Edition 33 Volume 9 - November 17, 2011
Winners and losers in the Arab revolutions: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco
Morocco's coming elections pose a litmus test
Constitutions matter, but what matters more is what people do with them.
Saudi Arabia will lead
Iran and al-Qaeda, the kingdom's two primary foes, have been seriously weakened.
Jordan: a profit and loss statement
Jordan should be fully aware that the second decade of the millennium belongs to political Islam throughout the region.
The Saudi trinity: oil, God and security
Fermenting discontent within society could erupt in violent ways.
Morocco's coming elections pose a litmus test
After Tunisia's historic election, it is now Morocco's turn to gear up for early polls and try to replicate that dramatic achievement in democracy. Such a feat will naturally be hard to pull off in Morocco where the population is not as motivated to vote as it was in Tunisia. Pluralities are still skeptical that the election will bring change they can believe in. Political parties have so far failed to inspire hope for real political change. The Herculean task of gaining voters' confidence and trust is amply visible in the campaign for the November 25 legislative elections. Very few Moroccans believe that Morocco's established political parties can take advantage of the opportunities that the new Moroccan political pact offers.
Despite its failure to significantly limit the king's powers, the 2011 constitution provides a margin of political maneuverability that did not previously exist. Most importantly, it enhances legislative capacity and access to the policy realm, and desacralizes the sovereign's acts and power. Under the proposed reforms, parliament--which had long been relatively weak--now has the potential to play a more assertive role. The key question, then, is whether Morocco's political parties are up to the task and ready to push the democratic envelope on constitutionally permissive activities. Constitutions matter, but what matters more is what people do with them.
Thus far, most political parties have failed to generate popular enthusiasm and interest. Even the most credible opposition political party, the Party of Justice and Development, pains to convince voters of its capacity to effectively shape the development and governance trajectories of the kingdom. Senior figures in this Islamist party have expressed to me their concern about low voter turnout. Besides undermining the legitimacy of the elections, low participation would seriously impact the party's chances of winning the parliamentary contest. The electoral law with its malapportionment favors rural areas, where the Islamists have almost no support and where turnout is always much higher than in urban areas. The PJD cannot compensate for this weakness unless it over-performs on election day in its strongholds in urban areas. That probably cannot happen without higher turnout.
The regime must also be concerned about low turnouts and the impact that might have on popular perceptions of the meaningfulness of elections and legitimacy of political institutions. Confidence in electoral processes is critical to the success of the political reforms recently inaugurated in Morocco. Mohammed VI clearly placed his bet on measured reforms to reduce social tensions and lift the country's political malaise. By placing himself at the center of the reform debates, the monarch quickly claimed the mantle of the political change the protesters demanded and positioned himself as the leading driver of the reform process. But despite broad support for the king's reform effort, most Moroccans I interviewed expect that the reform process should lead quickly to accountable and responsible governance, and low levels of economic inequality. Unless immediate remedial measures are taken to prevent corruption in the public sphere and redress the glaring social and economic disparities, Morocco is poised to experience tough times ahead. Unemployment figures are already dangerously high, standing at 31.4 percent for those under 35. Young people in this age bracket also constitute 57 percent of the 13 million Moroccans that are registered to vote.
As it stands, it would be unrealistic to expect a high turnout in the November election. Morocco is just emerging from the legacy of monarchical dominance of politics that contributed little to the real institutionalization of pluralistic politics and strengthening of broad-based representative institutions. The rushed electoral schedule also has complicated the parties' task as it left little time for them to hold their conventions, hone their electoral programs, and showcase that--in this historic time of regional change--they are determined to renew themselves. Despite these challenges, it is extremely crucial that the elections are perceived as fair and free from the manipulative practices of vote buying and other undue influences.
