There are numerous reasons that prompted past revolts in the Arab world. Some eventually led to decades-long uprisings before bringing along the most recent in the form of the Arab Spring. From poverty, high unemployment to the influence of social media like Facebook and Twitter, the region has experienced some desperate moments in the past 10 years. The most significant factor behind this wave of protests is the political character of the countries in the region.
Western commentators are quick to see the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism behind every protest, but it is not that simple. Rather, it would be better to see the protests as the result of a crisis in the legitimacy of Arab regimes. Many Arab rulers have their roots in an earlier era and do not share a close connection with contemporary Arab societies. In essence, all the traditional sources of legitimacy for Arab regimes have eroded. Pan-Arabism was exhausted by the 1960s, anti-Zionism by the 1990s and most recently, political Islam also joined that list. The mood in the Arab streets can be defined as post-Arabist, post-anti-Zionist and post-Islamist. In order to avoid misunderstandings, it is necessary to explain these terms.
The idea of one nation
During the first phase of independence for Arab regimes until 1967, the borders of most Arab countries were largely seen as an artificial impositions by the West. There was a widespread desire among Arab leaders to transcend these barriers for a single Arab nation. For instance, there was a serious attempt to unify Egypt and Syria as a single country during this period. The aspiration of pan-Arabism was dealt a devastating blow with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In just six days, Israel destroyed the militaries of the surrounding Arab countries, including that of Egypt, the most populous Arab country and a leading driver of pan-Arabism. A unified Arab nation has never seemed like a realistic possibility since.Previously, Arab regimes used to push anti-Israel rhetoric as a way of winning popular support at home. They would generally present themselves as supporters of the Palestinian cause and its freedom from Zionism and its Western backers. In any case, the tactic of winning popular legitimacy by proclaiming support for the Palestinian struggle lost purchase after the 1993 Oslo Accords, which settled Egypt's accommodation with Israel and Western powers. In fact, it is very much plausible and apprehensible that the Jewish identity is different the Arabic identity in many social and historical respects. However, some Arab politicians and dictators have overemphasized and exaggerated this otherness and hostility in order to legitimize their cruel and brutal policies and make their people think of it as a common threat.
The question of political Islam is probably the most misunderstood factor in the Middle East. Many Western experts fail to understand the meaning of Islam in politics. They cannot see that Islam has varied communities just like Christianity. It has different groups and trends that change according to regional factors. In this sense, the Arab Spring is secular. Nevertheless, the society in which it occurred is not a convenient fit with the model of a theocratic state. Religion is a part of national identity. It is a cultural, not political notion.
In this context, the newly established Republic of Turkey from 1923 and onward, with the influence of anti-democratic structures in Europe, including the Nazis and communist and fascist governments, was in favor of radical laicism borrowed from France. According to this version of laicism, the state is bound to control religion, and the people should believe and pray in accordance with the principles determined by the state.
Nevertheless, in line with the democratization of Europe and Ankara's European Union membership process, Turkey shifted from radical laicism to a process of democratic secularization. Actually, it was a transformation from Central European law to the supremacy of the principle of law. The first version of law depends on the distinction between the state and society before the law. That is, according to Bernard Lewis, the state dictates law and society obeys, citizens are perceived as threats to the state and should accept the ideology indoctrinated and imposed by the state, the state is subject to the public law that gives priority to the state and individuals are subject to common law, which weakens them against the crimes committed by the state. On the other hand, the principle of the supremacy of law is originated by society, and the individual and state should equally obey these rules the state creates. This approach makes society much more coordinated and homogenized. There is no authoritarianism or dictation of religion to the people.
Overall, all three pillars of the legitimacy of Arab regimes have either been discredited or are in the process de-legitimization. Neither pan-Arabism, anti-Zionism nor political Islam has a convincing claim to political leadership, nor are there any alternative visions on the horizon. With this in mind, Turkey's experience of democracy carries vital importance for Arab uprising. For instance, Egypt is a multicultural country with different religions, sects and ethnicities – Coptic Christians constitute more than 10 percent of its population.
In this context, Turkey has engaged in attempts for a new constitution that would lead to redefining citizenship and identity. In this experience, it is expected to attain equal citizenship and identity, which would be comprehensive and represent every segment of the society. The ultimate target of these efforts is to create a multicultural society that upholds the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities by revising the existing systems of education, governance, and political orientation.In international politics, Turkey has the privilege of having this understanding of secularism. However, it is a unique country that is secular, democratic and a state of law endowed with Western values even with a majority-Muslim population. This character of Turkey could make it a role model for Arab countries looking for a more democratic and comfortable life. Nevertheless, this discussion has taken place in Turkey within the extent of moderate Islam while in the Middle East, people have some hesitations concerning laicism.
Western influence in the Middle East has declined significantly in recent decades in both economic and political terms. Although the Western countries remain key players, they do not have the overriding influence they once did. At the same time, the rise of a developing East Asia, particularly China, is leading to a global reorientation of economies and polities. Also, as the effects of the global financial crises were felt less in Middle East, it resulted in the Western countries losing influence in the region.
In addition, U.S. influence has declined more in political terms than economic respects. From this perspective, its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have delineated the limits of its power. Despite the massive use of military force, the new Iraq is far from a model democracy and Afghanistan is still one of the world's poorest countries. The U.S. also has not succeeded in imposing a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite several well-publicized attempts. In fact, 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, and then Iraq in 2003 with the excuse of bringing democracy to the region provoked discussions of a clash of civilizations as proposed by Samuel Huntington.
Therefore, U.S. influence in the Middle East is likely to decline further because of its political insufficiency and economic weakness. Meanwhile, U.S. foreign policy is shifting more toward East Asia while Europe's influence is declining overall. Therefore, Western influence, while still strong, is far from its zenith.
The area will remain destabilized over an extended time and it is not possible to say what will happen in the future. Arab regimes are likely to see increased instability if they fail to deliver on the aspirations of their increasingly educated populations. Meanwhile, the continuing decline of the West will decrease the legitimacy of the current Arab regimes. For instance, the Syrian government pretended it was willing to make some democratic concessions, and if the opposition would compromise with minimal demands, it would be co-opted by the regime. Nevertheless, the Syrian leadership has continued to kill its own people. In those countries, only the most determined opposition is likely to succeed in bringing democratic change. Politics will get polarized and there will be long disputes over new political structures and methods of governance. The chances for democracy look slim. On the wider international level, Arab countries could constitute themselves into a bloc against the Western world.
As a result, all these developments have led to an incompatibility between the state and society, along with permanent chaos, destabilization, competition due to historical heritage, weakness in regional initiatives and the regionalization of conflicts and violence in the Middle East.
* Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, head of Political Science and International Relations at Dumlupınar University