Arab Spring divisions dominate Arab League Summit

Arab Spring divisions dominate Arab League Summit
Comment Arab leaders are split over whether terrorism or democracy is the legacy of the Arab Spring, writes Alaa Bayoumi.
5 min read
03 Apr, 2017
The summit showcased the entrenchment of positions surrounding the legacy of the Arab Spring [Anadolu]

The Arab League summit in Jordan last week may have ended without any major announcements. It did, however, provided an important window on the latest attempts by Arab regimes to shape their views and policies in the post-Arab Spring period. 

Arab leaders were keen to address the Israeli occupation and its expansion of settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land, and to show support for the Palestinian cause - often called the "number one" or "central" cause for Arab nations. 

However, what really dominated the summit was the ongoing consequences of the Arab Spring and how they are being dealt with.

The wave of public protest that engulfed five Arab counties - Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria - in early 2011 was met with violent crackdowns by ruling regimes and their loyalists in power.

As a result, Syria, Libya and Yemen remain in civil war. Egypt witnessed a counter-revolutionary military coup in July 2013. And Tunisia became the sole successful, though fragile, Arab Spring example. 

The wars, crackdowns, and political instability opened the door for the rise of the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda, and other violent militias throughout the Arab world.

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Six years later, there was hardly any talk at the summit about the revolutions - or the need to protect the democratic transition.

After all, the revolutions have been either defeated or turned into civil wars in most of the Arab countries that witnessed them. In addition, most of the popular opposition groups have been either crushed or forced to give up power in order to save the fragile transition and to abort the ruling elites' endless attempts to end political change all together. 

Tunisia and Morocco are two examples where powerful political movements, Ennahdha in Tunisia, and former Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane in Morocco, gave up power under pressure from ruling elites in order to save political change in their countries.

The security and humanitarian challenges are the most serious challenges facing the Arab world at this moment

Still, the Arab leaders at the summit were divided into two camps. One group sees the Arab Spring as a "dark period… that overthrew the security and stability of some of our brothers and hindered development and construction in their countries and extended its negative consequences to many parts of our Arab homeland", as described by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah.

There is also a counter camp that called on Arab regimes to open up for political dialogue as the only way to extricate the region from the current crises.

"The security and humanitarian challenges are the most serious challenges facing the Arab world at this moment and most of these challenges are caused by domestic disagreements… we learned from our painful and long experience that there is no alternative to dialogue," said the newly elected Somali president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo.

Spearheading the anti-Arab Spring camp was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who led a military coup against his country's first democratically elected president in July 2013.

Sisi delivered an articulate speech explaining his country's views, reducing post-Arab Spring politics into a conflict between "terrorist groups" and state institutions - leaving hardly any space for internal political dialogue.

"During the past few years, the new challenges that stormed our Arab homeland have concentrated in the spread of terrorism and the rise of its threat and in weakening the entity of the nation state," said Sisi.

"Therefore, we have to work simultaneously on two fronts; fighting terrorists with full force and decisiveness and making our best efforts to settle conflicts, bring back security and stability and empower nation state institutions." 

Sisi is scheduled to visit the White House on April 3, for the first time since rising to power. He will meet with President Trump.    

Framing the domestic political conflicts facing many Arab countries at this moment using such terminology leaves hardly any space for democratic change or political dialogue. It advocates the use of security solutions and adopts a monopolist view of the state that equates the nation with the interests and views of the ruling political elites.

Political dialogue becomes an unwelcome goal that is divisive and threatening. 

Terrorism and extremism grow because of alienation from society and its values, because of despair... because of the lack of rule of law

Meanwhile, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani presented the counter-argument, calling for political dialogue with opponents, asking: "Is it fair to spend our efforts in trying to declare political groups that we disagree with as 'terrorist', despite the fact that they are not?"

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He added: "Terrorism and extremism grow because of alienation from society and its values, because of despair and lack of [broad] horizons, because of humiliating people in jails and detention centres, because of occupation and oppression, and because of the lack of rule of law."

The Qatari emir also called for dialogue in Libya and between Hamas and the Palestinian authority, and for political transition in Syria.

On the other hand, Sisi is more focused on supporting one of Libya's fighting factions - the group led by the like-minded General Khalifa Haftar who has been trying (so far in vain) to use his military clout to overthrow his political rivals.

Sisi also seemed to support a "military-led solution" in Syria and Yemen.

The rift between the Arab countries over the Arab Spring and its consequences is not new. It has dominated Arab politics for the past six years. What is new is how the rift is now entrenching itself.

Arabs are no longer talking about revolutions and political change. The pro-Arab Spring camp is mainly focused at this moment on limiting its losses, calling for dialogue, and trying to mitigate the massive crackdowns by violent regimes.

The anti-Arab Spring camp, meanwhile, seems emboldened by its recent successes in countries such as Egypt and Syria and by the tangible and rhetorical support it is getting from foreign regimes, such as Russia and the Trump administration.

Egypt in particular seems willing to take a more active role in advocating a new regional order based on the power of strong central states, their militaries and security solutions across the Arab World - and to reject any immediate efforts for political dialogue or for building politically pluralistic societies.

Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian journalist and the author of two books studying US foreign policy in the Middle East. He also writes on democratic transition in the Arab world.

Follow him on Twitter: @Alaabayoumi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.