The electoral integrity of the contest will boost the credibility of elections and legitimacy of the newly-reformed institutions of the state. Only free and fair elections, Saadeddine Othmani of the PJD told me, can produce the new political elite the country so badly needs. It is also these elites that would be tasked with drafting the many "organic laws" that the new constitution stipulates. In other words, transitional periods, as Morocco is currently experiencing, are naturally characterized by limited levels of democracy and low popular participation, but as civic consciousness rises and free and fair political competition becomes fully routinized, potent political parties and civil society actors are bound to emerge, strengthening in the process the institutions of government and driving levels of democracy up.
The Moroccan regime has navigated quite successfully the treacherous times of the Arab awakening, though its institutional reforms did not gain the acquiescence of the February 20 protest movement, which remains fractured, disorganized, and lacking popular support. Nevertheless, the monarchy would be advised to take seriously the demands of the protesters, especially those dealing with corruption, rule of law, and public accountability. That starts with the November 25 elections, where over 30 parties will be competing for 395 seats, 70 of which are reserved for women and younger deputies.
King Mohammed has declared his commitment to substantive reforms and democratization. The stakes are considerable. If constitutional reforms lead to separation of powers and independence of the legislature and judiciary, the regional implications could indeed be significant. Morocco can become one of the Arab spring's great successes and a model for other monarchies to emulate. If the Moroccan transition stalls, then the struggle for democratization in the kingdom might start to take different forms, especially if the revolutions in neighboring Tunisia, Libya and Egypt succeed in creating efficient democratic forms of government.-Published 17/11/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org
Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College in Maryland.
Saudi Arabia will lead
Since the chaos of the so-called "Arab spring" began last January, the centrality of Saudi Arabia to the region's security and stability has only been enhanced. It is true that the unrest has brought challenges for the kingdom, chief among them regional instability and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Nevertheless, over the long term the kingdom is well-positioned to emerge from this period with a stronger diplomatic hand and a more robust strategic position. As the Saudi government continues to use its resources to enhance the welfare of its people and stabilize the Arab world, its stature will grow while that of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and rogue states like Iran will wither.
Despite the rhetoric in the West, the so-called Arab spring has ushered in a period of hardship across the region. Tens of thousands of civilians have died and the collapse of long-standing regimes has created a power vacuum where tribal resentment and regional rivalries take priority over national unity. The prospect of protracted civil war in these societies is real, especially given their vast stockpiles of unsecured weapons. Although some countries are at greater risk than others, the story is playing out in some form across the entire region. Even in cosmopolitan Egypt, which has historically had a deep national identity and was well-integrated into the global economy, early indications are that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to dominate in the first post-Mubarak government. At the moment, there is no central authority in Egypt, and all the major organs of government save the army have collapsed.
These developments provide difficulties for Saudi Arabia because they have destabilized the region. The possibility that weapons will be easier to obtain in coming years is troubling, as is the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood's rise. But even in this context, the kingdom has enjoyed stability and prosperity. The Saudi leadership recently oversaw a successful Hajj in which three million Muslims took part, including about two million visitors from outside the country. Despite warnings from some quarters, no unrest was seen during this pilgrimage. On the political front, the routinization of succession was demonstrated when the process proceeded in an orderly fashion after the death of Crown Prince Sultan.
More important than the challenges posed by regional unrest are the benefits to Saudi Arabia. The most important derives from the fact that Iran and al-Qaeda--the kingdom's two primary foes--have been seriously weakened by the waves of protest. Iran had staked its strategy in the Arab world on its ties to the Syrian government and the strength of Hizballah, its Lebanese proxy. However, the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has dramatically weakened Iran's position. Assad is Iran's most vocal ally in the Arab League and when he inevitably loses power, Iran will have no Arab representative for its interests. The loss of the Assad regime will degrade Hizballah's ability to organize within Lebanon and to threaten regional stability. At the same time, the unrest has helped cement the historical ties between the Saudi leadership and the Arab tribes that constitute the majority of Syria's population. Saudi Arabia led the regional diplomatic effort against the Assad regime and was the first major nation to withdraw its ambassador and suspend all contacts with the Syrian government.
