Stability in the Arab World may take some time to come about, writes Farish Noor.
Last week, I found myself in Paris, engaged in a long two-day discussion with my French colleagues and counterparts over the question of where the Arab Spring is heading.
Coming as it did at a time when France’s own credit rating had been reduced by Standard and Poor’s– and occasioning many a sceptical outcry from different quarters about the prospects of President Nicolas Sarkozy winning a second term in office — the outlook for the near future appears bleak indeed.
I noted to myself that there was perhaps a little too much optimism in the discussions we had, with several commentators pointing out that order in the Arab world might be resumed soon as a result of the general elections that are taking place in countries like Egypt.
While everyone would like to see some semblance of order re-introduced into the equation, and analysts the world over are hoping to see the restoration of law and order as fast as possible in places like Tunisia and Egypt, from the Southeast Asian point of view, all of this speculation seems tentative and hopeful at best.
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There are three things we need to take into account for starters:
From a Southeast Asian perspective, much of the talk that has gone into the Arab Spring debate seems rather dated, to be frank.
Last year, there was some speculation about how the Arab Spring — as a phenomenon and an idea — might “travel” across the world and spread to other countries in Asia.
Now, for a start, I feel that this metaphor is misleading, for it suggests that the Arab Spring was and is some sort of contagion — like a virus — that can be spread from one country to another.
But is this really the case, and is the Arab Spring really a “contagion” that requires human vectors to spread, like SARS?
Or is it really a case of a design flaw in so many post-colonial states and societies that, after a period of time, they begin to break down due to structural and institutional weaknesses that are built into them?
Secondly, for many Southeast Asians, the sight of people going out to the streets to protest is hardly something we can consider new, for the region has seen demonstrations aplenty over the past few decades: from the protests leading to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, to the pro-democracy protests in Myanmar, to the demonstrations that brought down the government of president Suharto in Indonesia, all between 1986 and 1998.
In short, if there was any spring to speak of, it began in Asia long before the Tunisians mobilised in their inner cities.
Yet in the 1990s, nobody suggested that events in Southeast Asia would spread to the Arab world, so why are we saying the opposite today?
The third point I wish to raise has more to do with the heightened level of expectations that Europeans, in particular, seem to harbour over the resolution of the Arab crisis.
It would, in my opinion, be naïve to assume that an election would necessarily translate into institutional-governmental change overnight and that order will be resumed the day after.
Look at both Philippines and particularly Indonesia, post-Suharto: Indonesia had to go through a series of weak government administrations, most of which lasted just about a year, before the ascendancy of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
When SBY came to power, many thought that he would be the next short-term president, who would last all of 12 months in office.
Yet, he has passed his first term and looks set to finish his second, albeit with some turbulence along the ride.
How and why has this happened? One possible answer lies in the fatigue of the Indonesian public themselves, for by the time Susilo came to power, there was much talk of the new “disease” that was spreading in Indonesia: SARS, or in this case, Sindrom Aku Rindu Suharto (I miss Suharto syndrome).
Basically, Indonesians had grown tired of populist politics and wanted to see their country put back on track towards some achievable goals, and were tired of being called to vote every few months or so.
The net result has been some semblance of order, and a politics of pragmatism and compromise which some would say is the norm in politics anywhere.
This may be the scenario for the Arab world in the decade to come, with the first elections throwing up unwieldy coalitions between secularists, leftists, nationalists and Islamists that will falter, be put back together again, falter again, and so on — until some equilibrium is met.
We hope that it will happen sooner than later, but it won’t be happening tomorrow.
West European politicians and intellectuals may balk at the prospect of Islamists eventually entering government in places like Egypt, but to resist that process merely complicates things.
Naturally, some Western governments with longstanding ties to former regimes may wish to see a return to the past, but that won’t happen either.
Now is the time when we hope common sense and pragmatism will prevail, and not some ill-founded missionary zeal or mere wishful thinking.