Will Arab regimes reform themselves before the genie gets out of the lamp?

Tharwa Editorial

A few months ago, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak faced his country’s parliament and made a rather surprising gesture. He called for the formulation and adoption of a new bill allowing for multi-candidate presidential elections to take place for the first time in the history of that country.

A few days later, Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, addressed the Syrian parliament and announced the withdrawal of his country’s troops from neighboring Lebanon and promised that the Tenth Congress of the Baath Party will represent a “qualitative leap” for the country. 

But, and as events over the last few days and weeks have shown, both Presidents’ gestures were lacking in substance. It is very clear now that the only candidates who will be allowed to run against Mubarak in the upcoming elections will be those specially screened by Egyptian security whose main task will be to make sure that no candidate has any realistic chance of competing against the modern day pharaoh.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Baath Congress has just concluded its works by issuing certain vague recommendations that fell far short of even the most minimalist expectations out there. As such, political deadlock at the top will continue to block any serious efforts at reform in the country.

Two Arab leaders, two glowing gestures, two major disappointments. The question of whether Arab regimes can or cannot reform themselves, therefore, needs to be seriously reconsidered. For these two leaders seem indeed to represent a trend and not mere fluke occurrences in the region. The basic feature of the trend is to sidestep any serious reform and hold on to the business as usual mentality.

One thing is clear though, even the haphazard halfhearted attempt by both Presidents at reform came mostly in response to external rather than internal pressures. Moreover, both ruling regimes continue to play the Islamist card as a way of waylaying pressures and consolidating power.

Meanwhile, no one is willing to consider that popular sentiments are not exactly what they used to be, and that the absence of major popular pressures and protests at this stage does not necessarily mean that something is not actually boiling underneath.

Indeed, the atmosphere on the Street is somewhat charged these days, especially in Syria where already several inter-community clashes took place over the last few months. Some observers suggest that such occurrences reflect an actual policy meant to justify lack of reforms and continued recourse to security crackdowns. Be that as it may, the Street is often more like a genii, that is, it will prove quite difficult to contain once it is out of the lamp.

For a long time in this region, regimes tended to ignore the Street. Most regional and international analysts followed suite. The lack of spontaneous reactions in the Arab Street over the preceding decades, it seems, has lulled most actors and observers into a false sense of security.

But times have changed. The unipolar reality of the current world order is indeed having more of an impact on the region than people think. It just takes time for things to surface in the Arab World. For the Arab World is simply too ethnically and religiously diverse to allow for immediate spontaneous outbursts to take place – there are usually a lot of internal calculations and balances involved. Inter-community dynamics have always been the key factor around here.

On a related note, Satellite channels are introducing a new and different sort of reality to the Arab World, and the boiling in Iraq, an Arab country and not merely an Islamic one, is sending jolts throughout it. A mixture of Arab nationalism and atavistic longings in the garb of wahhabi- and salafi-like tendencies is invading the Arab psyche in many parts of the world. Secular longings are also being felt, because, in truth, and official rhetoric aside, they have never been fulfilled. This is making the underlying social, ethnic and sectarian cleavages much more pronounced than they have ever been before.

So, and as socioeconomic conditions continue to deteriorate, and as middle classes continue to disintegrate, revolutionary zeal may finally be finding a nesting place in Arab hearts and minds.

Coming under these circumstances, however, and considering the complete irrelevance of intellectual currents on the public debate taking place on the grassroots level at this stage, this is not necessarily a positive phenomenon, at least not in the immediate sense. But, it is a real phenomenon, although many will still like to ignore it, one whose impact is likely to shape the future of the region for decades to come. The die is cast.