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This isn't 1989
The Arab world does not have a unified institution that could provide much-needed political stability for the region.
Last Modified: 18 Mar 2011 11:06
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference is composed not only of democracies, but also dictatorships, so how can they offer advice for a common future for the region? [EPA]

It's a deeply discouraging moment for the Arab revolutions. With the Libyan revolution in apparent retreat, in danger of falling back or even fragmenting, one truth is becoming increasingly obvious. This isn't the Arab world's 1989.

When Eastern Europe became free, the democratic West cut any debate around its future short. NATO was waiting to welcome Eastern Europeans with open arms; they would also be fast tracked into the European Union if they made the right reforms. In a matter of years, they would begin to rejoin the continent they were parted from in 1945. Peace, security, and prosperity. What wasn't there to like?

This larger security architecture, and the institutions that went with it, immediately provided Eastern Europe a political, economic, and even cultural direction to move in. So effective was this security architecture that it not only (albeit belatedly) ended the bloodiest post-1989 conflict, when Serb nationalists attempted to absorb Bosnia; more than that, the promise of EU membership even lured Serbia in from the cold.

But, as Gaddafi's forces continue to pound his people, it is clear that no such salvation awaits an uncertain Arab world. The European Union is loath to admit even deeply Westernised Turkey to its ranks, and there is no reason it could or should consider Arab membership. And Arab and Muslim intergovernmental organisations offer no shared political consensus.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the second-largest intergovernmental organisation in the world, features governments ranging from dictatorships (Uzbekistan) to democracies (Senegal); the OIC thus cannot offer a vision for a common or attractive future.

Even the Arab League's call for a Libyan no-fly zone can do no more than insist. The League has no means to put force behind its words, and its infrequent unanimity has proven unsurprisingly susceptible to dissolution. And why would the League's mostly authoritarian members endorse a democratic movement in a region clearly not immune to a populist domino effect?

The hard truth is this: There is no credible regional institution to tackle this worrying crisis. As much as the hearts and minds of people across the region are with the Libyan people, there is no plausible, credible, or sustainable way to intervene to help them.

The revolution won't be nationalised

We've been right to note the absence of rigid ideological content in these Arab revolutions. These are nationally focused, but they were never exclusive to one country. Think how new media and satellite television combined to reinforce a common struggle: Arabs, Middle Easterners and people across the Muslim-majority world are sick of their shared reality. Many live in under-performing economies, suffer rigid governments, and have endured years of international irrelevance.

So Tunisia's government went down, and then Egypt's. But what a democratic Arab (and Muslim) world will look like is still very much up in the air. That conversation is made still more difficult by the reality of authoritarian states who are, for the moment, pushed back on their heels; eventually, authoritarian forces will regroup, and begin to work to undermine or reduce the effect of the Arab world's popular revolution.

Arab and Muslim dictators have long supported each other in their oppression, and the handful (so far) of fragile Arab democracies will need to band together to survive a tremendous amount of pressure from neighbouring authoritarian states - as well as internal pressures and disagreements. Perhaps, for example, they will turn to Turkey and Indonesia in cooperation and collaboration.

But however they do it, they will have to. Firstly, because the example of Libya is instructive. Secondly, the interests of a democratic Egypt and Tunisia will diverge from the interests of neighbouring authoritarian states. The West functions because it has a transnational architecture, although any mention of transnationalism in the Middle Eastern context produces (deeply hypocritical) concern. But this cannot and should not stop the conversation from happening, no more than racist hand-wringing about the Arab aptitude for democracy had any place in the Arabs' decision to overthrow Ben Ali and Mubarak.

Watching for the Middle Eastern Union

Right now, Arabs and Westerners are debating whether to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, and what air strikes could actually accomplish. But Western credibility in the region is severely limited, the United States is rightly concerned about yet another quagmire, and distant Russia or China could easily veto a United Nations Security Council resolution.

If help cannot come from the outside, it must eventually come from the people of the region. Televised images of brave but untrained Libyan citizens taking up arms, fighting to free their country, inspire hope across the region - but they also inspire fear. What happens if the Libyan people are defeated? What happens if Libya fragments, or it turns into a failed state?

Because this isn't 1989. There are no means to encourage positive outcomes. There aren't any transnational institutions in place to threaten with sticks or temper with carrots.  I don't mean the short-term hand-out strategy of certain rentier states. I mean the kind of security that has been realised in Europe, which has enabled prosperity and peacefulness across a once terribly violent continent.

The Middle East requires a credible democratic architecture that can transcend individual countries, work to resolve regional conflicts, encourage trade, arts and culture, and, most importantly, defend the gains made in the recent revolutions. There must be a regional coalition of democracies, and where there is a need, reality soon catches up. We're not too far from the day when the common interests of these mostly Arab and Muslim-majority democracies lead them inexorably towards closer cooperation.

Haroon Moghul is executive director of The Maydan Institute, and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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