The Arab world into the unknown

The Arab world into the unknown

Our friends Peter Harling and Sarah Birke contributed the following piece, a reflection on the state of the Arab world after a confounding 2013 that saw, for many, the dissipation of the enthusiasm of 2011. Harling is Senior MENA advisor at the International Crisis Group; Birke is a Middle East Correspondent for The Economist.

Two and a half years ago, Arab countries were abuzz with interesting conversations. Rich and poor, old and young, villager and urbanite, Islamist and secular all had their own take on the bewildering turmoil of the uprisings they were caught up in. They tended to be aware of the risks, hopeful that change was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial, and proud that the region could awaken and, after centuries of foreign interference, set its own agenda. Opinions were also invariably sophisticated, with people speaking profoundly about societies they thought they knew and had started to reassess. 

This was a refreshing change from the pre-2011 tune of impotence. The region at that point, as its inhabitants saw it, was hostage to ossified regimes, intractable conflicts, worn-out narratives, and crumbling economies – not to mention Western hypocrisy, and schizophrenia, about urging client regimes to reform. Sterile agitation on the regional or international front, notably around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, distracted from thorough stagnation in domestic politics. Commentary was a cyclical run through the latest episode of violence, round of sanctions, realignment of alliances, or half-hearted diplomatic ventures. Uninspiring solutions to lingering problems left citizens reluctant to choose, among players in this game, the lesser of evils. Standing up to the US (like firebrand Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or surviving an Israeli assault (as Hezbollah did in 2006 and Hamas in 2009) could certainly make you popular beyond your traditional base, but not for long. 

Less than three years after popular protests streaked across the Arab world, conversations appear to have come full circle. Optimism that societies in the region could no longer be ignored and would bring about change has reverted to doom and gloom. Outside observers have jumped from one label to the next: Arab spring to Islamist autumn to reactionary winter. All-too often, local residents view protests as a conspiracy, a naïve illusion or an ill-fated hope at best. Many see a stark choice between a failing old order and hegemonic Islamist rule—or war, as in Syria. Opinions are generally crude, aggressively intolerant and more rigid than ever. Interlocutors sport surprisingly definite conclusions about their home-region, no matter how fluid and contradictory the current trends actually are. 

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