Most Recent Column, Opinion, World — November 14, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Desert in Bloom: The Truth About the Arab League and Arab Spring

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"We are not Tunisia," "We are not Tunisia and Egypt," "We are not Tunisia and Egypt and Libya," "We are not Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and Yemen"

On Saturday, the Arab League announced that it has (finally) taken some substantive action on the issue of Syria: if the Assad regime does not desist from its violent tactics against civilians and hold up its end of the Arab League-brokered conflict resolution deal by November 16, it will be suspended from the League and suffer economic and political sanctions. When even the impotent and increasingly irrelevant Arab League, which Robert Fisk calls the “pathetic and most useless of Arab institutions” has been forced to take action supporting the people of Syria, one can infer that the gravity of the situation as well as the tide of world opinion is clear.

But there is more to be taken from this involvement. The lumbering Arab dinosaur’s entrance into the fray is not a sign of real “demonstrated leadership,” as President Obama alluded to shortly after the announcement. It is rather a sign of the shifting order of the Middle East. In fact, this points to a somewhat surprising interpretation of events: the real potential and beauty of the Arab Spring do not lie in excising the vicious heads of these dictatorial states; dictatorship, as proved by the tumultuous history of the Middle East and other regions, lurks in the shadows, ever waiting to return in a crisis or lapse in vigilance. Rather, this points to a much more important shift – the evolution in attitudes towards these leaders and their absolute power that seemed to have remained constant in the Middle East through all the passing empires and centuries.

Consider the member states of the Arab League. There is Egypt, still under military rule in spite of the deposition of the long-ruling figurehead Mubarak. There is Tunisia, perhaps the only truly emerging democracy on the list, although Libya (who was recently readmitted after its suspension during the civil war) may be moving in that direction as well. The rest: Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan, and the others are all ruled by either dictators, monarchs, or sham-elected political dynasties, and many, such as Bahrain and Yemen, have brutally crushed their own demonstrations and revolutions.  For these nations, the resolution is a futile and disingenuous attempt to appear on the right side of history, but with every attempt to entrench their rule as defenders of the Arab people, they merely hasten their own demise and accede to the fact that anyone paying attention can little more tolerate their own regimes, in the long run, than those of Assad, Qaddafi, or Mubarak.

What this resolution, as well as the suspension of Libya, means is that the state has voluntarily affirmed a limit to its own power. The same sanctions that Syria now sees were imposed on Libya and were the first steps towards an intervention that destroyed Qaddafi. While intervention in Syria seems unlikely and incredibly dangerous in any case, the possibility is a clear subtext. Syria is perhaps one of the most important and emblematic nations of the Arab League; by asserting that even the regime of great Syria is accountable for its crimes, every other member state recognizes its own vulnerability to sanctions when overstepping the line.

It would be naïve to see this as a good-hearted belief in the sanctity of human life and the political and natural rights of the populace; on the contrary, it is a cynical attempt by these regimes to trade some power for their continued existence. But it reveals the inevitability of the emergence of free states that respect human rights. These dictatorships have given an inch in attempt to hold their ground but this has been enough to inspire awakening. The demands for the respect of human life will snowball until they give a yard, then a mile, until they eventually disappear and make way for democratic societies.

This is not to say the change will not come bloodily. Syria seems ever closer to civil war, and the danger looms larger even than it seemed when I wrote about it a month ago. But Assad’s power, and that of the dictators in general, is incontrovertibly finished. This is the power of the Arab Spring. It is undeniable, irresistible, and from it no regime can find refuge. The only escape from its wrath can be to support it — and this will seal the fate of the tyrants for good.

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