The unrest has also weakened al-Qaeda, a group that declared war on the kingdom years before it began its campaign against the West. Although it has tried to co-opt the protest movements with desperate shows of rhetorical support, al-Qaeda has been completely absent from the demonstrations and has played no role in bringing down any of the regimes. This is significant because its decades-long campaign of violence was aimed explicitly at overthrowing leaders like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In many cases, peaceful protesters accomplished in less than a month what al-Qaeda could not do during the past 15 years. This has discredited the movement's ideology, which over the long run helps eliminate one of the kingdom's key foes.
Into the power vacuum that has appeared, Saudi Arabia's vast economic and financial resources have provided it with a unique capability to aid those that have been affected by the recent unrest. The United States and Europe are unable to provide the financial assistance that these countries need, given the severe fiscal problems that they themselves face. Saudi Arabia on the other hand has already pledged over $15 billion in assistance to various Arab countries, with more likely to follow. In addition to financial support, the kingdom's defense support for the Bahraini government against Iranian-backed protesters was key to maintaining stability in that island nation.
There is no doubt that the unrest that has shaken the Arab world over the past year has created many difficulties for the region, most notably the possibility of continued civil conflict, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the danger of unsecured weapons. But due to its growing strength and unshaken stability, Saudi Arabia is in a unique position to lead through this challenging period. When the dust from the regional upheavals settles, Iran, al-Qaeda, and the enemies of stability will find themselves weakened and the Saudi kingdom will lead in transforming the so-called Arab spring's bitter autumn harvest into a new era of peace and stability in the Arab world.-Published 17/11/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org
Nawaf Obaid is senior fellow at King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh.
Jordan: a profit and loss statement
Jordan can neither join a list of winners benefiting from the "Arab spring" nor join a list of losers. It has incurred both profits and losses, even as its final statement of account is still being processed. Most probably, this statement will not be finalized until a clear picture has emerged of the changes and transitions taking place in various Arab countries, especially Syria.
When we speak of Jordan, we mean the Jordanian regime per se. Until around April of this year, the regime was on shaky ground due to losing key allies in Egypt and Tunisia. Strong revolutionary winds seemed to be sweeping Amman and the capital cities of other moderate Arab states. An express train of change seemed to be moving at high speed from one capital to another, uprooting ostensibly "well-established" regimes. It had occurred to no one that these regimes would collapse so promptly and effortlessly.
Then the "express train" parked for a long time at its Libya station, where it faced ferocious resistance by the regime and its forces. Moreover, the regime in Yemen could not be toppled. And Bahrain's leaders, with direct military support from Saudi Arabia and additional Gulf countries as well as Jordan, were able to contain the "intifada" of that country's Shiite majority.
These developments helped the Jordanian regime dismiss fears of comprehensive and unexpected change and cool down the momentum of protests that emerged in parallel with the Arab revolts. As the revolutionary wave struck Syria, and Damascus became the focus of international attention in the aftermath of the Gaddafi regime's collapse, Jordan and the Gulf countries appeared more resilient. Indeed, the Jordanian regime can boast that not a single person has been killed throughout an entire year of protests and demonstrations. This is striking, considering the accelerated level of violence employed by the Syrian authorities next door in oppressing the people's protests and the consequent rising toll of dead and injured Syrians.
The regime in Jordan has succeeded in opening the doors wide for the option of political reform. That reform might be incomplete or insufficient, but it remains the best and the most daring compared with all other initiatives launched by Arab regimes and governments.
Still, there are three developments that have not yet matured or crystallized. At the end of the day, it is these developments that will decide if Jordan's profit and loss scale tilts toward the winners or losers list.
Firstly, the Arab Islamic movements have witnessed a phase of resurrection and are poised to accede to or share power in a number of Arab countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria. This is bound to impact the future relationship between the regime in Amman and the Jordanian Islamic movement (Muslim Brotherhood); undoubtedly, that impact will favor the Islamists. Accordingly, one can say that Jordan should be fully aware that the second decade of the third millennium belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam throughout the region. Can Jordan be an exception to this rule?
