Expert Comment

The Arab world in the aftermath of coronavirus

30 June 2020 802 Views

Coronavirus is a turning point that is likely lead to profound changes across the world. Obviously, like other pandemics or natural disasters that have occurred throughout the ages, it is going to have an impact on international relations but with varying degrees and at different levels -psychological, economic, social and political. Just as war was, according to Marx, the ‘‘unconscious tool of history in bringing revolutions’’, pandemics and plagues also act to upend the status quo. The Coronavirus resembles a fierce fighting as in the aftermath of wars, we usually have clear winners and losers. The same can be said about the virus. However, pandemics resemble a petty warfare without light and heavy weapons, and the covid-19 is ‘‘branded as an enemy against humanity’’.
Certainly, the coronavirus will have a huge impact on the Arab world, a dynamic region that is already subjected to severe economic and political crises. The regional dynamics unleashed  by the wave of change in the aftermath of the Arab Spring have been crippled by complacency, military coup and civil wars, pushing the transitions in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Tunisia into a standstill. Nevertheless, the new regimes that have been put in place are not a fait accompli and are themselves at risk of falling apart. For instance, the prolonged civil war in Syria ended with no clear winner. Moreover, the rejection of demands for democratic reform engendered complex political and military conflicts, terrorism and economic crises.Tunisia’s transition is perhaps the only one that has been partially successful, despite efforts by pre-revolutionaryactorswhowant to set the clock back.Contrary to someclaims that regional instability iscaused by the Arab Spring, the stagnation in the transitional processes begun in 2011 is rather caused by underlying factors (particularly structural and economic) and the actions of influential pre-revolutionary actors and some regional powers.
Coronavirus is likely to fuel popular anger and unleash further conflict in the region. Countries around the Arab world will experience the impacts of the pandemic differently, depending on their resources and capabilities.The pandemic has revealed the internal contradictions within heavyweights in the region, who are in the same boat as smaller countries, due to the pressures of internal conflicts and proxy wars. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is stuck in a quagmire in Yemen, where it has spent billions in the war against the Houthis. In addition,

In addition, the Gulf countries’s blockade of Qatar failed to achieve its goals as the latter’s strategy has proven resilient and enabled it bring in other alternatives to deal with the sanctions imposed. The failed military coup to topple Erdogan in July 2016 and the continuation of democratic transitions, in one form or another, in Tunisia, Morocco, Malaysia and Pakistan, has complicated this bloc’s attempts to turn the clock back back to before 2011.
More, Prince Mohammed Ben Salman’s crackdown on members of the royal family, calls for political reforms, the considerable decline in the demand for oil and in prices, and the decline in revenues are likely to social unrest and aggravate the situation. As for Iran, it has been exhausted by ongoing siege economic sanctions maximized by pressure by the Trump administration, as well as proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere. Qassem Soleimani’s killing exacerbated tensions with the United States leading to an unprecedented escalation threatening an outbreak of war. These two regional powers have exploited the coronavirus in different ways. While the US is trying to reinforce economic sanctions, Iraq has become the epicentre of the Iran-US tug of war as Iran uses Shiite groups to enforce its agenda and maintain a stronghold.
Another regional power, Turkey, also faces coronavirus while its forces are engaged in protracted foreign wars and an ongoing conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on its Southern borders, its support of rebel groups against the Assad regime and its involvement in the war in Syriaagainst the Democratic Union Party (PYD) East of the Euphrates River.The situation has been exacerbated by the fall of the Lira.
Ad for Egypt, since the military coup in 2013, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military officers control the economic sectors that produce citizens’ basic needs: bread, grains and gas. The regime has been preoccupied with daily commitments and challenges, which has led to its disengagement and its loss of influence abroad. However, the regime still has some influence over the Arab League and its military intervention in Libya, through which it gives support to Khalifa Hafter under the guise of protecting its national security.
The former moderate Bloc in the Arab world led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and     Jordan has been transformed into an enemy of the        Arab Spring. Instead, the emergent United Arab Emirates (UAE)- Saudi Arabia-Egypt axis have fiercely opposed and actively sought to prevent democratic transition around the region, perceiving it as an existential struggle. They fear even the shadow of democracy and are committed to toppling the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam, which they see as the most likely winners of democracy. This counter-revolutionary bloc has capitalized on the political vacuum left in the region and worsened by Trump’s inconsistent vision, leading to chaos and civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Somalia. Their policies have also led to the disruption of the political scene in Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia. The counter-revolutionary axis has powerful cards such as its financial power and its special relationship with the Trump Government, Israel, Russia, China and even Bashar Assad. However, events in Yemen and Libya show that the counter-revolutionary bloc has been defeated, such as in Libyawhen the UN-backed Government retook many cities.
Many factors signal likely changes in the Arab world order in the near future. One is the decline of the Saudi Arabia-Egypt axis and the ascendancy of established regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. Despite criticism of the Turkish regime, it remains more democratic than the Egyptian military regime and Ben Salman’s rule. Furthermore, geography grants Turkey a privileged geostrategic location. As for Iran, it benefits from a strong capacity for arms production, relying on Russian arms and transfer of technology.
The political vacuum in the region has intensified with the US gradual withdrawal from the Middle East, which has economic and military implications. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns regarding Russian and Chinese penetration in the region. These powers have benefited from the US retreat and expanded economically and militarily in the region. However, despite enjoying some influence, they lack the power to bring in a new world order. The world system established after World War I has shown many signs of being on the brink of collapse. The outlines of the new system that will replace it are still fuzzy and have not taken a clear shape.
However, what is clear is that, in the short term, the decline of America’s role in the Arab world, while it is more preoccupied with using its resources to counter Chinese expansionism, has allowed local and regional powers to tighten their grip and capitalize on the relative success of the Russian and Chinese models. However, revolutionary and progressive forces in the region are continuing to find ways to advance democratic values, which will restore the spirit of the Arab Spring.
Religious values and ideas remain will continue to have a strong presence in the region. However, the political landscape, which was reinvigorated in the aftermath of the Arab Spring will not advance without structural and thorough revision or the birth of new forces. While it is a given that the tyrannical model in the region is in crisis and well past its sell-by-date, despite its show of force, Islamic movements in the regionare in need of real philosophical and political revisions in order to reposition themselves in the political landscape, noting that all actors are learning from their experiences and mistakes, whether regimes, the people or political forces. Despite the apparent political stagnation and the temporary setbacks in the region, a second wave of change is likely to resume and break the stalemate.

Dr. Rafik Abdessalem, Former Foreign Minister of Tunisia
Translated by Hatem Sebei



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