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Middle East and Africa

What is left of the Arab Spring

‘This evening I am going to speak as a scholar, but also as an onlooker who is involved’. So begins the speech made to the George Washington University by Marc Lynch, associate professor of political sciences and international affairs, and considered as a bridge between the American academic world and the Obama administration (his blog is one with the highest number of followers). He was invited by professor Matteo Legrenzi to speak in Venice on 25 March (in the framework of the initiatives of the Ca’ Foscari School of International Relations), on the theme What is left of the Arab spring.



In his clear outline he reconstructs the negative perception of the Middle East which had taken root among the Americans (a violent place, where change is impossible) after 11 September, to then go on to highlight the astonishment generated by the protests of the first months of 2011: non-violent movements came to the fore of the media, ‘people like us, with whom to identify oneself’. The enthusiasm did not however last long and pessimism once again holds sway today: in the Middle East change – this is the most popular conclusion – has had negative effects in the end.



Lynch does not agree with this. He recognises elements of truth in this diagnosis, but maintains that the events in Tahrir Square must not be interpreted as a single event, a sort of miracle, but as the expression of a structural change in the Arab societies coming from much further back in time, from the 90s at least. Until that moment in fact the political debate in the Middle East was totally inexistent. The regimes controlled every aspect of citizens’ lives and had the monopoly over information. A glaring example of this is when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and most of the Saudis came to know about it only four days later. In fact, the Saudi leadership, undecided as to what to do, preferred to keep the people in the dark about what was happening. We are speaking of just twenty years ago, but it seems like another age. After a number of cautious attempts, the real turning-point comes with the satellite channel al-Jazeera. Or rather the first al-Jazeera, when the Qatari broadcaster had considerable freedom of action, unlike today.



Al-Jazeera ‘adopted an unusual approach to politics: it chose to speak about it’. The huge success (ratings of 50-60% in all the Arab world, when a giant like Fox News never goes over 5% in the USA today) was the sign of a need. The first debates were held above all on foreign politics with the condemnation of the American invasion of Iraq, but the reviews quickly began to deal with domestic politics. This long term trend, in which the new media acted as multipliers, is the reason why Lynch does not consider a return to the past possible.



So what was new about the 2011 Arab uprisings? For the first time the protest was successful. The protesters, to their own surprise, saw themselves being supported by the local population. For this reason, according to Lynch, the image of the Arab spring is not completely out of place if used to define the period of time going from January to March 2011, when the idea spread in the Arab countries that change was possible and therefore inevitable. The fall of Ben Ali had been the sign of this, the resignation of Mubarak the confirmation. Nonetheless, the spring comes to a sudden halt in the month of March: Saudi Arabia, by means of generous economic concessions and the intervention of its security forces, checks the protest in the fatherland and stamps out the uprising in Bahrain, for the first time playing the card of sectarianism, that is, opposing Sunnis and Shiites. In the same month the uprising in the Yemen and Syria goes from being non-violent to armed and Gaddafi comes very near to the physical elimination of the insurgents in Cirenaica. It is the moment in which the NATO decides to intervene in Benghazi. Thus the hope ends that a peaceful change is possible everywhere. In fact it is the military option that prevails from that moment on.



But also where the Arab uprising (this is the term preferred by Lynch) has failed, like in the Gulf, things have not returned and cannot return to how they were before. The forecast of the American scholar is quite optimistic for North Africa, at least for the medium term, ten years or so: despite the fact that all the possible imaginable errors have been made, above all in Egypt, despite the political deadlock, a growing polarisation and the risk of economic failure around the corner, the game is still on. Instead for the Gulf, Lynch envisages a growth of popular protests, while the prospects are extremely grim for Syria and the bordering states (traditionally known as the Levant). Anarchy rules, rival factions compete for the territory and the risk of an enlargement of the crisis is anything but remote, especially if the Palestinian problem were to see a fresh upsurge too.



It is from the Levant that Lorenzo Cremonesi, the Corriere war correspondent, takes his cue to reply to Lynch’s paper as respondent. He agrees with most of his points, but highlights how the situation of anarchy has generated a widespread feeling of weariness among the people. Now the priority is to bring back order at all costs. He speaks about his own personal experience with the Afghan notables immediately following the NATO intervention: we accepted the Taliban – they explained – because the country was so degenerated that we needed order above all. Cremonesi also points out how the Libya campaign changed over the months: from the defence of Benghazi to the offensive phase which highlighted the ambiguous position of the rebels. Lastly he issues a warning with regard to the penetration of Internet in these countries: it is still a limited phenomenon, there is an entire slice of the country, for example in Egypt, which in completely cut off from it.



Nevertheless there is one point that they both agree on: it is the burden of the rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites, which exploded once again after the 2003 war in Iraq. It is the final key to understanding this situation that the speakers give the audience.