A Region on Fire: The “Arab Spring” Moves to “Arab Summer” and Heats UP

The Arab Spring has morphed into an “Arab Summer” of heated uncertainty and brutal conflict and soon will transition into an ‘Arab Fall.’  The “Arab Fall” will likely be the key time when agreed transition actions, conflicts, and elections will come to a critical stage and outcomes a bit more known. I suspect that the fall’s events will be major in determining to some extent the true direction of the Arab upheavals. But the summer has demonstrated the risks and uncertainties of the transformation.  Thus, we have little time to really help with this critical transition.

We will look at some of the current changes we are seeing, but the question of what will become of all the unrest and upheavals and the still fragile accomplishments of the “Arab Spring” remains. The question especially is what should America’s response, and that of our friends and allies, be?

First is the cradle of the movement in Tunisia where, for various reasons, there is more hope than despair but a still fragile and changing situation. Here democratic forces are still responding.  We are likely to see party formations and preparation for elections over the coming months, and the response of the current transition government will be key.  Here we need to find a multilateral framework which can help promote civic society, democracy, transparency and, conduct election monitoring for the Tunisians. They are “the center” of the North African “upheaval sandwich” with Egypt on one side and Libya on the other—all unstable and continuing to go through dangerous change.

Second is the most important event of the “Arab Spring,” namely the “revolution” in Egypt.  Here things do not look so good, as the existing government seems of mixed inclination with actions against change for a real democracy and small, incomplete steps towards a functioning democratic government.  The military council, which rules Egypt, has put Mubarak on trial but not made transparent, nor deeply involved the opposition groups in, the decisions on the path to democracy.

Third is the continued conflict and revolution in Libya, which is still an ongoing hindrance to progress, but likely has an “end game” which has yet to play out. Here there have been both positive and negative trends. The positive is the international community’s wide recognition of the rebel council.  On the negative side, rebel supporters killed the general, who had been leading the campaign against Gaddafi.  Inter-clan rivalries seem to be a barrier to a unified and effective transition system of national governance.  Once money starts to flow to the Transition Council and supplies flow in, the rebels should gain a better advantage over the Gaddafi forces.  Nevertheless, the Council has yet to fully prove it can be a unified transition and honest governing body.

The problem again is the lack of a comprehensive follow through by the West and friendly, rich Arab countries to help the transitional leaders organize a truly national government, prepare a nation which never had democracy and is divided by clan and ethnic interests, and gain the capability of meeting the hopes and aspirations of its newly freed citizens.

Lastly, the other “upheavals” will have an impact on the region, and there are still lessons to be learned from the chaotic situation in several of these countries—the most dangerous and unpredictable being Syria. The government seems determined to kill its restive citizens while the West seems equally determined not to intervene due to what might be call “war” fatigue and lack of resources.

The UN has just condemned the killings but without taking any meaningful action.  Clearly, Syria is destined to be a problem for the whole region, a killing field, and a murderous dictatorship unless some concerted action is taken.  Without getting rid of Assad and his supporters, Syria will remain a festering source of regional instability.  The new troubles in Lebanon, due to the UN calling for the arrest of Hezbollah killers of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, highlight the potential of added turmoil in Syria’s bordering countries.

Other countries in the region remain either in revolt, turmoil, or restive states. These include Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Lebanon, etc. In short, much of the region is undergoing major changes that pose both extraordinary opportunities and equal risks.  Doing nothing or very little is likely the worse option, yet the mood and economy of the West is corrosive to bold action.

What about American policies in the region to further democracy and to help economic growth, which is necessary to achieve stability and support democratic rule over the long term?  Obama’s stated polices seem right, but the issue at hand is that Congress is so dysfunctional that Obama might not be given, in the present atmosphere, enough support and resources to make enough of a contribution to the region to ensure its stability and prosperity.  The political and economic situations confronting the U.S. and our European allies make reaching out and giving support to these positive forces questionable. That means that others with more malevolent intent could seize the day.  In that case, we will have lost an historic opportunity to help shape the region’s aspiring democracy.

Under these circumstances, what can and should be done to create democracy, protect human rights, and ensure a measure of economic justice?  In an earlier letter on May 2nd to the Financial Times, I urged a new multilateral effort to establish an international body, perhaps under the UN, to coordinate and to fund a regional development and democracy building program and to utilize the funding capacity of the World Bank, IMF, UNDP, and the Arab League to raise funds for the effort rather than rely on strained, traditional bilateral or insufficient limited multilateral assistance.  A multi-year “full court press’ is clearly necessary here. A regional fund of at least $100 billion to start is needed with a timeline of help over a ten year period.

The second initiative is one of concerted diplomacy to prevent conflict and hands-on assistance provided by NGOs and established international organizations to provide on the ground training, educational assistance, and jobs focused on the youth of the region, along with civil development support.  Not least, private sector investment is crucial and may need to be subsidized or guaranteed in some form.

We welcome our readers’ thoughts and comments as the events continue to unfold!

By Harry C. Blaney III.

2 thoughts on “A Region on Fire: The “Arab Spring” Moves to “Arab Summer” and Heats UP

  1. Harry C. Blaney III August 15, 2011 / 10:54 AM

    Not sure I can agree with Paul Sack’s views on the possibility of serious moves towards democracy on the part of the “Arab Spring” countries. But Paul does ask a key question.

    He could have applied the same criteria towards other countries who did not have democracy, the US did not have a fully educated society when we had our revolution and many of our people were “poor.” And we have budding imperfect democracies in Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic States, a number of African, Latin American, and Asian states that did not meet Paul’s criteria. Building democracy and rule of law takes time – Indeed we are not yet a perfect democracy.

    I also respectfully disagree on the question of our “interest” in seeing these countries have a stable democracy, prosperity, and rule of law as well as respect for human rights. That is a “fundamental” interest for America. We need for global security a world of responsible states at peace with each other and a sense of a better life, and where terrorists and unrest are not likely.

    I would agree we are not able to act in each and every case of upheavals and conflict but in many of these cases we can and should. In Egypt we have an important state which has a budding civil society and a cultural history of a high standard. Libya has oil revenue and a brave population seeking freedom, and Tunisia has a history of close popular contact with the democratic tradition. Further, we can act without putting our own troops on the ground.

  2. Paul Sack August 10, 2011 / 2:33 PM

    Do these nations have the preconditions for democracy such as the institutions of civil society, an educated population, rule of law, and a minimum GDP of $7,000 per capita? I doubt it.

    I also do not think the U.S. has any fundamental interest in the political organization of these countries.

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