Former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki has been unable to get the leaders of Khartoum and Juba to sit down for talks. As Mbeki says, both countries are trapped in the ‘logic of war’.
As combat operations in Afghanistan wind down and the bite of defence cuts hits NATO nations, the prospect of future interventions remains doubtful. Unless organisations like the UN are willing to reform then who is to stop anything? The lessons after the Cold War have made industrial nations wary of change. If these countries lack the foundations and institutions of a democracy, then who’s not to say that it won’t fall apart in years to come?
2011 was a year that brought change for the Arab world, bringing hope and prospects for a new generation. We will see whether 2012 will continue to bring those fortunes or just the hangover from hell.