The Arab world is in the grip of critical structural changes. The current popular revolts across the region mark an unprecedented awakening of the Arab people in modern history. The revolts have already resulted in the overthrow of the dictatorial rule of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, bloody struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, and have threatened many more authoritarian regimes in the Arab domain.
The uprisings are a call for genuine self-determination and pro-democratic change. They are not driven by any particular individuals, groups or outside powers, but by increasingly well-informed and socially connected citizens, 60 per cent to 70 per cent of whom are young people under 30. Their key demands centre on political pluralism and wider participation, human rights, rule of law, social justice, equitable social and economic development, better economic and employment opportunities and the abolition of corruption and cronyism.
Most Arabs are devoted to Islam, but have not asked for their religion to underpin the operation of state and society. Those who have spearheaded the uprisings have proffered democracy as an ideology of political and social transformation. Their call is for indigenous-based structural changes as Arabs, rather than as a foreign induced or influenced enterprise. As such, they have provided an alternative to extremist and xenophobic ideals and practices promoted by al Qaeda and its affiliates—a development that can render irrelevant the appeal of these forces within the Arab-Muslim world.
Of course, there is no absolute certainty that the uprisings will succeed. Past revolutions have failed, betrayed, and devoured their makers and children. The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 is a good example. That revolution began as a "rainbow movement" to transform the Shah's pro-Western autocracy into a constitutional monarchy. It culminated in the establishment of an anti-US Shi'ite theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini, who with his supporters, was able to fill the leadership and power vacuum that the mosaic political-ideological nature of the movement generated.
The situation in the Arab countries where revolutions have caused the fall of dictatorial rulers remains fluid. In Egypt's case, what has taken place is essentially a military coup driven not by the military, but by the people. Historically, the military has rarely proved to be an agent of democratic change. One can expect the Egyptian military to seek to manage the transition in ways which would not seriously disadvantage either itself or those forces closely associated with Mubarak's regime. However, the military is also aware that the pro-democracy elements are vigilant and are prepared to mobilise public opposition should it fail to live up to its promise of delivering a credible democratic transition. Under pressure, the military has so far taken a number of steps to accommodate popular demands, including setting up a widely based civilian government, as well as constitutional amendments to prepare for a multi-party election in September and a presidential poll two months latter. It has also placed Mubarak under house arrest and jailed his sons and several of his ministers on corruption charges. The behaviour of the military has nonetheless been punctuated by some authoritarian measures, such as the arrest and torture of some pro-democracy activists and failed attempts to ban public protests and industrial strikes.
Given Egypt's position as the pivotal Arab state, the country's developments have already had a profound impact in galvanising pro-democracy opposition across the Arab world, most intensely in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, where people are locked in increasingly bloody struggles. In Libya, the situation has resulted in a UN-backed NATO military intervention, using the principle of "responsibility to protect" to enforce a no-fly zone and to safeguard the Libyan people against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's brutal actions. In Bahrain, the reformist demands of its majority Shi'ite population against the minority Sunni-dominated monarchy have resulted in a Saudi-led military intervention, posing a serious challenge to the Iranian-Islamic regime whose public stand is to champion the cause of Shi'ite Islam against the Saudi's claim of Sunni Islam leadership.
While the causes of the Arab awakening are discernable, no one at this stage can be sure of its outcome or future direction. The only thing that can be said with clarity is that the Arab people have made a serious pro-democracy start, but this is the beginning of a long, arduous, and painful journey. None of the Arab states currently has the necessary institutional and infrastructural foundations—ranging from separation of power, rule of law and an independent judiciary—to put them on a smooth path to democratic transformation.
The success of this Arab awakening depends on how the transition is managed and how outside powers, especially the United States, balance their geopolitical interests with the Arab peoples' democratic aspirations. The Obama Administration's approach has so far been anomalous, and some analysts would claim rightly so, because a one-size-fits-all approach cannot apply given the diverse national situations in the region. As a result, while empathising with Egyptian, Tunisian, Yemeni, Syrian and Libyan protesters—and providing key support to the NATO intervention in Libya under the "responsibility to protect" principle—the Obama Administration has been circumscribed in its treatment of some of the others. For example, it has remained at best muted in relation to the Saudi-backed bloody suppression of the opposition in Bahrain, and to the iron-fist rule in Saudi Arabia itself and some of its Gulf Cooperation Council partners, especially the United Arab Emirates. Similarly, it has refrained from applying the principle of "responsibility to protect" to safeguard the rights of Palestinians, especially in Gaza, under Israel's occupation and punitive measures.
Once the dust of the present uprisings settles, the US and its allies may seriously regret this anomaly in their relations with the Arab world. If the pro-democracy forces succeed, it will not only unite the Arabs but also diminish Israel's claim of holding the high moral ground as the sole democracy in the region. It may also result in the rationalisation of some Arab countries' relations with the US. In Egypt's case, a recent credible public opinion poll, released by Pew Global Research on April 25, has already revealed that about 54 per cent of Egyptians want the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty scrapped and a high percentage has also called for a downgrade of Egypt's relations with the US. This, together with the normalisation of relations currently underway between Egypt and Iran after 30 years of rupture, must be of utmost concern to the US and Israel.