Secondly, strong opposition blocs have begun to dominate the Jordanian tribes that constitute the historical backbone of the regime and its traditional base of loyalty. During the past ten months, the populous (Transjordan) areas have witnessed the emergence of youth and social action movements that strongly oppose the regime. The king's power and authority have been heavily challenged by Jordanian tribal figures and youth groups. It has become clear to all that the increasing calls for a constitutional monarchy hide a strong inclination to consecrate the "Jordanian identity" of the ruling system and the state in Jordan and that, for the first time, this inclination has collided with the "Hashemite identity and agenda" instead of challenging the Palestinian identity--which was the case for decades in the past.
Thirdly, we encounter a fear strongly and publicly voiced by ruling circles in Jordan regarding the failure and collapse of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and the deteriorating likelihood of the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. This fear depicts a solution for the Palestinian cause outside Palestine and at the expense of Jordan. Many Jordanians, including the king himself, are warning that Israel could exploit instability in Jordan and the region--that it could in fact promote instability to generate a state of "creative anarchy" that generates substantial change in Jordan--whereupon Jordan with its Palestinian majority would become the scene of the liquidation of the Palestinian cause.
This scenario used to be the scarecrow used by some Jordanian politicians to score local political gains. Now it is mainstream Jordanian, with the king personally warning of the inclination of the mainstream of the Hebrew state, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to embrace the "alternative homeland" plan and solve the Palestinian issue in Jordan. This is an unprecedented development that will have repercussions for both the peace process and Jordanian-Israeli relations.
In brief, the Arab revolts that have reshuffled the rules of the game and caused an imbalance in relations and balances among powers in the region require Jordan to tread cautiously in a field of "landmines" and unforeseen events. The moderate Arab camp has become weaker, yet the resistance camp at the other end of the Arab spectrum is nearly dismantled and its impact fading.
None of us can predict the future of Arab political systems. No one can foresee what attitudes and policies will be adopted. Yet one fact appears to be true amidst the fog of the moment: the regime in Jordan is no longer capable of ruling on the basis of its old media, tactics, alliances and tools.-Published 17/11/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org
Oraib Al-Rantawi is director of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies, Amman.
The Saudi trinity: oil, God and security
With the winds of the "Arab spring" still blowing across the region, internally Saudi Arabia seems to have put in place three safeguards against the turbulence. Lavish economic handouts worth more than $70 billion were promised in February to absorb discontent. A package of economic, social, health and educational benefits was meant to absorb immediate frustration at lack of housing, jobs, health facilities, and welfare services. The regime promised more employment opportunities in two relevant sectors: the religious bureaucracy and the security services. The first absorbs the increasing number of graduates who cannot be employed in the private sector. The second strengthens the increasing militarization of Saudi society.
But this was still not enough. Religiously-sanctioned obedience to rulers had to be re-invoked to remind the constituency of a godly obligation. From the minarets of mosques, religious functionaries of the regime preached sermons in which they reminded their audiences of the obligation to obey God, the Prophet and the al-Saud rulers. They warned against demonstrations, civil disobedience and open criticism of the leadership. They glorified the current leadership for its adherence to Islam, and warned against chaos. They vehemently denounced Shiites for their agitations in the Eastern Province, where oil is abundant. Any call for demonstrations was depicted as a Shiite Iranian conspiracy against a pious Sunni nation. They called on the believers to support the rulers, much needed at a turbulent moment. Increasing sectarianism within Saudi Arabia is a reflection of an on-going cold war with Iran.
