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February 16, 2012

Guest Post: Prospects for the Arab Spring

by Mike M

The following is a guest post from an international Friend of the Blog with knowledge of events in North Africa, who offers his comments under the name Raimondo Montecuccoli.  He argues in part that we need to view our approach through the lens of Sun Tzu, and look for intelligent indirect means of pursuing key objectives … because in some cases, for different reasons in different contexts, easy, direct actions or choices are ruled out or could be counterproductive.  “Plan the difficult while it is still easy,” Lao Tzu urges, “do the great while it is still small:  the world’s difficult affairs surely arise from easy ones, the world’s great affairs surely arise from small ones.”  — MikeM


 The Arab Spring – Opportunity or Threat?

The Arab spring is not over yet.  It is even more likely that we are only at the beginning of a development that will change the Arab world for the foreseeable future.  Moreover it will influence its neighborhood and – due to the geostrategic importance of these region – also the rest of the world.

Is there already a strategy of how to deal with it?

Tunisia was the first of the Arab Spring countries and is probably the most advanced.  It has a stable, democratically elected government, but the economic situation of the country is at least as difficult as it was one year ago.  There are already dark clouds on the horizon.  Just recently there were violent Salafist activities in Sejnan, Manouba, Tunis and Sfax.  The key question for Tunisia is, will the government be able – and willing – to overcome all these challenges and “lead the way” for the other countries of the region?

Libya had – for the time being – seen the most violent struggle of the Arab Spring.  It is a huge country with a tiny population, lots of oil and gas – and virtually no working government and civil society structures.  Among the current problems is the demobilization of numerous militias, the establishment of security forces, the preparation of a working election law, the revenge on former regime loyalists, the credibility of the National Transitional Council, the composition of the interim government, weapons smuggling, the threat from AQ/AQIM terrorism, other Salafist activities—and many more.  Libya’s major question is, will money solve all the problems?

Egypt is probably the geostrategic most important of all the Arab Spring counties (for the time being).  It links Africa and Asia, has a population of 82 million people (32.7% under the age of 15), two major religions, very limited resources, lots of weapons and Israel as a neighbor.  It faces a growing unemployment rate (currently 12.2%), in particular among the young people (group of 15-24: 24.8%) and almost no perspectives for a near time positive development.  The influence of radical Islamists is growing.  How can all this work out well?

The Syrian population is in the mid of a struggle against its violent regime.  The “Libya model” will not work for various reasons.  But this country has the potential to be the starting point of a regional war, and at this point it’s not clear what can be done about it.

Saudi Arabia and the other wealthy Gulf States (except for various reasons Bahrain) were for the time being not really affected by the Arab Spring.  A good question is whether this will remain the case.  We need to look for indicators giving us a proper warning notice before things start happening there.

Although there is not a single pattern for the Arab Spring revolutions, most have a lack of individual freedom, poor governance and in particular low living standards and no perspectives at its beginning.   And it seems to be that in most countries the events bring a growing influence of Political Islam – which is not necessarily bad.  The question is only into which direction does this Political Islam develop and how the moderate Islamists and other democratic elements can be supported …

As we are at an early stage of the Arab Spring, it should be possible to influence the developments in these countries in order to avoid a catastrophic crash.  It is important to understand the interests of the local population of the respective countries and to define our own interests.  It is better to start with the development and subsequent implementation of a proper strategy sooner than later.  Such a strategy needs to be a complex one tailored to individual states, but some broad principles will need to play a major role.

Building up credible security forces that are trusted by the population is paramount, as an acceptable level of security is precondition for everything else.  This process is already well advanced in many parts of Tunisia; the army was the key for the successful revolution and is still the backbone of security, but the police needs still some time to recover.  In Libya neither the National Army nor the police are a credible force.  Numerous militias are still in charge of most parts of the country.  It is doubtful that proper elections can be organized under these circumstances.

Facilitating and supporting good governance is urgently necessary in the whole region, but while doing this we need to be aware that most of the new governments don´t yet have a firm grip on their countries.  It doesn´t make sense to push an interim government to enforce human rights if has no power to do so.  Building up structures for good governance needs time – and an acceptable level of security as precondition.

Most of the countries require substantial foreign direct investment, probably more than the West is able to provide.  This is in particular true with Egypt.  Yes, the people there need to be patient, but it is important that they see some tangible progress.

A successful strategy for dealing with the Arab Spring certainly needs several more elements, but those mentioned above will have a key role.  We need to be careful with the application our tools of strategy in order not to alienate the population of these Arab countries who has right now mostly positive feelings towards the west.

It is still not clear where the Arab Spring states will end up.  Will they become stable Muslim market democracies, which are reliable partners for the west?  Will some of them end up as radical Islamists states or even as failed states?  Probably the truth lies in between.  One thing is for sure:  the Arab Spring will become an opportunity or a threat in part depending on how we deal with it.
Raimondo Montecuccoli

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