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04 May 2011

No one truly knows where the ‘Arab Spring’ is heading: لا أحد يعرف حقا حيث 'الربيع العربي' هو عنوان


The hardest part in a revolt as in a novel, says an Arab intellectual, is inventing the end. Reviewing the situation in the Arab world now rocked by an uprising that has already dethroned two dictators, Hassan bin Talal points out some unique features in the present turmoil in the Middle East and says no one ever predicted that change in the region would be led by Arab young men and women.
Founder of the Arab Thought Forum and West Africa North Asia Forum and Crown Prince of Jordan for 36 years, Hassan, a graduate from Oxford in Oriental Studies, has authored many book. He speaks Arabic, English, French and German fluently, and has a working knowledge of Spanish, Turkish and Hebrew. The following are his views in response to a questionnaire sent by Dawn:

How do you see the future of the Arab world in the near future in the wake of the stir now going on?

No one ever predicted that change in this region would be won not by charismatic leaders, politicians, intellectuals, or the West, but by Arab young men and women. Despite a Scheherazade-like deluge of commentary and analysis… no one truly knows where the ‘Arab Spring’ is heading. It could become a macabre fairy tale of Sultanic ambitions and ogre despots – or it could blossom. Whatever happens, however, certain variables will remain. Our water and energy resources will continue to be shared. This dependence will continue to represent a threat to our collective security and destiny.

In the aftermath of two devastating World Wars Jean Monnet and Robert Shuman forged the European Coal and Steel Community to weld a reluctant Europe together through economic cooperation. Can we not do the same by creating a Community for Water and Energy for the Human Environment?

The future of our region has become less predictable, in all the right ways. People are beginning to hope that they may have a stake in it. The narrative is no longer one of extremism. An associative network of subliminal messages revolving around violence, rage and bigotry has been shattered. And yet this remains a sensitive time. Entire arenas of possibility hang in the balance. Alex de Tocqueville was surely accurate when he observed that “in a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.”

What are the chances of Muammar Qadhafi’s survival? How genuine is the opposition to him? Jordan has supported the NATO attack. Do you approve of what many observers think as interference in a third world country’s internal matter?

At a 2005 World Summit of the UN General Assembly Member States for the first time formally acknowledged a ‘responsibility… to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’. To stand by and watch horrors committed is not a ‘neutral’ act. In some circumstances, it can imply ‘culpability’. Westphalian theories of State sovereignty are of subordinate concern when set beside the primacy of human life. The state is not a cannibal. It does not exist in its own right. It exists to serve its people.

At the same time, the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ must not become a humanitarian fig leaf for the pursuit of War. No matter how carefully the concept is codified over the coming years, this is a possibility that will always remain. A realist might also observe that there is no state in existence that will not place its own interests and welfare above those outside of its borders.

Why doesn’t the Arab League call for similar UN-NATO action in Bahrain and Yemen?

The argument that a ‘Responsibility to Protect’, or UN-Arab League action, should apply to Bahrain, Yemen or elsewhere in the interests of consistency, or to avoid accusations of ‘hypocrisy’, is a strange one. It would necessarily involve military action in dozens of failed or collapsing States around the world – a modern equivalent of the ‘civilising mission’.

How do you assess the situation in Jordan in relation to Libya, Syria and Yemen?

While in Jordan the youth element may not be as evident, protesters still call for inclusivity, and seek participation in a body politic and within a wider national platform. With the government change here objectives are being discussed regarding what I call the “social contract”, and a politics which needs to become more normalised than radicalised. Such voices are being heeded, because almost everyone here understands that the credibility and security of the country depends upon it.

Is the current low-level stir in Jordan directed against the government or against the Royalty?

The issue in Jordan is one of good governance. The Kingdom has a progressive constitution which specifically guarantees rights such as freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and academic freedoms. Despite repeated calls for reform from His Majesty King Abdullah, implementation has not come fast enough – together with rising food and commodity prices, people feel lost, helpless, and angry. Less time needs to be spent apportioning blame, and more time needs to be spent apportioning responsibility and accountability to individuals and the representatives they elect.

6 Non-Arab countries like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia have regular transparent elections. So one can understand if there is no uprising. But why are there no protests in Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan where elections are manipulated and strongmen like Nursultan Nazarbayev and Imamoli Rakhmanov have been ruling for decades?

Does the ‘Arab Spring’ represent an explicit call for ‘democracy’ or for something more fundamental, if harder to define – ‘freedom’? The freedom to get a job, to raise a family, to participate, and to retain one’s human dignity – a state of affairs in which the future is not controlled by outside forces, but unknown, and open to negotiation. This region faces such a gauntlet on the micro and macro level. If home-grown democracy can provide this, then well and good; the point is that the answers need to come from within.

Since 2009 the West-Asia-North-Africa Forum has worked to return a sense of conviviality to the region, and to promote the awareness that although our stories may be different, the resources and destinies of this part of the world are very much combined. Instead of ‘interdependency’ we need ‘intra-independency’ – a model whereby we can compliment and compete, whilst also recognising differences and diversity.

What impact will the current bout of revolts and the regime change in Tunisia and Egypt have on the Arab-Israeli conflict?

As Abdullah Gul recently observed in a New York Times Op-Ed, governments in the region will have to consider the wishes of the people when conducting foreign policy. This may result in a hardening of opinion and policy toward Israel – creating uncertainty in the short-term, but perhaps a greater chance of real and lasting peace in the long-term.

Will the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda gain from these revolts? Is the Muslim Brotherhood behind protests in Jordan and other Arab countries?

Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, recently observed that “no one group speaks for Islam”. In Egypt alone there are the Muslim brotherhood, the Wasat party, and the Salafi movements. The various strains of Islam are becoming more discernable as pluralism, the recognition of diversity and calls for constitutional reform replace an apparatus of intimidation. No longer is the ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

Are Arab states ready for political reforms and societies for social reforms?

Why wouldn’t they be? Arabs believe in the ‘pursuit of happiness’ too – but that pursuit, and the wider pursuit of reform, is held back by poverty. In the 1980s, theocratic and autocratic politics moved in when oil prices fell and economic growth faltered. Today we host the world’s highest earners and the lowest.

The “poverty line” should no longer be defined solely by income, or set as it is between one to one and a half dollars a day. Having worked with Madeline Albright on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, I believe that our definition of poverty should be redefined to take into account what professor Rehman Sobhan calls “structural injustice ” – that is inequality of access to opportunity, participation or functioning institutions.

Access to opportunity should be the basis of political and social reform in the region. People are not just ‘ready’ for it, they are crying out for it. In November 2009, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation discovered that since 1980, virtually all new job creation in the United States occurred in firms less than five years old. Maybe in addition to finding job opportunities, West-Asia-North-Africa should concentrate on providing the tools for young men and women to create their own?
By Muhammad Ali Siddiqi