The ongoing uprisings and protests against dictatorship regimes in the Middle East and North Africa – the Arab worlds, so to speak – pose a serious challenge on the meaning of political stability in the region.
This also has serious implications on how diplomacy ought to be carried out in the aftermath of the collapse of dictatorship regimes that have been seen as symbols of stability in the region.
Quite notable is the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, and the ongoing uprising against Muammar Gadaffi’s regime in Libya.
Mubarak, without any real threat to his regime, has been able to hold Egypt together for a sustained period of time. Under Mubarak, Egypt was the second largest recipient of the US foreign aid package; with Israel receiving the largest package of aid.
In return for that assistance, Mubarak co-operated with the US in ensuring that Israel had peace of mind in the region.
Therefore, the persistence and survival of Mubarak’s dictatorship in Egypt for 30 years was acceptable to the US, and the western world in general, because it was seen as a condition for stability in the region.
Mubarak has impressively pushed against the use of Egypt as a source and proliferation of Islamic extremism. Al-Qaeda’s former second-in-command, Ayman al-Zahawiri was born in Egypt and his activities relating to recruiting jihadist extremists in that country was fairly well moderated under Mubarak’s regime.
It is through dictatorships such as Mubarak’s that extremist organisations were being fought against in the region.
The US has benefitted tremendously from Mubarak’s regime.
As Dick Cherney retorted in the Washington parlance during the uprising that would oust Mubarak: “Mubarak has been our trusted friend and ally”.
Even the embattled Gaddafi is not fundamentally a threat to US interests. Despite his public posturing against Western interests and his role in the Lockerbie bombing, Gaddafi has no fundamental or principled detest of Western interests.
The settlement with Lockerbie bombing victims constituted a full rehabilitation of Gaddafi’s regime, which was followed by further opening of oil exploration opportunities for Western companies.
The conclusion that can be drawn about the Middle East and North African dictatorships such as Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen is that those regimes have played a fundamental role in pushing against the emergence of an anti-Western type of nationalism in the region. In accomplishing that, it was necessary for those regimes to also take a hostile attitude towards any social cohesion and any form of social mobilisation that may in future be used as platforms for political mobilisation.
In some cases, if not all, the state and some extremist organisations contested the space within communities; trying to gain popular support for their cause. The operation of Hezbollah in Lebanon is an example. While it is not conclusive as to whether Hezbollah subscribes to extremism, the organisation has been able to gain popular support among the population in Lebanon.
Western-aligned dictatorships in the Arab world, on the other hand, rather resort to repressive measures to ensure that communities are not susceptible to influence by anti-Western and potentially extremist organisations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Social and political repressions by paranoid dictatorship regimes would only contribute to the build-up towards a volatile citizenry, as we see in the Arab world.
The question is whether the type of citizenship that would emerge after the uprisings in the Arab world would build its sense of identity in relation to the well-entrenched anti-Western rhetoric, or would citizens embrace democracy irrespective of how model democracies (ie Western countries) have behaved and influenced politics in the region.
As we look at the situation now, the idea of democracy that is likely to be held in the post-dictatorship Arab world will more likely be influenced by perceptions of the role played by Western countries in the region.
By abetting dictators and plutocrats in the Arab world, the West ultimately raises the fundamental question about the meaning and commitment to democracy.
The relationship between the Western democracies and those dictatorships may undermine the flourishing of democracy and also the emergence of secular governments in the Arab world.
More daunting regarding the future of the Middle East and North Africa is that corrupt regimes have been somehow secular.
In Tunisia, for example, this has been the case with the ousted administration. While there is nothing wrong with using religion as a vehicle for political emancipation, the inevitable attack against dictators who might have also been secular on certain issues could result in reversal in some social progress that is secular in nature. For example, the freeing up of space for women in the society and economy could come under attack when secularism is under siege from religion-backed political emancipation. The corrupt and plutocratic regimes of the Arab world, respectively, could have also tainted secularism, painting it as a residue of a corrupt relationship between dictators and Western democracies.
It is, however, not clear as to what type of regimes there will be once the protests and social movement have settled down in the Arab world.
There are possibilities for shifts towards democracy and open society.
However, that depends on how Western regimes level up with some extremist elements as the struggle to shape the Arab societies continues.
For the West, their concern would be the emergence of anti-Western regimes. For extremist groups, the concern is the emergence of regimes that would overly cosy up to the West, finally uprooting those religious conservative groups out of the region. The post-conflict citizenship of the Middle East and North Africa should rather concern itself with thinking beyond their historical path and constructing the type of government that would be open and democratic while grounding it on the wishes of their people.
To create a government that would be vindictive to the opportunistic role played by the West in the region would be to build conditions for future revolts in those countries.
That would pose greater instabilities in the region.
The elites who will be taking over the reins of government should also bear in mind that they would be presiding over volatile citizenry with scars of social injustice and political repression.
Therefore, the new governments must be seen to believe in social justice and should provide sufficient space for political and social expression.
Progress that has been achieved in terms of secularism should be left untouched; for that is the need of certain elements within those societies and not necessarily an imposition by the West and former dictators in the region.
The Arab world should come to realise that democracy is the ultimate source of stability, and any attempt to restrain democracy will contribute to the grand dissatisfaction and ultimate explosion in the region.
A different meaning of stability in the Middle East and North Africa has materialised. This is the type of stability that would have its roots from within the citizens, and not imposed through dictatorship regimes.
n Mathekga is founder and director at Clearcontent Research & Consulting