NEW DELHI – A year after the Arab Spring came to symbolize the ascent of people’s power, hope has given way to a bleak sequel.
The democratic awakening has fallen prey to murky geopolitics that has cleaved the Arab Spring into two parts, with the oil monarchies escaping change but the other republics coming under varying degrees of pressure.
The promise of a new era of democracy indeed has been blighted in much of the region by the continuing political repression. Worse, war clouds have emerged on the horizon.
What began as protests against food prices, corrupt leaders and lack of government accountability has assumed ominous dimensions. From the rampant but largely unreported human-rights abuses in the post-Moammar Gadhafi Libya to the increasing bloodshed in multiethnic, autocratic Syria, the developments are making the future of the Middle East and North Africa more volatile and uncertain.
Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, stands out for carrying out the region’s most-successful suppression of an Arab Spring movement, thanks to a Saudi-led military intervention and continuing Western backing.
Whereas Cairo’s Tahrir Square has come to epitomize the power of ordinary people to rise up against tyranny, Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout was simply obliterated with bulldozers — an action that was followed up with arrest and torture of activists as well as of the doctors and nurses who treated the injured.
Yet a year later, family-run Bahrain’s future looks anything but stable. Exacerbating the regional instability is the escalating U.S. geopolitical confrontation with Iran, with both sides currently engaged in a psychological war. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s warning of a looming Israeli attack on Iran and Tehran’s threat to shut down the world’s most important oil-export route — the Strait of Hormuz — are part of this war of nerves.
The danger that this show of threats could escalate to military hostilities has been underscored by the U.S. declaration of an indirect war against Iran — the imposition of an oil-export embargo to financially throttle Tehran.
Given that energy exports account for 80 percent of Iran’s foreign-exchange earnings, the U.S. (and European Union) oil embargo and freeze on Iranian Central Bank assets increase the risks of a military confrontation — the very development that these sanctions are meant to avert.
History attests to the linkage between an oil embargo and military hostilities. Although the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack took the United States by complete surprise, the attack was triggered in some measure by a U.S.-British-Dutch oil-import embargo against Japan as part of a larger economic squeeze that began in 1939.
Four trends in the Arab world have become pronounced:
• The first is the way the Arab Spring movements are reopening traditional fault lines along sectarian and tribal divides and fomenting new internal ferment.
Even as intertribal politics threatens the future of post-Gadhafi Libya, sectarian battle lines are hardening in conflict-battered Syria, where the armed opposition claims to represent the Sunni Arab majority and the besieged Alawite-led regime has cleverly played to the fears of the minorities, which account for almost two-fifths of the national population and include the Alawites, Christians, Kurds and Druze.
Similarly, the Bahraini regime, seeking to justify its large-scale repression, has stirred fears among the country’s Sunni elite of an Iranian-backed takeover by the disempowered Shiites, who make up 70 percent of the population.
If the once-peaceful, secular Syria becomes another Lebanon, a sectarian division of that country is not inconceivable, given that the Sunni Arab and minority populations are largely concentrated in geographically separate areas.
• A second trend has exposed a vein of religious extremism and promoted the ascendancy of Islamist influence, including in states that have seen regime change.
New opportunities have been opened up for Islamist movements to exert influence and bring themselves to the center-stage, as in Morocco, Kuwait, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Syria.
The new Islamist influence is apparent even in Tunisia, hailed as a model for revolution. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which initially collaborated with Gamal Abdel Nasser after his 1952 coup, is again developing close ties with the military that still holds the reins of power, raising concerns of a military-Islamist nexus in Pakistan style.
The oil sheikdoms, in any case, are theocratic states, which today are aiding Islamist causes in their own backyard.
This is best exemplified by Saudi Arabia and its new avatar, Qatar, which has developed cozy ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in its various incarnations in the Arab world. Qatar indeed has leveraged its natural-gas wealth and unbridled ambition to emerge as a leading backer of Islamist causes, in parallel to the role Saudi Arabia has long played.