With the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia lost a close ally against its enemy of three decades. The Arab spring is perceived by the Saudi leadership as an opportunity for Iran to increase its penetration of Arab countries and civil society. Agitation in Bahrain was definitely seen by the Saudis as yet another example of Iran's growing influence and ability to stir up trouble in a neighboring Gulf country with a Shiite majority. With the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudis sent troops to help the al-Khalifa rulers against the pro-democracy movement, allegedly an arm of the Iranian regime. The Saudis consider their intervention an important measure to roll back Iranian influence. In Bahrain, for the moment, they seem to have been the winners in their on-going confrontation with Iran. But in Syria, the situation is still unresolved. For the Saudis, the protest in Syria is another opportunity to win Syria back to the Arab fold, after President Bashar Assad increasingly drifted towards Iran. So sectarianism seems to work at two levels: repel Iranian influence and silence dissidence at home. Saudi conservative and anti-Shiite religious tradition is an effective policy against both internal dissidents and external foes.
Saudi Arabia's last step was to tighten security just in case oil and God failed to produce the desired acquiescence. A digital "Day of Rage" was announced on March 11. While Saudi opposition calls were gathering momentum in the virtual world, a different reality was unfolding on the ground. Saudi security forces were mobilized in the main cities. This amounted to a state of emergency with troops on the ground and helicopters flying low in the sky. An atmosphere of intimidation was soon established. The calls failed miserably to attract demonstrators. But hundreds of activists were arrested, including several Shiite and Sunni agitators. Two petitions calling for more political participation, constitutional rule, and social justice remained unanswered. The regime responded by introducing a new terrorism law that criminalizes any open criticism of the king and the grand mufti.
For the moment, these three Saudi regime strategies seem to have absorbed the wave of real turbulence made apparent as a result of the Arab spring. Digital activism never stopped, providing a great cathartic service to a population denied the basic principles of freedom. However, with internal protest crushed and apparent western silence over political reform, the Saudi regime seems to be comfortable in the short term. The regime deployed classical strategies to contain protest. Religious bans on demonstrations and sectarian discourse against the Shiites appealed to the Sunni majority and ensured a momentary truce between the regime and the multiple and disorganized voices calling for political reform. Heavy policing, together with tailored economic benefits rewarding those who had expressed strong support for the regime--mainly the religious establishment and the coercive forces--led to reluctance to engage in real protest.
But in an opaque country like Saudi Arabia, one is bound to believe that discontent among substantial sections in society that occasionally manifests itself through virtual activism and petitions is currently fermenting underground.
Despite revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, it seems that Saudi Arabia is still lagging behind in terms of the structural conditions for real mobilization leading to organization and protest. The conditions that triggered revolt elsewhere, for example economic and social deprivation, in addition to political oppression and corruption, are all present in Saudi Arabia. But these conditions are not sufficient to precipitate a revolt. Saudi Arabia does not have organized trade unions, a women's movement or an active student population. These were the three important structural factors that made it possible for the virtual Egyptian and Tunisian protests to move from the virtual world to the ground.
The Saudi case attests to the limits of cyber-utopianism, the euphoria surrounding the so-called Twitter and Facebook revolutions. In addition to the three regime strategies deployed to thwart protest, the failure of the Arab spring to reach Saudi Arabia is a function of energy, lack of experience with rudimentary forms of democracy and civil society, and the monarchy's unconditional support from western governments.
But sometimes when all appears to be quiet on the eastern front, fermenting discontent within society could erupt in violent ways. In Saudi Arabia's continuous climate of oppression and secrecy, violence practiced by both state and sections of society is often an indication of deep-rooted problems. The Arab spring may be delayed in Saudi Arabia but its winds could yet blow over one of the least democratic and most opaque countries in the Arab world. In the absence of a tradition of peaceful protest and with religiously-sanctioned bans on such protest, violence against the regime and society by disenchanted groups may again become the only option--as it had been over the last century.
The Arab spring has both deprived Saudi Arabia of loyal allies such as Mubarak and put the kingdom face-to-face with the rising Iranian challenge. The outcome of the Saudi-Iranian cold war will definitely be determined not in Bahrain but in Syria, a larger and more important strategic country. It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia can claim victory in a war of attrition that has been brewing for more than three decades. At least for the moment, the home front seems to be quiet.-Published 17/11/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org
Madawi al-Rasheed is a professor at King's College in London.