Monday, July 2, 2012

When it's Springtime in Riyadh

I was attending a seminar on the "Arab Spring" past week, with a group of academics speaking about Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The discussion revolved around three fundamental questions: do you privilege dignity over bread? Is your government legitimate? And: how much "army" is desirable for your civil state? Where do we stand then, in 2012, in North Africa? How far have the revolutions evolved since 2011?


And in Riyadh?


In Tunisia, a fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid provided the spark that brought the fire to Ben Ali's palace. A protest at the lowest economical level led to the quick fall of an authoritarian leader, saturated with wealth, acquired in 24 years of corruption, bribery and kickback schemes. It was the economy that started a revolution, it will be the economy that will decide its fate. The empowerment of the Tunisian citizen that has happened last year is a wonderful achievement. Restoring the civil society is a goal worth fighting for. But while the human mind may run on dignity, the human body is not. The hand that feeds you is the hand you follow. Tunisians will need all the economy they can get to make their revolution sustainable.


And in Riyadh?


In Libya, the revolution was outsourced. NATO did it. And together with Gaddafi, there went the common ground among the parties opposing him. Are we witnessing an Iraqization of Libya? A country living in insecurity, divided, with arms abundant? Arms want to be fired, and just last Friday another 19 Libyans bit the sand in the southeastern town of al-Kufrah, victims of militias fighting tribes fighting militias. Transition is uncertainty. A completely controlled transition is not democratic. But a transition out of control will never lead to democracy.


And in Riyadh?


What democracy are we talking about? Democracy comes in many colors. Is democracy a goal in itself? Shouldn't we rather speak about the legitimacy of power, no matter who holds that power and where that power comes from? The question is not if a state is democratic, but if the power that governs a state is seen as legitimate. In the Arab world as elsewhere, the relations between the state and its citizens have shifted. Governments have to deal with people whose walls of fear have come down. Regimes have to do the one thing they hate to do the most: answering questions. People ask for space to have a public debate - on the legitimacy of the ones ruling over them. The old hat trick - I give you security, you give me power - doesn't work anymore. The Arab Spring was not the political revolution some wish it to be. It was a revolution of the mind. Societies have started to change. Did the SCAF think that getting rid of Mubarak was enough to appease the nation of Egypt? They were wrong!


And in Riyadh?


Bahgat Korany, professor at the American university in Cairo, summed up current Egypt as a struggle between the three M's: military, mosque (the Islamists) and the masses (the secular protesters on Tahrir). Who will prevail? Korany calls this the 36 billion dollars question. The military might give up a lot of things, but never their economic empire. The Islamists have great locations to organize themselves, the mosques, where they can meet five times a day. They can act locally, but can they deliver nationally, even globally, on issues that are outside their comfort zone? And the masses? No revolution can succeed without leadership and a program. The masses lack both. They are weak, they are vulnerable. Even masses need a head. 


And in Riyadh?


Where are we heading in Egypt? Is "Pakistan" a possible outcome? Will it be the military fighting the Islamists while at the same time colluding with them to oppress the civil state society? It will take a few rounds of "asking the audience", "phone a friend" and resorting to the "50:50" before the 36 billion dollars question can be answered. 


And in Riyadh?


The Arab Spring has reduced the Arab League to less than a chat box. The league has become irrelevant. However, the Arab Spring has seen the rise of the Gulf countries, organized in a club of old monarchs called GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council. Money can't buy you love, yet money can buy a revolution. Until today, the Gulf countries seem to be safe from revolutionary harm. While fig leafy Qatar collaborated with NATO in Libya - Libya had threatened to become the biggest player in the natural gas market - Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to quell any attempt at questioning the legitimacy of the ruling system of this tiny home of the US Navy's 5th fleet. By handing out huge sums to the Saudi people - buying off dignity, converting oil into bread - the Saudi masses have been calmed. For now. Tricked into a fragile tranquility. With every prince who dies in Riyadh, the al-Saud family edges one step closer to the grave of their regime. Internal struggles for succession have the potential to shake the monarchy; women asking for the right to drive their own course will do the rest. Saudi Arabia has 11.4 mio internet users, 5.3 mio Facebook accounts and 400'000 Twitter users (the highest number among Arab countries). "Social networks and new media can transform information sharing into creative ways of knowledge production", writes Reda Benkirane in a recent study publish by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). That knowledge can turn undisputed rulers into illegitimate autocrats. That knowledge can turn subsidies into hush money. 


Irrigation turns a wasteland into a green pasture. When the Arab Spring reaches the Saudi desert, money will not suffice to stop the grass of citizenship from growing. 


When it is Springtime in Riyadh.