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The Middle East challenges awaiting Biden

Posted By on January 19, 2021 @ 14:36

It’s been a decade since the popular uprising known as the Arab Spring swept several Arab countries in pursuit of democratic societal transformations. Yet, of all the affected states, only Tunisia has remained on that path. The rest of them have either returned to authoritarianism or become mired in bloody conflicts. Although the forces of the status quo prevailed and the uprisings failed to achieve their objectives, they marked a significant energising of the Arab peoples that vibrates to this date. The grievances underpinning the uprisings have continued to pose serious challenges to the Arab regimes and, for that matter, the Middle East. The incoming Joe Biden administration in the US will also need to grapple with the fall-out.

Commencing in late 2010, the Arab Spring brought initial successes that promised the dawn of a new reformist era. It caused the overthrow of dictatorial rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and, with the help of a NATO intervention, Libya. It also triggered a popular upheaval in Syria and Bahrain and put on notice the rest of the Arab states, especially in the Gulf.

The uprisings were spontaneous, lacking in leadership and organisational strength. Yet they reflected the yearning of most across the Arab world to free themselves from authoritarianism and to build popularly mandated and participatory political systems as a prerequisite for better living conditions. The US administration of Barack Obama initially voiced moral and political backing for them. But it all proved to be short-lived. The forces of the status quo in the region, led by the military in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, struck back and Washington yielded to their position. After all, these actors served as the pillars of America’s traditional influence in the Middle East.

After Egypt—a pivotal state in the Arab domain—returned to military rule in 2013 following the overthrow of the elected Islamist government of the Muslim Brotherhood a year earlier, the tide began to turn in favour of the status quo forces to suppress the uprisings. The oil-rich conservative Arab kingdoms in the Gulf prevented the Arab Spring from metastasising into their domains and launched a massive clean-up of opposition forces, whether inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood or any other undesirable ideological strand.

Syria, Yemen and Libya, and Bahrain to some extent, were drowned in protracted conflicts with competing regional and extra-regional actors’ involvement for regional geopolitical gains. In Syria, Iran, joined later by Russia, propped up the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship, and in Yemen, Saudi Arabia led an Arab coalition to shape the destiny of that country vis-à-vis Iranian influence, not to mention involvement of various regional actors, including Turkey, in Libya.

The power vacuums that were generated in the conflict zones provided ample space and oxygen to allow violent extremist forces, such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda, to fill the gaps. As America and its allies from one side, and Russia and its backers from the opposite side, sought to combat these forces, and protect and expand their interests, the Middle East entered a new, very complex phase, in addition to what had already marred the region traditionally.

However, nothing fuelled the regional conflicts and rivalries more than the impulsive and authoritarian populist US President Donald Trump’s policy actions. His support for the conservative forces and the forging of an anti-Iranian Israeli–Arab alliance at the cost of the Palestinians’ demand for freedom and independence crystallised the regional division between America’s ‘friends’ and its ‘adversaries’.

In the midst of all this, the Arab Spring lost its velocity, but did not die: public protests have persistently broken out across the region—in some countries with more intensity, as in the case of Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan, than others. These protests have echoed the same demands as the instigators of the Arab Spring: democratic rights and freedoms, political pluralism, social and economic equity and justice, and improved living conditions, free of corruption, human rights violations and foreign interference.

Biden will have to deal with an Arab world and a wider Middle East that are in a mess. It will be a daunting task to balance the new administration’s emphasis on liberalist and human rights values as well as America’s overall geopolitical and strategic interests against the entrenched prevailing forces of the status quo. To play a constructive and stabilising role is going to be one of the administration’s main foreign policy challenges.

Yet all is not lost. Biden can expect to have a favourable window of opportunity to be reasonably assertive in promoting a reformist and stable Middle East along the lines demanded by the Arab Spring. The regional regimes, including those of Israel and Iran, which are domestically troubled by compounding political and pandemic-induced crises, know that the divisive era of Trump has ended and that they may have little choice but to respond positively to Biden’s reasonable engagement for reform and cooperation in the region.

Although the Middle East may not figure at the top of the Biden administration’s priorities, given the range of pressing domestic and foreign policy issues confronting it, a calmer Middle East can help him focus more on those issues.

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