The fall of the autocratic governments in Tunesia and Egypt took Western governments by surprise and unsettled the geopolitical strategies that the West applied to the region for the last twenty years. “The new Arab world”, writes the German weekly Die Zeit, “will be less comfortable, not merely a figure on the geopolitical chessboard, but a threedimensional landscape with real people”. However, it remains unclear how the revolts in Tunesia and Egypt play out and many experts are still unsure how to read the events. How do the different scenarios look like?
The analysts at the political risk consultancy Maplecroft see the Egypt military as the main risk factor: “Senior members of the armed forces have a vested interest in maintaining a strong hand in politics”, the analysts write and point to the fact that many of Egypt’s current leaders are in fact long-time allies of Hosni Mubarak and that the military seems to be opposed to giving Mohamed ElBaradei a role in the new government. The political outlook for Egypt therefore remains “dynamic”.
Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, sees the revolts in the Arab world as part of a larger modernisation process. In his book “The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall” (Simon & Schuster, 2006), Bremmer introduced a model which describes how societies develop from close and stable countries (think of North Korea) to open and stable ones (like Western nations). This transformation, however, does not have a linear shape but instead resembles the letter “J”. Between both end points, there is usually a dip in stability, a period of “turbulent transition” which we can currently observe in the Middle East.
Another positive interpretation of the Arab revolts comes from Thomas Barnett, chief analyst at the forecasting company Wikistrat. “If you think about Tunesia, if you think about Egypt”, he says in a video interview, “at their heart, these are really middle class revolutions in the sense that the aspirations expressed are primarily about jobs, opportunity, decent income and the like.” For Barnett, the middle class, and not extremists, criminals or other ‘dark forces’ of globalisation are drivers of political change.
But will the Arab revolution really play out like the “peaceful revolution” in Germany and Eastern Europe in 1989? Or will it rather be like the Islamic Revolution of 1979? The daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argues that the historic reference should rather be Indonesia. In the last twelve years, Indonesia moved from a military dictatorship to a democratic government which may at times be fragile but still gives hope. The “Indonesia scenario” seems much more realistic than the “1989 scenario” because the democratic revolution of 1989 was accompanied by a massive economic aid programme from the West and a quick accession to the European Union. Such a programme however is nowhere in sight at the moment.
But despite all the insecurity about Egypt’s near future, it is clear that the actions of the people in Cairo and elsewhere will be crucial for the long-term success of the democratic transition: only if the Egypt citizens continue to press for political reform publicly, they can maintain the momentum which is needed for the transition period. As the Turkish economist Timur Kuran showed in his economic model of revolutions, the opinions that people express in a time of revolution are often based on what they expect to be the opinion which will be sanctioned positively by their peers.
We don’t know yet whether the democratic middle-class will prevail in Egypt or whether the country will remain at the bottom of the “J-curve” for the forseeable future. Our next strategy for the Middle East should therefore be much smarter than the last one.