• The third trend is represented by the increasingly ugly regional geopolitics, which pits the “Sunni Crescent” led by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates against the “Shiite Crescent” states — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Turkey, after being rebuffed in its efforts to join the European Union, has turned its attention to the Arab world, seeking to carve a role for itself as the regional hegemon. To help mend ties with Arab countries — which had long been suspicious of Ankara’s close relationship with Israel, as exemplified by the 1996 Military Training Cooperation Agreement and an unconsummated accord to export Turkish bulk water — Turkey has turned against its ally Israel.
Turkey also has come full circle on Syria. Ankara had accused the regime of Hafez al-Assad — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s father — of seeking to build leverage on their bilateral water disputes by actively aiding the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. But now Turkey is waging a proxy war of its own by providing sanctuary and arms to the Free Syrian Army, besides reverting to hardline anti-Kurdish policies, including military incursions into northern Iraq in pursuit of alleged guerrillas.
Today, the regional contest for geopolitical influence between Turkey and Iran — the inheritors of the Ottoman and Persian Empires — has cast a lengthy shadow over the Arab Spring. This shadow has been made darker by the interventionist impulse of the Saudi and Qatari monarchies, which have sought to create puritanical Islamist surrogates in some other Arab states.
Tiny Qatar, for example, has played an important role in the past year in ousting Moammar Gadhafi, aiding the Sunni insurrection in Syria, backing Tunisia’s Islamist party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, and brokering the departure of Yemen’s brutal dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, instead of being tried for the killing of hundreds of demonstrators, was recently granted entry into the U.S., in keeping with the foreign-policy maxim, “He may be a bastard, but he is our bastard.” Qatar today serves as the seat of secret U.S. talks with the Taliban.
• A fourth trend is that the Arab Spring has become a springboard for playing great-power geopolitics.
Syria, at the center of the region’s sectarian fault lines, has emerged as the principal battleground for such Cold War-style geopolitics. Whereas Russia is intent on keeping its only military base outside the old Soviet Union in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus, the U.S. seems equally determined to install a pro-Western regime in Damascus.
This goal prompted Washington to set up a London-based television station that began broadcasting to Syria a year before major protests began there. The U.S. campaign, which includes assembling a coalition of the willing, has been boosted by major Turkish, Saudi, Qatari and UAE help, including cross-border flow of arms into Syria and the establishment of two new petrodollar-financed, jihad-extolling television channels directed at Syria’s majority Sunni Arabs.
Moscow continues to arm and politically shield the Assad regime, while Washington has just announced the resumption of military aid to despotic Bahrain, after rewarding Saudi Arabia with a massive arms package.
Iran, for its part, wants democracy in Bahrain but status quo in Syria. The Arab League — still the world’s premier organization of tyrants — sent a delegation headed by a tainted military general to monitor Syria’s human-rights situation. The harsh reality is that such geopolitics has effectively hijacked the Arab Spring.
Today, it is the Arab states with a presidential form of government that are at the center of the ongoing profound changes, which, paradoxically, are sought to be influenced by the iron-fisted but deep-pocketed oil monarchies. Their already-swelling coffers — thanks to the U.S. energy embargo against Iran and rising oil prices — are set to overflow, increasing their leverage in the region and beyond.
The experience of the past half-century shows that the greater the transfer of oil wealth to these monarchies, the more they have funded fundamentalism and extremism, thereby contributing to the rise of international terrorism. In fact, the more wealth they have accumulated, the more the price of freedom has risen in the region.
In this light, the U.S. attempt to give international effect to its new Iran-sanctions law constitutes a double whammy for its close partners, Japan and India. It will sabotage their energy-import-diversification strategy by making them place all its eggs in the basket of the wrong regimes — the ones that bankroll Islamist groups.
At a time when America is quickening its Afghanistan disengagement with little regard for Indian interests, it will rupture India’s relations with the very country central to its Afghanistan strategy — Iran.
More broadly, the Arabs’ democratic aspirations will likely remain unrealized unless the sharpening geopolitics backfires and the oil sheikdoms’ insulation from change wears away.
Given the way well-entrenched autocratic presidents have fallen from power in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the durability of the region’s monarchs is anything but assured.
Brahma Chellaney is an Asian geostrategist and the author of six books.