Francesco Cavatorta, professor of political science, Université Laval
I believe it is impossible to explain the Arab uprisings and their aftermath without examining the linkages that exist between domestic and international variables. Processes of regime change and regime building–whether successful or not–have often been examined through exclusively domestic variables because this is what the literature on democratization postulated for a number of years. However, it seems to me that regime change, as well as regime continuation, do not occur in a vacuum. Countries–through their domestic political, economic and social actors–have numerous linkages with the outside world, suggesting that there is a wide range of interests and preferences that can influence how domestic politics is conducted and develops. While the work of Tovias, Pridham, Whitehead, and Levitsky and Way among others dealt directly with the influence of international variables on processes of democratization, there is also a substantial body of work outlining the way in which international actors have contributed to the resilience of authoritarian rule and therefore to the survival of regimes with very little domestic legitimacy. In addition, there is a vast literature on the way in which globalization constrains the autonomy of domestic decision-making when it comes to institutional choices and economic-policy making.
All this to say that it would be indeed very surprising if there were no linkages between the domestic and the international arenas when it comes to the politics of the MENA. In fact, it would be interesting to see more work being published examining precisely such inter-connections and the way in which they produced the specific outcomes we witnessed and continue to witness. This is true not only in reasonably clear-cut cases such as Syria and Libya, but also in cases such as Tunisia or Morocco. International forces operate differently based on domestic conditions and in turn such domestic conditions influence international actors differently, but there is a link that needs to be further highlighted. It should also be mentioned that such link does not necessarily involve only state actors, but also a plethora of non-state ones, ranging from religious foundations to the media and from individual intellectuals to armed movements.
When it comes to the specific policies of regional and international actors currently active in the MENA, there indeed seem to be a degree of fluidity in the alliances that are struck, but it does not really involve that many actors. There is also a significant degree of continuity in the alliances and the policies undertaken. For instance, the Syria/Iran partnership is now in its fourth decade and the US/Saudi Arabia/Israel axis is also not a novelty. While Turkey seems to have adopted a more flexible attitude towards its long-established alliances, this is not necessarily the product of the Arab uprisings, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempt to be more influential across the Arab world and distancing his country from Israel predate 2011. It is also true that Saudi Arabia is occasionally at odds with the other Gulf monarchies, but overall, they still enjoy the protection and friendliness of the United States, falling squarely in the latter’s camp.
One important aspect that needs to be underlined is the non-ideological nature of the alliances and regional blocs. While in the past one might have detected a degree of ideological affinity among partners, today this ideological aspect, it seems to me, has vanished. Regional actors are no longer credible when attempting to project an ideological dimension in their foreign policies and decisions. This non-ideological dimension of foreign policy making is not necessarily negative in theory–one would expect more rational/realist decision making. However, in the current context, regional regimes do not really defend any ideological position and are simply interested in their own survival, which generally equate with the survival of ruling elites. While ideological rhetorical devices are employed constantly, they have very little to no credibility and it seems to me that that they are just employed as a facade to disguise the real objective, which is the perpetuation of the elites in power. This leads them to make foreign policy-choices that are incredibly narrow, shortsighted and dangerous with the aim of simply undermining other actors in order to avoid their own internal collapse.
The use of sectarianism as a foreign policy tool, as Toby Matthiesen and other scholars have highlighted, is but one example of this. Who genuinely believes in the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Bashar al-Assad? Who really believes in the role of the Saudi King as the defender of the religious dogma? The construction of ad-hoc regional blocs, the fluidity of some alliances and the continuity of others all share one crucial element: the necessity to preserve power and privileges. The identification of potential allies abroad–whether state or non-state actors–is purely instrumental in undermining rivals abroad or advancing narrow interests and it does not reflect any real ideological commitment to a cause. While this is not new in general and in the region in particular, it is now the exclusive rationale for action.
I am not entirely sure on how this influences Islamism and Islamist politics more generally. To a certain extent the divisions we see among regional actors are also reflected in Islamist movements across the region, and there is a sort of feedback loop between the two sets of actors. Islamism broadly understood as a political force that conveys social and economic grievances and aspirations is unlikely to disappear and it is going to be transformed further in light of both domestic and international developments and their interactions.
There is, however, a worrying development and that is the sectarian discourse that the region is now witnessing. This, again, is not necessarily a novelty, but the level of vitriol is and subsequent actions undertaken in the name of sectarian differences have reached considerable levels of violence. At a conference in Florence in 2007 Ghassan Salamé argued that sectarianism in the Middle East was not the normal state of things, it was more like a fever that has to peak before it subsides. It has now been peaking for over a decade and the hope is that the fever is about to break. Looking at how some regional actors behave, we should not be so confident that it will indeed happen soon.