Cool Spring—The #ArabSpring revisited (post-webinar Q&A session) #EIU

The following are my notes from the Q&A session immediately following the webinar that was presented by Robert Powell, Senior Analyst, Middle East of the Economist Intelligence Unit on June 29, 2012. The questions were put forward by those in the audience listening to the webinar and were answered by Robert Powell.

1. What lessons can Egypt provide for Libya with regard to drafting of constitution and rise of Muslim Brotherhood?

With regard to the drafting of the constitution, the process to put in a President and a Parliament in place before the drafting of a new constitution was always a problematic one. Libya should negotiate their new constitution before any elections are held.

With regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, it was always going to do well in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, because it’s a mature political party, and what’s more it is relatively moderate. What Libya has to be concerned about is the influence of the radically fundamentalist Salafis, who are being supported by money from Saudi Arabia.

Libya is in a better position than Egypt for two reasons: there is no overweening military, because Muammar Gaddafi was paranoid enough of a military coup not to allow a strong military to develop. However, there are a lot of internal spies and the political situation is more unstable in the long run precisely because you do not have any overweening military or other political parties. Therefore the situation needs to be monitored carefully, although it is not garnering as much attention from the world press as Egypt has been doing recently.

The second reason it is in a better position is because it has plenty of oil money, due to the rise in oil prices. It will be important for the government to provide fiscal stimulus to the economy.

2. Is a second Tahrir Square type of Egyptian revolution probable?
Please remember that neither of the two largest political blocs in Egypt at the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood nor SCAF, truly represent the core of the revolutionary movement in Egypt.

At this point according to opinion surveys 90% of Egyptian population just want to go back to their normal life; their livelihoods have been severely impacted by the revolution. They want a greater say so, but a new revolution is unlikely because of fatigue.  There will be sporadic protests, especially if SCAF tries to make too much of a power grab during negotiations with President Mohammad Mursi about the constitution.

During the negotiations, the Muslim Brotherhood will lead for the time being. It will comprise the majority of the elected parliament. SCAF will carve out a certain independence over its own affairs, i.e., foreign relations, but even more importantly for them, their real estate and commercial interests.

For a historical parallel, look at the evolution of relations between Erdogan, Turkey’s powerful prime minister since 2003, and the military there. There has been a rapprochement that could be replicated in Egypt as well.

3. How does Obama administration use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones challenge the struggles of the Yemen government against Al-Qaeda?

First, let’s review the political situation facing the current Yemeni government. Right now, the coalition in the government is made up of 50% of the former ruling party, and 50% of the opposition.

The former Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, is now the current president and seems to be proving out to be a capable and assertive leader. The problem is that, although the former President Saleh has been ousted from power, his relatives still have positions of power.

The US says they will impose sanctions on the Saleh family if they try to hold on to power behind the scenes. This move may be helpful politically in Yemen to prevent the fragile coalition from unraveling.

However, the situation with drones, as the question implied, is that any tactical military advantage that it gives to the Yemeni government vis-à-vis al-Qaeda may be overshadowed by the strategic difficulties it creates in destabilizing the country politically.

There are echoes of the situation in Pakistan with regards to the use of drones. Neither the Yeminis nor the Americans want “boots on the ground”. The drones are seen by the government as giving support to the Yemeni army, which IS on the ground. However, they are extremely unpopular with the people because of what is euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage”.

At least on the economic front, aid is coming in from Saudi Arabia, and the government needs to more fiscal stimulus in order to be seen to be helping the Yemeni populace.

4. Are radical forces in Yemen such as al-Qaeda undermining Saudi plans for greater control of the region?

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula is based in Yemen; its members are an amalgamation of Saudis and Yemenis. There have been several attacks launched on Saudi soil in the past that have failed. Saudis are actually more concerned about political destabilization in their own county from Shi’ite groups to the East, in particular in connection with their regional arch-rival Iran.

There is a Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen but it doesn’t have any interest in Saudi affairs. In reality, Yemen is unlikely to have an internal political impact on Saudi outside of security concerns connected with al-Qaeda and other radical groups.

5. By your own figures in the webinar, the “revolutionary” Arab Spring countries are doing poorly economically, and the ones that are “counter-revolutionary” such as Saudi Arabia are experiencing an economic boom. Could one argue that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are serving their people better as autocracies than the countries with inefficient democracies?

This is a philosophical question which we could discuss for hours, but my own opinion is that, even though it looks like the counter-revolutionary countries are better off economically in the short run, in the long run they are not.

In the long run democracies deliver prosperity to their people far better because of the more equal distribution of income. Let’s put it another way: Saudi Arabia and the UAE could have done much better with the resources with which they have been placed.

If Saudi Arabia had become a democracy, it would now be the richest country in the world.

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