Five Assumptions of IR Theory Challenged by the Arab Spring

Article Summary
For scholars of International Relations, many long-held truths have been called into question by the revolutions and popular upheaval that rocked the Arab World in 2011. The relationship between authoritarian regimes and the state would appear to have changed, along with the nature of relations between authoritarian dictatorships and their Western sponsors, writes Sarkis Naoum.

A year ago, the Arab spring started in Tunisia before spreading to Egypt and Libya, and is now knocking at the doorsteps of Syria and Yemen. The Tunisians succeeded in entering a transitional period, which should be followed by the establishment of a new democratic system that will fight corruption. Meanwhile, their Egyptian and Libyan brothers are still struggling to reach this transitional phase, although the Egyptians have made [more] progress than the Libyans in this regard. The Yeminis are still at a crossroads. One path is can lead the country towards change and stability; the other can lead the country into civil war. Only the Syrians and the Bahrainis have not yet entered a period of change. The oppression they are suffering at the hands of their regimes - even if both cases cannot be compared - does not allow us to precisely predict when this change will come.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, researchers in the United States have been trying to determine the meaning of change in the Middle East, and have attempted to predict future events and discern the international community’s stakes [in these events]. There is a trend among researchers to decide on winners and losers of the current political change. Sunni Islamists are usually portrayed as the winning side, whilst both Islamic Iran and Israel allegedly belong to the losing [side]. According to these experts, it is however too early to be certain of the [true] nature of the ongoing changes. It is also too early to assess how permanent the changes will be, and whether they will have an affect on strategic issues, such as Iran. [These experts] wonder whether Iran will continue to build its nuclear military arsenal or whether it will push for a confrontation with the world. [However], these same researchers have concluded that the Arab Spring has transformed five ideas that many previously considered unalterable.

First, the idea that regime change in the Arab World is necessarily linked to elite competition, and not to popular will, no longer holds true. The Arab [street] has [traditionally] remained distant from any transformational or reform-inducing role, with two (notable) exceptions: The first occurred after the Arab defeat in 1967, when the people in Egypt and many other Arab States took to the streets, refusing the resignation of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and pushing him to return to power. The second came about now, during [the Arab Spring] when people all over the Arab world demonstrated against their regimes. In some Arab countries the people succeeded [in prompting regime change], while in others they are still out in the streets. However, this does not mean that the masses will always [be able to] dictate the fate of Arab States.

Second, it is no longer [definitive] that an authoritarian regime can use the power of the state to regain control over the streets and their people. Those regimes [who chose to fight the demonstrators] have poured all their available resources to put an end to such popular movements, and they failed. Some of the leaders left without resisting, others left after putting up “silly show” of resistance, and a third group [has decided to continue to]l resisting the [will] of their people. All of these changes highlight the fact that that no [authoritarian leader] enjoys absolute power.

Third, the notion that Iran and its “Shiite Crescent” is the main threat against pro-Western Countries in the Arab and Islamic world is no longer valid. Instead, a new threat is emerging - a “Sunni Crescent” spreading from the Maghreb to the Gulf consisting of regimes influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, and perhaps maybe even by [entities like] the Salafists and Osama bin Laden. This crescent was born in Tunisia and Egypt, and could spread to Damascus and Amman before the end of 2012.

Fourth, the idea that the old Sheikhs’ rule in Saudi Arabia lacks the energy, ability, and vision to do anything other than pay its enemy for peace or rely on the US for protection is no longer true. The year of the “Arab Spring” bore witness to [important]  Saudi internal developments, not the least of which was when the Saudi King made the courageous decision to send troops to Bahrain to aid its regime, convinced that this step would also protect his own regime. It seems that the King and his partners in the GCC are determined to defend their “monarchies.”

Fifth, the concept that the US will always [dictate its foreign policy by the rule of] “Better the devil you know than the devil you don't” is no longer true. After decades of support and close dealings with dictatorships, the US has reconciled its [foreign policy] with the idea of a Middle East controlled by Islamists - as long as they respect democracy and freedom.

In short, these US researchers say that it is still premature to make assumptions concerning future trends in the Middle East for the next two decades. However, the Americans, like the [rest of] the world, started the New Year in doubt of these new rules and standards.

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