Most rulers in the region profit from terror, violence and instability. That gives them an incentive to block the way for essential reforms so they can remain in power, says DW reporter Rainer Sollich.
When the Arab world launched into a huge wave of protests three years ago, the most frequently heard slogan was that people wanted to topple the regime. But that was just the lowest common denominator. Many protesters in Cairo, Damascus or Benghazi also raised more concrete demands for human dignity, justice, participation in government, and an end to oppression. But the protest movements, as well as the beleaguered regimes, lacked a clear, large and unifying vision. Everything focused on the question of power: people wanted to overthrow the regimes and the regimes mobilized all their forces to stay in power.
The initial result of this process has been devastating. Almost all regimes have survived. And in places where they gave in, the situation for the people has, in almost all cases, become even worse. It's not only Syria and Iraq that are largely afflicted with terror and permanently under threat of collapsing. Libya and Yemen are also in danger of breaking up in internal conflicts and terrorism. The "Islamic State" (IS), al Qaeda and other terrorist groups appear stronger and more dangerous than ever and have no problems in recruiting new members. The cruelest forms of violence and humiliation are practiced without restraint and spread on Twitter and YouTube in a perverse gesture of triumph before the world's public.
Disintegrated state borders
State borders that were once drawn up by Western colonial powers, with little attention paid to local loyalties and power structures, are currently open to reconsideration. Political scientists are already debating whether Iraq and Syria can even be referred to as "states" at the moment. After all, substantial parts of their territories are under the control of jihadis or other groups, and the call for a Kurdish state is once again back on the agenda.
The Arab world has clearly slipped into reverse. Anyone who takes a glance at the political map today will see two main trends: first, there are states ruled by terror, war and disintegration, and then there are dictatorships that depend more than ever on repression - such as Egypt or the majority of the Gulf states. Consequently an old prejudice is being revived: the Arab people are "not ready" for democracy and, in their conflict-ridden region, could only be kept under control with an iron fist. It's an argument tyrants like Hosni Mubarak or Moammar Gadhafi used to underpin their claim on power, often with tacit Western approval.
Incapable of democracy?
This "argument" is arrogant and racist. It's true, however, that due to outdated power and social systems, unfavorable conditions for democratization and modernization prevail in much of the Arab world. In many places, a middle class, which has often been the engine of social change in Europe and other world regions, has barely emerged. The Arab education systems are completely inadequate and hopelessly dilapidated, even in the rich Gulf states. With uninterrupted, strong population growth and a lack of economic reforms, it is expected that in many countries in the region there will continue to be many frustrated young people, without work and without prospects. In such a climate, religion and ethnicity are easy ways of radicalizing people or inciting them against each other.
This benefits not only extremists and terrorists but also authoritarian Arab rulers. They need the presence of terror and violence to justify their grip on power. In some instances such as Syria and some Gulf states, the leaders are often involved in creating the terrorism they say they will root out.
The progressive decline in the Arab world lies neither with the people, nor with their tribal membership nor religious beliefs. The region's main problem lies rather in the lack of will to reform on the part of those who have ruled for decades.
Only a few countries, such as Tunisia and, with many restrictions, Morocco, have shown serious efforts to reform. On the contrary, most kings, emirs and presidents, "legitimized" by sham elections, adhere to their dated power structures. They suppress not only Islamists, but also liberal and democratic forces. As a result, they inevitably create new dissatisfaction, new violence and new instability. The next wave of Arab protests is therefore perhaps only a matter of time - and there's reason to fear it won't be a "spring."