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INTERVIEW Hicham Ben Abdallah

Brazilian Publication O Globo

Translation from Portuguese to English provided by Hicham Ben Abdallah


January 14, 2013

 INTERVIEW Hicham Ben Abdallah

Title: There is debate about new economic opportunities

Despite some trouble, North Africa (Egypt, Libya and Tunisia) is leading the process of Arab democratization. What can other countries learn from their achievements?

Ruling regimes are learning from the experiences of these transitional countries by adapting to the new reality of popular mobilization. They have learned that they cannot afford to ignore, as in the past, the warning signs of mass frustration. This also means that the initial phase of regional diffusion has passed.  Whereas the Egyptian, Tunisia, and Libyan opposition drew inspiration from one another, each new national arena of struggle is now set on its own trajectory, shaped by local circumstances and new factors.  Finally, opposition forces across the region are also learning new kinds of strategic behavior. They are learning new methods of activism and also realizing that they need to form broader coalitions to overcome conservative resistance.

Two years after the explosion of the so called "Arab Spring" most people still could translate their collective dissatisfaction into clear, functional national systems. Why is it so hard to reach national consensus even in countries that lack significant sectarian differences, such as Egypt?

First, the legacies of the old regimes are very powerful. Forty years of authoritarian rule proved very debilitating, in terms of dislocating the social fabric and weakening civil society.

Second, whereas in other democratization regions like Latin America during the 1980s the primary split was between Left and Right, in the Arab world the most salient cleavage pits Islamists against secularists. However, the relevant question is not whether the new political order should have faith per se, but rather what are the true sources of state power—scriptural references or popular sovereignty?

Finally, we are living in the aftermath of a global economic crisis, which amplifies the underlying social and political grievances of many. Citizens in the Middle East are debating not only the kind of society they desire but also what new economic opportunities they need to overcome hardship.

Only two monarchical regimes were affected - Morocco and Jordan. Which circumstances made it easier for the Moroccan and Jordanian governments to handle popular unrest, unlike, for instance, the Gulf monarchies?

The Gulf monarchies have very small populations, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, and most consist of foreign expatriates with no political voice. Moreover, these kingdoms enjoy profuse oil revenues, which provide the resources necessary to offset popular pressure through social welfare programs and other domestic expenditures. Yet they still face a challenge.  Given the higher level of economic prosperity enjoyed in these kingdoms, opposition here will be much more symbolic than in North Africa. They are elite-driven and orient not so much around material hardship but rather national concerns that cannot be ameliorated with more spending, such as issues of voice and citizenship.

Morocco and Jordan are not clear of the Arab Spring yet. Though these monarchies have survived, they still face much contestation from society, and their circumstances continue to evolve.

Can we spot changes in the Gulf in the near future?

The political landscape is not uniform, and there are two spots of potential change.  Bahrain still presents a divided society predicated upon sectarian identity, both imagined and real, and as a result social conflict here simmers.  Kuwait also faces growing contestation between the regime and social groups, and its tradition of opposition actually predates the Arab Spring.

In your opinion, what are the most important factors for us to watch in the Arab countries in 2013? Islamists in power? The influence of Iran? The Shia-Sunni divisions?

The most important factor is whether the Tunisian and Egyptian transitions advance towards democracy. They were the leading countries of the Arab Spring, and can provide powerful examples for future actors of what to do—or not to do. In addition, if it occurs next year, the fall of the Syrian regime will be the most important catalyst in the Shia-Sunni division. It will either dampen sectarian tensions or exacerbate it, depending on what unfolds on the ground.

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