Leon T. Herder
The outgoing 2011 is the Year of the Protester, according to Time magazine. The insurgency targeting the ruling political elites, first in Tunisia, and then in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, has not been confined to the Middle East. Protests have taken place in Spain, Greece, Italy, France, Britain and Israel. And in the United States, the Occupy Wall Street protesters began demonstrating first in New York, and then in Washington, Chicago, and in other cities across the country.
The 2011 global uprisings against the status quo have been compared to the revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848, when working-class socialists and middle-class liberals in Paris, Milan, Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Berlin tried to bring down the old regimes.
And indeed, not unlike the Spring of Nations of 1848, the Arab Spring and the ensuing protests in New York’s Zuccotti Park or Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Avenue have raised expectations for change and the forging of a new order based on the principles of freedom and equality.
But with the benefit of hindsight, the 1848 revolutions are seen as failures. The old social and political order remained in power. So is it possible that the rebellions of 2011 could also leave some disappointment behind in 2012 if and when the members of the old order start fighting back to protect the status quo just like the counter-revolutionaries in 1849?
Of course, history does not repeat itself. But some of the reasons that led to the expiration of the revolutionary momentum in Europe after 1849 — tensions between and inside the opposition movements, the lack of wide public support and the enormous power retained by the ruling elites — could also end up stalling the pressure for change in 2012. Come the Counter-Revolution?
In the Middle East, expect the military to reassert its power and force fragile and precarious ruling coalitions with the rising Islamist movement. Expect Saudi Arabia and Turkey, with the support of the US and its allies, to lead an effort aimed at re-establishing a delicate regional status quo that protects Israel.
In the West, centrist political parties will contain the pressure for reining in the financial markets and take baby steps to reform the bloated welfare state. Washington will count more and more on its partners worldwide to help sustain its global interests.
The fall of the Arab nationalist rulers of Tunisia (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi) and Yemen (Ali Abdullah Saleh) in 2011 could be followed by the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria in 2012. But it has already become clear in 2011 that the secular, liberal and social-democratic members of the Arab opposition are not going to emerge as winners in the post-revolutionary struggle for power.
Indeed, the elections that took place in Egypt and Tunisia have demonstrated that the young, multilingual and Internet-savvy spokesmen for the revolution who had become prominent on Al Jazeera and CNN television coverage from Tahrir Square lack any strong base of electoral support.
Instead, Arab-Sunni Islamist political parties are expected to take power not only in Egypt and Tunisia, but also in Libya, Yemen and Syria, countries that will continue to be plagued by divisions along religious, ethnic and tribal lines. Shiite-Arab Islamist parties are already playing a dominant role in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and in Lebanon, where Sunni Arabs are playing political defense.
The end of authoritarian rulers such as Mubarak, Gaddafi or, for that matter, Bashar Al-Assad, and the holding of free elections, giving citizens their first taste of political freedom, may provide some hope for those clamoring for change. But majority rule in countries that lack constitutional guarantees that protect individual rights, gender equality and religious freedom is likely to become rule by the Islamist parties that could pose a threat to women and religious minorities, such as the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Chaldean Christians in Syria and in Iraq. This could accelerate ethnic, sectarian and tribal rivalries in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Egypt and create the conditions for a series of civil wars in 2012 in these countries.
Moreover, much of the sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or in Bahrain — where a Sunni minority rules over the Shiite majority — is going to be exacerbated by the growing concern by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council — which is shared by Turkey — over the rising power of Shiite Iran and the potential for growing secessionist movements among their own Shiite minorities.
And like the Saudis, the Turks are interested in preventing the disintegration of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon into civil wars — which could provide an opportunity for Kurdish secession from Iraq — and in ensuring peaceful transition to power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya; in maintaining the status quo in Jordan and Morocco; and in moving towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In that context, helping create mechanisms for cooperation between political forces affiliated with Egypt’s military and the Muslim Brotherhood aimed the establishing law and order and opening the road for economic recovery in that country will be one way that Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with the backing of the majority of Egyptians and the support of the US and Europe, will try to control the revolutionary change.
Thus, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will emerge as the two leading counter-revolutionary players in the Middle East in 2012, pursuing the kind of regional policies that seem to align with the interests of the US. Indeed, at a time of weakening American military power and eroding economic base, Washington will encourage regional powers such as the Turks and the Saudis in the Middle East, or its partners in East Asia (Japan; Korea; Australia) to play a more active role in promoting the global US security agenda.
This strategy could prove to be effective in 2012 but could face serious challenges in the coming years as these players embrace policies that may run counter to US interests.
But even as it sheds come of its military commitments in the Middle East (Iraq), the US will continue to play the role of a global balancer of the last resort in 2012, especially if it ends up being drawn into a diplomatic and military confrontation with Iran that will probably not ignite a full-blown war next year but could allow President Barack Obama to engage in an exercise in brinkmanship with Teheran around the time of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Not a lot will change in the way fiscal and monetary policies will be pursued in Washington whether Mr Obama vacates the White House in the aftermath of a Republican presidential victory in November or if he is re-elected. (And the same applies to France, if President Nicolas Sarkozy loses in next year’s election.)
The interests of the financial industry and Corporate America that fund the election campaigns of both parties will continue to pre-dominate the legislative and policy-making process while pressure from the electorate and labour unions representing public workers will make it difficult to slash the major government-backed retirement and health-insurance programmes.
There is no reason to believe that short of a devastating economic catastrophe, this kind of political-economic order that prevails also in much of Western and Central Europe will be brought down anytime soon.
Indeed, neither the Occupy Wall Street protesters on the left nor, for that matter, the members of the Tea Party movement on the right — or their political counterparts in Europe — have come up with new sets of ideas to help bring about major structural changes in the current political and economic status quo.
If anything, at a time of economic insecurity and political uncertainly, angry voters in the West or, for that matter, in the Middle East gravitate to the politics of identity that merge the explosive ingredients of nationalism, ethnicity and religion.
So if the most important legacy of the 1848 springtime of hope was the rise of German, Italian and other forms of nationalism in Europe, the insurgencies of 2011 could start igniting similar pressures in the Middle East and even in Europe in 2012 as disillusionment with the promise of change starts setting in.
(The commentary was originally published in the Singapore Business Times on December 30, 2011)