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ICSR BLOG SERIES Part 9: Atkin Fellow Perspectives on the Arab Spring

06/07/2011

Tectonic changes in the Middle East – the stuff opportunities are made of ?
I am writing this post after watching Bashar Al-Asad’s speech to the Syrian parliament. In times of tectonic changes and regional paradigm shifts, his speech sounds vaguely like a cast back to a different and “older” era, one that dominated the Middle East until only 2 months ago. The speech is a symbol of a reality in which autocratic regimes used the tribal or ethnic loyalty of minorities to rule over majorities, where national interests were defined as the political goals of the leader and his inner circle, where national honor was synonymous with the prestige of the leading party.
In that respect, the main change brought about by the Arab spring is the privatisation of national interests, the simple things in life – such as the ability to make a living, get married or speak one’s mind. It is about the transformation from a world of national honor to a world that enables personal dignity.

But it does not stop there. The slogan of “Elshaab yurid Iskat elnizam,” heard across the Arab world from the Maghreb to the Gulf, also indicates a “flattening” of the Arab world – reflected not only by transnational ties but also by the relevancy of non-national power centres such as Aljazeera, Facebook and regional civil society organisations.

In Israel, like many other places in the world, these tectonic changes have been met with both satisfaction and worry (depending on which media outlet one is reading). On the one hand, there is general satisfaction with the Arab world becoming more democratic and pluralistic. Yet, on the other hand, based on previous Israeli experiences in dealing with the outcomes of past revolutions gone sour, Israelis tend to focus on Day 1 after the revolution – specifically that new anti-democratic extreme forces may use the new democratic platform available to them in order to seize control and create even more theocratic and hostile regimes.

For me, personally, the most encouraging development of the “Arab spring” is the demise of Israel as the ideal fig leaf for Arab dictators to hide behind in order to justify their wrong doings vis-à-vis their people. The attempts made by the Syrian President to blame the demonstrations on an “Israeli agenda” seems as ridiculous as blaming the “almighty Mossad” for orchestrating the shark attacks in Egypt a few months ago.

What frustrates me however is the lack of initiative within Israel’s leadership to promote a new vision for the rapidly changing Middle East. This is mainly related to the failure of Israeli decision makers to present a new vision for the Israeli-Palestinian political process. Ultimately, in dynamic times like this, failure to move forward actually means falling behind.