‘The Middle East is now shifting into a post-Islamist phase.’

Brian Whitaker, a veteran British journalist and author, talks to SouthAsia in this exclusive interview with Faizan Usmani.

February 2022

Who are the actors critically influencing the transformation process in the Arab world?
The transformation process isn’t being driven by political parties, and even opposition parties. The process is largely leaderless and comes mainly from ordinary people who feel ignored or excluded under the present system. At the same time, globalisation has raised their aspirations. Satellite TV, the internet and foreign travels have given them a glimpse of lifestyles in other parts of the world that they compare unfavourably with those in their home country.

Will the recent wave of change in the Arab world lead to any governance change?
In terms of changing governance, the Arab Spring was basically a failure. A decade later of the uprising, Yemen, Syria and Libya are still in turmoil while Egypt is back under a military dictatorship that in many ways is more oppressive than the regime that the revolution overthrew. Until recently, Tunisia seemed to be the only success story, but over the last few months its future has become much more uncertain.

Since the Arab Spring, there have been uprisings in Algeria and Sudan, and a collapse of governance in Lebanon. The outcome in Algeria looks more like a rejuvenation of the old system rather than real change. In Sudan, the military is continuing to resist a transition to civilian government. In Lebanon, there are multiple factional interests competing for a share of the cake and their reluctance to cede power is ruining the country. The Arab Spring did come as a shock to the region’s entrenched regimes, and preventing further uprisings became one of their priorities. Their instinctive approach is to suppress discontent, or buy if off by creating unnecessary government jobs, rather than addressing its causes.

Among the wealthy Gulf states there’s a slightly different strategy. The United Arab Emirates established a “National Happiness and Positivity Programme” and Saudi Arabia set up a national “Quality of Life” initiative. The aim, according to the Saudis, is to encourage citizens’ participation in “cultural, entertainment and sports activities”. Nice as this might be, it’s a fairly transparent attempt to divert their attention from politics.

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