Abdullah Chaudhry and Ed Winfield debate the consequences of the Arab Spring ahead of Thursday's debate at the Cambridge Union.
Abdullah contends in proposition:
On 17 December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi - a Tunisian vegetable seller- had his cart seized by the police and consequently set himself on fire, in protest. Mohamed passed away a couple of days later, and appears to have triggered what we now call the 'Arab Spring'. A year on, almost exactly to the day, Marzouki replaces Ben Ali as President of Tunisia - but between these two events the history of the world was reshaped for decades to come.
Protests in Tunisia sparked uprisings in Libya, Syria and Egypt, and more unrest was spurred on across the Middle East and parts of North Africa. Unsurprisingly, the West hailed the events as a "victory for democracy" and everyone seems to have jumped on the bandwagon, singing praises of the 'Arab Spring'. The world was taken by such surprise that it appears no one considered the possible implications for the wider region, the West or indeed for global stability.
Up till a few weeks ago I was guilty of the same mistake, I was so excited by the prospect of a democratic Arab world that I failed to consider the wider repercussions. JFK famously said: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." And I fear this is exactly what has happened over the past months. The revolutions were born out of violence and as a result have left a horrible scar for years to come.
The region may be 'democratic', but as a homeless man poignantly told me during my recent visit to Pakistan: "What use is democracy if you haven't got the means to survive in it?" Using Egypt as just one example, it is estimated that growth is three percentage points lower now than it would have been under the previous regime. If the people of these countries aren't able to provide for themselves and their families, then surely something has gone seriously wrong.
Add to this the further dimension of terrorism being wider spread in poorer regions, and we may well have another very grave problem on our hands. Egypt and Tunisia have now both elected Islamist parties as their rulers and it appears this trend is spreading just as quickly as the Spring itself. Now, I am not trying to say that state-sponsored terrorism may rise simply because there are Muslim parties in power (I know very well the dangers of confusing the religion and a small sect within it) but a number of individuals in these particular parties have indeed been known to have openly associated with terrorist groups in the past. In a country like Libya, where we have pumped in weapons upon weapons, the threat posed to global stability from terrorism has greatly increased. As Charlie Wilson said, referring to Afghanistan, "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we screwed up the endgame." I fear the same will be true again.
Arab dictators delivered a stable set of relations, many of them were our allies, regardless of what we thought of their domestic policies. With a number of them deposed, or in the process of becoming so, new alliances are being drawn up and, even though we have turned our backs on our former associates and congratulated their foes, these new regimes are unlikely to promptly forget the past. I am not arguing that the Arab Spring is necessarily a bad thing - in fact it may well be the greatest event of our lifetimes. I am simply stating that we shouldn't be so blinded as to fail to consider the threat that the current set of circumstances poses to global stability.
Ed argues in opposition:
A photo from Tahrir Square last year shows a woman wearing a hijab, holding up a sign saying in both English and Arabic, "Humanity, Dignity, Liberty". For me it epitomises why the Arab Spring is not a threat to the world's stability - confirmation was provided, if any had been needed, that some values are universal. During the Arab Spring, these values were demanded by people in the form of democratic governance, and democracy is a proven means of, not a threat to, global stability.
Firstly, no matter how dramatic the pictures from Tahrir and elsewhere, the Arab Spring has not had global impact. True, this country along with many others went to war in its support, but Western air operations hardly affected the stability of Europe, America, or anywhere else except Libya. The disruption to oil supplies was low, and the numbers of migrants fleeing to Europe was in the thousands, a drop in the ocean of global migration flows.
There are ways in which the Middle East could threaten the world, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict (for example the 1973 oil embargo, resulting from the Yom Kippur War and hurling the world into recession), or perhaps the Iranian nuclear crisis. Neither issue has been altered by last year's popular movement (for instance Egypt and Jordan retain their peace treaty with Israel); the Arab Spring has not had a global effect.
Moreover, what we really mean if we say the Arab Spring is a threat to the world is that political Islam is a threat, since it is fast becoming apparent that its rise is the most significant legacy of last year's uprisings. Political Islam is misunderstood and feared by the West - unsurprisingly, since the West has been conditioned to view Islamism with anxiety since the Iranian revolution.
We might note, however, that the Shah's downfall was largely a reaction to his repressive regime, just as Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Saleh have all been toppled because of their autocratic governance; it is not political Islam which has been unstable, it is dictatorship. The West believed it could rely on the Shah and Mubarak to provide stable allies in the Middle East, yet this was shown to be an illusion.
Well-established liberal democracies, however, have never gone to war against each other, and as such represent the most stable form of government attempted by man. It is therefore welcome that in several countries of the Middle East, democracy has undeniably been brought a step closer.
Tunisia and Egypt have both held successful elections and the former especially seems to be making a transition to transparency and accountability, Libya plans to vote in the summer and has a progressive draft constitution, Morocco has moved towards a system of constitutional monarchy, women have been granted suffrage in Saudi Arabia, and so on. Across the region people demanded dignity and freedom; they demanded democracy.
We must conclude that the Arab Spring has been a step towards improved global stability. Insofar as the movement has the capacity for worldwide impact, it will be positive, and it is only because of our irrational fear of political Islam that we could imagine otherwise. The sooner the West stops propping up dictators and fosters democracy, the better.
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