Arab Spring: from instability to progress

It’s time to re-write the rule book.

Authoritarian dictators may have ensured stability, via repression, trhoughout the countries of the Middle East and North Africa for the past 40 years - while the oil-hunger countries of the world watched - but it is mass instability that is now bringing rapid progress to the region. From the whirlwind of the Arab Spring - from street protests, to uprisings, to revolutions and civil war - we are seeing how instability is delivering seismic shifts and progress to the political, economic and social landscapes of Arab countries. And, it's happening within seasons, not decades, fuelled by the aspirations of its people.

Democracy takes time, granted, and how you get there has long been documented but what is happening in the Arab Spring can not easily be labelled, and no pre-packaged 'long-term strategy' readily applied. Its pace and unpredictability are its assets, which also mean it is impossible to judge the next step.

Instability can reduce confidence, breed doubt and panic - in Europe we currently fear Euro-contagion and a 'double dip' which has sent our markets reeling and gold bullion peaking. Similarly, some Arab countries are miscalculating their moves and imposing irrational policies to try and stabilise their countries while others are already planning elections, signing huge international investment deals and bringing together tribes and dissidents who have long been left out in the cold - and in many cases countries are doing both.

Indeed, many Arab countries will take two steps forward and one step back, and some will even resist change while also trying to introduce reform, as they learn how to read and respond to the 'Arab street'.

This past 10 days we have seen a plethora of such changes from Mahmoud Abbas submitting the UN bid for Palestine and boldly declaring that the Arab Spring has arrived in Jerusalem, to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's incremental yet still unprecedented moves in giving women the vote in 2015 and revoking the sentence to lash a woman for driving her own car, Qatar continues its support for Arab nationalist uprisings - financially and militarily - by committing $0.5bn in development loans to Tunisia while at the same time accepting the resignation of the brains behind the rise of Al Jazeera, Waddah Khanfar, and replacing him with a Qatari royal, to the surprise return of President Saleh to Yemen and Turkey imposing an arms embargo on Syria while hosting opposition figures in Ankara.

The Arab Spring has reminded us all, including strategists who write 'five-year plans on progress and stability' and dictatorships that try to hold to power, that once in a while a black swan comes along, enabling incredible progress to be made even in the most unlikely of places, where instability can sometimes be a force for good and not knowing what the next move is, becomes your most an invaluable asset.

And, when that 'place' is an entire region of hundreds of millions of people - many who are under the age of 30 - who share a language, a culture, a hunger for change and progress, and a desire to achieve their aspirations, then it is time to re-write the rule book on 'how to deliver progressive change, equality and rights'. There are rumours that the Nobel committee will award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to the main actors in the Arab Spring, which would be consistent with having awarded it to John Hume and David Trimble previously. No one saw that coming either.



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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.