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Theoretical Keys

Analyzing the future of the Middle East

18 August 2014

Theoretical Keys

In a lecture hosted by the Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS), Abdul Moneim Saeed, Director of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies (RCSS) in Cairo, presented "A Theoretical Framework to Analyze the Future of the Middle East." In the lecture, Saeed noted that attempting to predict and foresee the future remains "the nightmare of all scholars." This is due to the large number of schools involved in studying future trends. He further suggested that developing a notion of the future for the Middle East is a formidable task, thanks to the uncertainty that prevailed following the events of the Arab Revolutions.

According to Saeed, the ability of think tanks to come up with good and successful analyses hinges on the use of proper tools of analysis and a fully-integrated theoretical framework that allows for answering multiple questions. The Arab scholarly community has failed to take due interest in theoretical aspects that help understand and analyze phenomena. Saeed proposed a theoretical framework that is comprised of four essential determinants whereby dynamics and interactions should be properly dissected. These four determinants are the state, authority, balance of power, and the issues facing the regional agenda, now and in the short run, in order to be able to study future developments in the Middle East.

First: The State

This first determinant underpins any talk of political developments, as the state is the pillar of politics. The Arab Revolutions seem to have added to the existing challenges facing the state in Arab countries “from above”, which were attributed to globalization. Globalization brought about challenges to sovereignty where scores of decisions not controlled by states were being made. A good example of this is the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which controls air traffic passing over the sovereignty of all states.

The other challenge comes "from below" and has multiple aspects including, challenging social loyalties where organizations and individuals dispute or compete with the state over monopoly on the use of arms. In several Arab countries, a clear challenge is that one or more groups possessing arms are involved in disputes with the state in an attempt to create and alternative state.

Another challenge that has emerged from the fallout of the revolutions is the escalation of sectarianism to a call for secession. Kurds in Syria, for instance, now want to be separated from Syria. Furthermore, a new challenge has emerged where some civil society organizations operating locally have developed international ties and now seek to impose their visions as if they were para-state institutions, all the while working under the pretext of advocating human rights. In other words, they do not only voice the desires and demands of the involved local community, but also often reflect the demands of the parties that provide them with material support which nurture the financiers' interests.

SECOND: Authority 

Authority in the four years following the Arab revolutions has propagated waves of power-related behavioral patterns. The first pattern is violence. Contrary to what some claim, the revolutions were violent, not “peaceful”. Storming prisons and pressurizing public institutions are good examples of said violence. What occurred since the onset of revolutions were scattered fits of violence.

Revolutions emanate from progressive and liberationist will, which means expanding the alternatives of freedom for people. However, the second pattern showed that this freedom placed the Muslim Brotherhood into power, and then the most backward and extreme jihadist groups spread. The third pattern is that armies, on many occasions, appeared to be the only regulating force - alongside the power of Islamists - that was able to restore order from the chaos in Egypt, Libya and relatively so in Yemen. Even in Syria, the army is what makes the regime remain strong to date. In Tunisia, the army preserved the rules of the political game through its tacit intervention.

Lastly, the fourth behavioral pattern is the steadfastness of monarchies.  This does not mean that monarchies in the Arab region were spared from pressures. For example, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain experienced pressures, but the institutions of the state were quick to accommodate to certain "demands". It was clear that monarchies have the ability to both accommodate and manage these demands, as opposed to republic states.

THIRD: Balance of Power

The dimensions of this determinant are diverse and measurable by material indices, such as military and economic balances, and intangible indices such as education and health. This means that the outcome of the post-revolution era, on the level of state and power, has not only brought about changes to the domestic balance of power, but also on the regional balance of power.

Domestically, conflict broke out between the existing ideas (ideologies); most notably that of revolution, where it is now clear that public opinion prefers stability and getting away from violence, at any cost. This is because the endurance of the state of revolution has become something difficult, and that the post-revolution era has engendered two camps. One camp rejects the consequences and even the ideas of revolutions, and the other still believes in the continuation of the state of revolution.

Saeed emphasized that what is going on the ground, as a result of the conflict between these two camps, is in fact an antagonism over the legitimacy of the state and the legitimacy of power. He further noted that change is inevitable and that there is no going back in time as people, in the short run, favor life and survival, as stability in the state of revolution and "upheaval" is very difficult.

Regionally, Saeed noted, that the current situation in Arab countries require something similar to what emerged after the French Revolution, where the powers of Austria, Prussia, the Russian Empire and the United Kingdom had founded the conservative alliance known then as the Concert of Europe. In time, France was established as a fifth member of the Concert and the five powers of this alliance agreed to resist violent changes, whereby this agreement kept peace in Europe for one hundred years. This, Saeed maintains, shows that now we have a similar embryonic alliance that can be rightly called the “Concert of Arabia” that works against violent changes in the region, and is comprised of, for the time being, the Arabian states of the Gulf, Jordan, Egypt and others.

FOURTH: The Regional Agenda

Saeed has the view that the Arab region will have to go through a whole decade of events, instability and swings before it can settle on a new, clearer framework, and that the next five years will see five essential issues dominating the landscape:

First, restoration of the state, driven by nostalgia amid civil wars and chaos. However, this does not mean that an Arab state will go back to its previous condition, as restoration of the state will entail a blending of old aspects and variables of the current reality in order to come up with a mixture of two driving forces: the balance of power and  society seeking stability.

Second, the previous agenda of political and economic reforms, which is expected to gain momentum in the coming period.

Third, the region is currently going through constitutional reforms and legislative changes which have to do with the state versus religion issue that remains unresolved in the Arab region since World War I. The current developments would possibly lead to a more-balanced situation in the eternal encounter between religion and state, where the results are not in favor of religion, in the political and not the doctrinal or ideological meaning of the word.

Fourth, the civil-military relations are at stake as public collective consciousness has already determined a ceiling for the use of tools of oppression and their ability to control. This will see a new balance of power between citizens and institutions of the repressive state.