Stuck in the Bottleneck

Tharwa Editorial / Also published in the Daily Star under the title: “Prepare for when the Arab bottle breaks.”

When you are stuck in the neck of a bottle, it doesn’t matter how far you are from the bottom, or how close you come to the edge of freedom. There are no points of no return. As you struggle to free yourself, you can as easily fail and fall as succeed and climb out of the top. For those stuck in the neck, though, the option of not doing anything, of accepting their bondage, seems like the safest bet. But what happens when they realize that an overwhelming force may threaten to break the bottle? What is the safest bet then?

The Arab League summit in Tunisia came and went. A bold statement was issued at the end, one that was meant to strike all the right chords with the forces of reform inside and outside the Middle East. Emancipation from the region’s age-old authoritarian practices and notions, if we believe the summit statement, is forthcoming – and all we have to do is reach out for it.

But, of course, the Arab peoples and many others have grown wise and weary throughout the years, so that they cannot be fooled by the declarations of Arab leaders, no matter how grand. For this reason, the Tunisia Declaration failed to generate the hoped-for tempest of appreciative applause.

Getting out of the bottleneck and moving in the right direction requires more than broad gestures, it requires specific initiatives tailored to fit each particular Arab country. Detailed programs and projects, tentative deadlines and clearly iterated criteria and milestones for judging progress need to be established. However, so far, Arab ruling elites have generated only disappointment in this regard.

Syria is a case in point. Four years after the election (or selection) of a new and young president, Bashar Assad, who clearly promised change in his first public addresses, no major change has taken place in the country. Public pressure from civil society activists for change and for the formulation of a clear public vision on reform has been shamelessly stamped out, leaving no room for leadership accountability. Syrians were expected to fall back on a blind belief in the presumed good intentions of their new leadership, without there being a clear commitment by the latter to a specific reform program.

As a result, four years have been wasted. The various security services are resuming their old habits and engaging in crackdowns, and are now using the Kurdish riots that rocked the country in March as an excuse.

The wave of panic that overtook Syria in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq and the different bellicose pronouncements made toward the Syrian regime at the time by high-ranking US officials seem to have dissipated, leaving behind the same stagnant scene that has pervaded Syria for years. Bearing in mind that, within the context of the Arab world, the Syrian case is more the rule than the exception, we are forced to wonder: Where exactly does this leave us? Stuck in the neck of a bottle waiting for the US Marines to come crashing in?

Not necessarily. The fear of a possible US or other military invasion is not the issue here. The overwhelming force that might break the bottle is not necessarily external; it might assume the guise of a domestic rebellion. While the status quo may be acceptable for many older people, it can never be satisfactory for the younger generations that make up more than 65 percent of the Arab population today. Moreover, the expectations of the young, thanks to their exposure to the standards of living in the West, if only through television, are much higher than any Arab country can provide for, now or in the foreseeable future, even if sincere reform efforts should begin today.

On the other hand, due to increasingly ineffective and outmoded educational systems, not to mention the gargantuan corruption of Arab ruling elites and the continuing bewilderment and impotence of the region’s civil society actors, the likely rebels will probably act out the same kind of primordial impulses we are witnessing among insurgents in Iraq. They simply do not know any better.

This Middle East is, therefore, bound to go through a period of mayhem. It seems that the best that Arab leaders can produce at this stage is the Tunisia Declaration, or that the best that US and European leaders can conjure up is the Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa agreed to in the US two weeks ago. Until these proposals are improved upon, and until the Alexandria and Sanaa declarations inspire the adoption of bold and practical programs on the part of Arab civil society activists, this period is going to be a long one, with dangerous consequences all around.