Event Summary: ‘Has the Arab Spring failed?’


This is a summary of an event with Dr Dan Schueftan, Director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, on 5 November 2013; it reflect the views expressed by the speaker and not those of The Henry Jackson Society or its staff.

To view the full transcript of the event, click here

Defence expert Dr Dan Schueftan described how Arab nations have been unable to bring about positive change as a result of the Arab Spring, primarily because of a lack of pluralism in their societies. Primordial tribal loyalties, the artificial nature of many Arab states and radical interpretations of Islam within the region contribute to Arab societies’ inability to effect positive change inside their states. We cannot view dysfunction in Arab societies as a result of Islam, or oppressive colonial histories, but rather as a deeper failure to adapt culturally to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Failure to adapt to the twenty-first century

  • As we have seen, Arab states are capable of effecting change when they find life intolerable in their societies. However, due to a lack of pluralism and intensely divided tribal affiliations, the change produced is rarely positive and, as in Iraq and Syria, can even result in a worse situation than the previous status-quo.
  • Arab societies are capable of removing regimes, but what is restricting their development is a much deeper cultural trait and not simply something imposed from above by oppressive dictators and histories of colonialism.
  • Islam is not the cause of the problem. In other Islamic societies, such as Indonesia or Bangladesh, the same problem does not exist. It appears instead to be a distinctly Arab problem, due in part to the tribal divisions that resulted from the artificial formation of many states in the Middle East, and a radical interpretation of Islam that is restricting development.

The people’s rejection of pluralism

  • The one common denominator between Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Algeria, it is a lack of pluralism. This is not because regimes do not allow it, but because the majority of the people on the street do not want it. When autocratic rulers have been toppled in the past, especially in the 1950s, they have been replaced by military dictatorships.
  • Arab states have remained deeply divided along sectarian, tribal and ethnic lines and this has made it incredibly difficult to develop national solidarity. Only states like Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Israel represent relatively homogeneous entities in the Middle East – unlike Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya and the Sudan.
  • There is not one open, democratic regime across the entire Arab world, not because Arabs are incapable of pluralism or change, but because the prevailing culture of the ‘Arab Street’ embraces radical Islam, denies rights to women and minorities and rejects pluralism.

The position of Israel

  • Israel needs to make policy and act based on the assessed capabilities of its enemies and not the stated intentions of leaders who can be replaced in an instant. While that is so, Israel and other states cannot wait for more favourable leaders to appear but instead must deal with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood, General Sisi or Erdoğan while they are in power.
  • Israel has wisely invested its resources in building a creative, open society that can robustly defend itself from all threats in the region.
  • Talks with the Palestinians are an exercise in largely redundant statecraft carried out for the benefit of Western diplomats because Palestinians’ demands for a ‘right of return’, something that would destroy Israel demographically, are unconscionable.

Matters of pride

  • The creation of a de jure Kurdish state in the North of Iraq is something to be welcomed because it appears separate factions have overcome differences to work towards a political solution that benefits the Kurdish people. Despite being a non-Arab people they have a legitimate right to statehood in the Middle East and have adapted well to their environment.
  • Israelis need to respond to criticism of Israel with the truth, that the positive aspects of Israeli society; openness, gender and sexual equality, political and social freedoms and creativity, heavily outweigh the negative aspects.
  • Europe also needs to rediscover some pride in its cultural identity. It is terrible thing that the EU has removed the passage from its constitution saying that said Europe is a product of a Christian heritage because the achievements of Europeans are something that the whole world should celebrate and Europeans should have more self-confidence in their achievements.

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