In his last speech on Syria, in which he sought mandate from the congress for a US military intervention in the embattled country, president Barack Obama pointed that “the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve,” in a reference to the changes that several republics have witnessed since 2011. Obama implicitly conceded, like many, that stability will take some time to achieve, perhaps years or even decades. The changes that took place have produced conflicting forces that will need time to be able to work out a common formula for building new and stable societies that can create prosperity and fulfill the needs of their citizens.
Seeking an international, multilateral mandate for a limited military intervention, which Washington is trying to do, is an act of conflict management or containment rather than a plan for the future. The US does not plan to change the Assad regime or side with one party in order to build a new system on the rubble of the current one whose collapse, as everybody knows, is a matter of time. No one has a clear plan for the future of Syria, whose uprising went from being peaceful to a sectarian civil war in a manner that has nothing to do with the objectives of the Arab Spring.
The conflicting sides are behind all of the chaos and stability as well as the unique and rare—and sometimes bizarre—phenomena occurring in the region from Tunisia to Egypt and from Libya to Yemen. This state of chaos created a vacuum allowing the likes of Al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations that foster terrorism and destruction to operate. Failure on everybody’s part to devise an acceptable formula for managing the political conflict is the reason behind the state of turmoil, and the inability to reach a place of safety so far.
One of these countries is Libya, which many have bet would be able to use its oil resources to achieve rapid economic growth, particularly after the revenues returned to the public and were no longer wasted on the former regime’s costly external adventures that were used for propaganda more than anything else. However, there is a vast gap between wishful-thinking and reality. Oil production—the country’s most important resource and perhaps its main source of revenue—plummeted by 70 per cent two years after the former regime fell as a result of attempts to control production and revenues on the part of militias that operate across the country. These militias threatened to strike government tankers entering ports to ship “illegitimate” oil. Simply, this is like privatizing the revolution of the Arab Spring for the benefit of militias, each of which believes it played a role in toppling the former regime for which it now it must be paid in cash. These militias cannot wait for an effective state with functioning institutions to be formed, one that can foster development in the country and provide mechanisms for economically distributing the income as most countries do.
The problem in Libya is that the former regime deliberately weakened state institutions and left territorial disagreements unresolved, some of which are surrounded with a sense of injustice. This made it extremely difficult for the ones who came to power, who now need a long time to build these institutions and establish a state of law. Unless armed militias and the aspirations of each political faction block them, these efforts need stability and, most importantly, national consensus.
Like Egypt and Tunisia, a big part of the fluctuations and the continuous state of instability lies in the absence of national consensus. This is due to an attempt to monopolize power or to hijack the status quo amid the chaos and power vacuum on the part of a certain political faction or trend at the expense of the others or the majority of people who, although desirous of political change, did not want it to end this way.
This became clear in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the only organized faction enjoying public support, emerged thinking that this moment could last for a hundred years. The Brotherhood tried to monopolize power and impose its vision, instead of building consensus and thus privatized the Arab Spring for its own benefit. After one year it suffered a historical defeat and it is still too short-sighted to see the degree to which it is rejected and distrusted by the public.
In Tunisia a similar conflict has occurred whose outcome will be determined by the sides’ ability to reach consensus and have a common vision that is based on trust rather than tactics.
Certainly, spring in its real sense is yet to come, and will take some time. The most important lesson drawn from the last two years and a half year is that bringing about change in societies is extremely difficult and takes time. Furthermore, the worst case scenario is that each side attempts to view society from the perspective of its narrow ideology, instead of achieving consensus on a common framework that is satisfying to all and prepares the ground for a civil and normal form of political competition.