Post-Arab Spring Middle East: Democratisation and geopolitical challenges | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 02, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 02, 2013

Post-Arab Spring Middle East: Democratisation and geopolitical challenges

Photo: AFP

Post-conflict societies are always difficult, challenging, and fraught with perils and uncertainties. Apart from immense social and political challenges, these societies are often vulnerable to economic hardships; ethnic, tribal and inter-faith tensions; and face the ever great task of institutional building process. However, very few societies or countries successfully weathered through these difficult challenges. Social values, cultural norms and practices that are deeply rooted and entrenched contribute to shape the post-conflict outcome immensely. While Arab Spring offers much promises and prospectsboth for the people of the respective countries and for the entire democratic worldthere is much doubt and suspicion as to how the post-conflict Middle East would really emerge. Middle East societies have some unique social and cultural attributes that could immensely shape the post-Arab Spring democratisation process. Among these, the presence of a set of complex regional and global geopolitical dimensions in this region could significantly facilitate or hinder the region's democratisation efforts.
For a number of historic and geopolitical reasons, Arab population carries resentment and anti-Western sentiment from the core. One of the root causes is of course Western powers' incessant support for Israel, the country having an abhorring place in Arab public sentiment. A 2011 Brookings Institute survey shows that 59% Arab population expressed unfavourable views against the United States. Another public opinion survey carried out recently by Arab Centre for Research and Policy Analysis (ACRPA) showed that 73% Arabs see Israel and the US as the two most threatening countries. This is not the phenomenon of present time but has been for the last fifty years or so. Riding on this wild and resenting public sentiment, Arab nationalist leaders already risked waging three regional wars against Israel. And after four decades since the last Arab-Israel war, the region still remains very much same as before and has a risk of explosion anytime.
Middle East has also been the major source of world energy since 1930. The region combinedly produces 37% of the world oil and 18% of its gas and more stunningly, the region has 65% of global oil proven reserves and 45% of its natural gas. The has made the region vitally important to the entire world with regard to its energy security as the chief economist of the International Energy Agency rightly put it: “We are ending up with 95 percent of the world relying on six countries in the Middle East” (Selina William and Bhushan Bahree 2005, Wall Street Journal, November 08, 2005).
This contrasting realityworld's most important place for energy supply vis-a-vis world's most explosive regionhas prompted the Western powers to maintain status quo when it comes to promoting democracy, human rights and good governance since achieving the latter might cost peace and stability dearly.
Great powers' dilemma: democratic government, my client?
Great powers, especially Western powers led by the United States, are also concerned that whether democratic Middle East would serve their regional and global interests. Their concern that the democracy might endanger the very peace and stability has been compounded when they simultaneously fear that the democratic governments could turn their back to them and join anti-Western fraternity.
When Hamas , for the first time,got elected in Palestine territory, neither the US nor its Western counterparts accepted that democratic verdict levelling Hamas as a terrorist outfit which is contravening to democracy. However, the tone has been changing rapidly in the last few years and the Western powers reassessed their position whether they have been able to maintain peace in the region at allespecially in relation to resolving Israeli-Palestine conflicts. This appraisal became more pronounced when the former US Secretary of State Codoleezza Rice made a statement saying that: "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle Eastand we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people." This was deemed to set a new direction. Nevertheless, given the ever complex and puzzling Middle East geopolitics, there is no such straightforward course that the Western powers might take to promote democracy in the Middle East. The regional and global power politics have effectively constrained any wishful thinking. That has been reflected in the recent events of Arab uprising. When USA and Western powers took more proactive role in ousting Libyan dictator Gaddafi, their role was more suspicious and of uneasy one when it came to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. Despite Egyptians and Yemeni people marked success in toppling the regime, the military as well as the Western powers played vicious rolesome even blamed US Special Forces for trying to protect Yemen's Saleh regime and also level the NATO intervention in Libya as a mean for securing their oil interests (Seumas Milne, The Guardian, March 23, 2011). Moreover, the world's democratic flag-bearers' enigmatic silence about Saudi Arabia's theocratic regime and Bahrain's brutally oppressive Sunni government only allows skeptics to question about their true intention in Middle East democratisation effort.
The dilemma of Western powers is understandable that the democratic governments in this region might act contravening to their interests; however, if they are truly for the promotion of democratic and liberal ideals, they have to swallow the bitter pill that respective democratic governments will not always be the force they desire. Unless they accept this reality, rise above their material interests and stop protecting undemocratic regimes, the region will continue to struggle to make a full stride towards democratisation.
The writer is a Research Associate at the Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University. He can be reached at:

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