The geopolitical battle for the Arab street

Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi write:

The Middle East is undergoing its most dynamic transformation since World War I, when Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot first divided the region into colonized spheres of influence. Nearly 100 years later, with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and the ongoing struggle in Yemen, Syria, Libya and Bahrain, all states in the region – or involved in the region – have been forced to reassess their policies and alliances.

These developments have also permanently shattered the frames through which the Middle East was understood – or presented – by various governments. The defining struggle is not between “moderates” and “radicals” – at least not if the definition of “moderate” is an Arab state allied with the U.S. and at virtual peace with Israel. The deposed dictatorships in Cairo and Tunis both fit this false definition of “moderate.” Nor is the struggle between Islamic and secular forces. As R. K. Ramazani points out, the rallying call of protesters across the region has been democracy and dignity, not Islam and Sharia. And to the extent that protests in Bahrain have taken on a sectarian tone, it is arguably due to the efforts of the Al-Khalifa royal family and its Saudi Arabian protector – both considered “moderates” in the old frame.

These recent developments have shocked not only status quo political systems, but also an increasingly intense rivalry for regional influence between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. on one side, Iran on another, and Turkey as the third vertex in an emerging triangle of competition. Rather than end the rivalry, this shock has changed its context and created both challenges and opportunities for all sides. Regional unrest has demonstrated both the Arab street’s relevance, and its ability to play a decisive role in the region’s future. Thus, if the Arab democracy wave continues unabated, it will not only test status-quo powers investing in an order that suppresses the streets, but also emerging powers that claim to champion them.

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2 thoughts on “The geopolitical battle for the Arab street

  1. delia ruhe

    Uh-oh. The battle to save the empire is expensive:

    “President Barack Obama will announce plans Thursday to funnel billions of dollars in economic aid to Egypt and Tunisia as part of a broader effort to inject democracy into the Middle East and North Africa.

    Obama will unveil a massive package of economic measures, including up to $1 billion in debt relief and another $1 billion in loan guarantees, during a speech on U.S.-Middle East policy set for Thursday morning at the State Department. Other pieces of the package include a new trade partnership with the region and a fund for stimulating regional private sector investments.”

  2. kagiso

    The most important player missed completely. Institution building, free trade areas, preferential imports, democracy importing – The EU may not be very good at managing conflicts, but it is very good at nurturing nascent democracy. First in Greece, Spain and Portugal, then in eastern Europe. The EU was swift in its condemnation of Mubarak when others dithered. France and Britain led the fight in Libya. The project of turning the Mediterranean into a democratic, free trade lake is well under way.

    The new secular / mildly islamic Arab street shows the aspirations for a civil society similar to that seen in the EU. I predict a new Arab super state closely modelled on EU institutions rising very quickly, and rapidly becoming an equal regional partner to the EU.

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