Adrian Hamilton: There's no need to fear the Arab Spring

International Studies

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The Independent Online

The BBC's Spooks is back with the theme that the spy services are made even more necessary by the Arab Spring. Fears of Muslim fundamentalist takeovers of some of the Arab states compel new friendships and ever-greater threats.

It's all hokum of course. But just as in the more paranoid days of the Cold War, there is an uncomfortable reality to it. Not in terms of the threat, but in the way that the intelligence services, like the military, erect global dangers as the reason for ever greater expenditure on their services.

Prime Ministers and cabinet ministers get fearfully overexcited by "top secret" documents talking of deep plots. And you don't have to go quite as far as Blair's Manichean visions of a jihadist conspiracy against the West to build elaborate nightmares out of 9/11 and the July bombings in London. But to start applying the narrative of the "war on terror" to the Arab Spring is not just perverse, it is inimical to any understanding of what the movements in North Africa and the Middle East are about and what they might mean for us.

Perhaps they will bring Islamist groups into power, if not actually to it. So they should. If you believe in democracy, then you have to recognise that religious revival is one of the features of the Arab world. Anyone who has travelled through the area over the past decade has to have noticed the spread of the veil and the appeal of such commitment to the young.

At the same time, during long decades of authoritarian rule, the mosque and the madrassa have become the most pervasive sources of opposition to government. Most other potential centres of opposition such as the unions, professional groups (such as lawyers or merchants) or political parties had long been suppressed or neutered.

Most authoritarian regimes – notably the Egyptians, Algerians and, of course, Colonel Gaddafi – have tried to do the same with the mosque. But, by its nature, it has proved more difficult to control such a diffuse organisation. It was easier for Eastern European communists who had to deal with a hierarchical structure such as the church and simply tried to stamp out religion altogether.

The Arab Spring has been marked above all by its heterogeneous nature and its lack of specific structure. It would be astonishing if religious groups, including the more extreme Salafist movements, did not seek to fill the vacuum left by the fall of authoritarian regimes. This certainly seems to be the case in Egypt and possibly Tunisia as well, and its is the spectre that the Gaddafi regime summoned up to justify its continuation in power. For liberals it is a real concern.

But that doesn't make it a security threat to the West. It didn't happen in Iraq, where foreign occupation gave every reason for inflaming anti-Western sentiment and religious groups did come to power. It is even less likely to happen in North Africa and the Middle East.

The thrust of the uprising has been basically economic, the desire to break out of the corruption, cronyism and sterility of the existing regimes. The focus has been largely nationalist and self-involved, not anti-Western or ideological.

The worst thing, for the Europeans or Americans to do now is to concern themselves primarily with the uprisings as a question of stability and power. Yet that is what we seem to be concentrating on as we attempt to influence, if not direct, the political structures which may emerge.

It's not ours to determine their future. It is ours to offer an engagement on trade and finance, as well as (dare one mention it?) on migrants and refugees.

Much at stake for the UN itself

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is laying down the gauntlet not just to Israel but to the US and indeed the UN itself in seeking recognition for Palestinian statehood. Every effort is now being made to get him to stay his bid before he gives his speech at the UN Assembly tomorrow, not least to get the West off the hook of either supporting or opposing him.

But it's hard to see how Abbas can back down now, unless Israel offers a complete cessation of settlement expansion in the West Bank and agrees to other Palestinian demands for an agreement which would pave the way to statehood within a year. If they don't – and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is most unlikely to do so for fear of appearing weak before his right-wing coalition – any retreat or compromise by Abbas will deprive him of any authority he has left with his own people.

If he goes ahead with the request and the US then vetoes it, America stands exposed not just as Israel's puppet but as on the wrong side of history. If the Europeans fail to support the bid or simply abstain, then they are shown up as the ditherers.

Worse, if the bid is presented and Palestine fails to get a majority of members on the Security Council, then it will be the UN itself and its arcane structure of Security Council decision-making which will be seen as outdated and ineffective.

All the more reason for the Palestinians to go ahead. It may not achieve practical results but it will achieve the object of the exercise – to make the world sit up and take notice of a conflict that has been going on far too long and was getting nowhere without this initiative. And if it makes America and the Europeans squirm, all the better.