Dilshod A. Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, spoke at length with The International Business Times about the cataclysmic and evolving developments in the Middle East and North Africa.
IBTIMES: What are your general thoughts about the upheaval we are witnessing in Egypt and its neighbors?
ACHILOV: What is happening in the Middle East is a major historical critical juncture. I call it the “2/11” of the Middle East (the day Hosni Mubarak fell). When the revolution brought the Tunisian regime down, many wondered if that was an accident (because Tunisia is relatively small country ).
But Egypt is an entirely different story, Egypt is the largest Arab Middle Eastern country (it is almost eight times bigger than Tunisia) and a major power broker in the region.
When the long-lasting regime of Mubarak fell last week, people realized that the Tunisian case was not an “accident.” It was the realization that change can happen with persistence and that a revolutionary uprising can topple repressive governments.
The assumption that authoritarian governments in the Middle East/North Africa [MENA] region are “invulnerable has been demolished.
IBTIMES: What will the existing Arab governments need to do to prevent their own leaders from sharing Mubarak’s and Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali’s fate?
ACHILOV: The cure is democracy. But incumbent authoritarian rulers can prolong their regimes by treating the symptoms by offering concessions: in fact, they must make significant measures in order to gain public approval.
For instance, the king of Bahrain is giving away $2,500-$2,700 to each family to win the hearts of its people and thereby to offset the protestors’ motivations.
I would say that major concessions in terms of economic reforms (e.g., promoting job programs) will increase.
However, I would be less optimistic about the states relaxing controls on the media. The media outlets are more likely to be controlled, managed and/or regulated in order to minimize the media’s influence on mobilizing the public.
Media control is an indispensible component of Authoritarianism-101. I think the attacks targeting the journalists who were covering Tahrir Square in Egypt (when pro-Mubarak groups emerged in early February) were systematic acts sponsored by the Mubarak regime.
IBTIMES: Which Arab states look strongest to you? That is, which one are most likely to resist any clamor for regime change and why?
ACHILOV: I would not expect a mass uprising in states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAR). But it does not mean that revolutions will not occur in these states.
The massive revolution (of the Egyptian caliber) is more distant in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE compared to other Arab states.
IBTIMES: What are the major factors behind this lack of radical spirit in these countries?
ACHILOV: One of the main factors is economic prosperity (driven by oil wealth). Saudi, Qatari and UAE citizens are comparatively wealthy and busy with their work. The citizens have (mostly high-paying) jobs. Thus, the motivation to seek higher levels of economic standards is low compared to significantly poorer states like Yemen, Jordan, and Syria. Economic prosperity (jobs, etc) and well-being are the key engines fuelling this ongoing uprising.
IBTIMES: Tell me specifically about Saudi Arabia, which I think merits particular attention and holds a special place in the Islamic world.
ACHILOV: The holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located in Saudi Arabia. These are highly sacred to all Muslims worldwide. Close to 3-million believers perform an annual Hajj (a required ritual that must be completed by all Muslims at least once in a lifetime) to Mecca every year.
While the majority of the Islamic world would support a democratic transition in Saudi Arabia, most Muslims would oppose seeing violent protests there.
The majority of Muslims (the pilgrims in particular) have high regard for the Saudi kingdom, and for the public services (public amenities, infrastructure, hospitality, etc) provided by the government.
IBTIMES: How does oil wealth play into this scenario?
ACHILOV: Oil wealth is not unimportant since it can be used to “buy” public support. Overall, because of Saudi Arabia’s economic prosperity and its religious significance (Mecca), it is less likely to experience the mass street demonstrations of an Egyptian magnitude. However, the attitudes toward the political status-quo have changed, including for the citizens of Saudi Arabia. The atmosphere of “change” can definitely be felt in all of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.
IBTIMES: How do you think Israel will react to the upheaval among its Arab neighbors and enemies?
ACHILOV: That depends on Israel’s geo-strategic calculations. The number one priority for Israel is its long-term security. Rather than favoring autocratic regime-type of ruler , Israel would rather support the government that would uphold (or pose minimal problems/issues to) Israel’s geo-strategic security interests.
For example, Israel is having major issues with the democratically elected Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan. The cooperation between Israel and Turkey (the region’s two vibrant democracies) is not as good as it used to be.
Yet, Israel is alarmed about Mubarak’s fall – since he has been its long-term ally in the region. So I think for Israel, the “who can deliver more security” question will be more important than the “regime type” of its neighbors.
In terms of foreign policy, Israel rarely has the best options in the Middle East. Often, it has to choose the “least bad” (i.e., minimally problematic) options. For the sake of national security, Israel is more likely to support the government, regime, leader or political party that will pose no (or minimal threat) to its security and right to exist.
IBTIMES: Are we facing a new paradigm in the Middle East with respect to the power structure?
ACHILOV: I think no country in the Middle East is immune to a political unrest from now on.
I also think that “democratization” in Egypt and Tunisia (if it indeed succeeds) will serve as a critical point of reference for the opposition groups in the oil-rich Gulf states. Regardless of oil wealth, I think the revolution in Egypt will nonetheless help create and/or embolden strong opposition movements in these small wealthy countries.
Looking forward, I believe the “oil wealth” factor will be a leading topic for debate. A new generation of Arab youth will eventually challenge the status quo of oil-driven economic structures. Oil is limited -- it will run out one day. The younger generation will likely challenge the economic policies in the Gulf. The technology and globalization (social networking, international education, etc) will be important catalysts in the process, I think.
IBTIMES: Yemen seems to be a very poor and fragmented country. Is it particularly ripe for revolution?
ACHILOV: I would say Yemen is one of the strong candidates to experience a revolution in the region. Yemen’s low socio-economic conditions (education, economy, etc) are major motives for the public to mobilize against the long-term authoritarian leader. The timing and scale of possible political unrest will depend on how well organized the opposition groups are.
The opposition groups are not well organized as was the case for Egypt. Therefore, the timing and scale will vary.
IBTIMES: Political corruption, state repression and poverty are nothing new in the Arab world. Why has it taken until 2011 for someone to light the fuse of revolt?
ACHILOV: Personally, I call it a “tea cup” effect. Imagine a tea cup. When you pour hot tea into a cup, there’s only so much it can hold. And it takes only one drop to cause the cup to spill.
The frustrations of ordinary Tunisians and Egyptians have built up so much that the pressure has begun to overflow. I think the Tunisian success was that last drop. It released the frustrations which had been culminating for years and years.
IBTIMES: Which, if any, of the Arab states are most likely to develop a democratic society the soonest?
ACHILOV: Democracies are not built overnight. A democratic state must be anchored in institutions that can promote and ensure civil liberties and political rights. Democratic institution-building has three main stages: 1) seeding, 2) nourishing, and 3) sustaining. Let’s say that the notion of democratic governance has just been seeded in Egypt. Next, the newly-formed institutions will need nourishment and nutrients in the form of transparency, reforms and freedoms. Only after that, can these institutions sustain themselves.
I think Egypt and Tunisia are more likely to develop an open civil society a lot sooner compared to other Arab states.
IBTIMES: Why these two countries?
ACHILOV: Egypt has well organized opposition groups and public support. But resolving the differences among all power structures will be of highest priority.
But don’t expect to see a mature democracy next year. The institutions arise, evolve and consolidate. It is a standard process, but it takes time.
IBTIMES: The US has openly supported the opposition leaders in Iran. But is the US going to be less enthusiastic about rebellion in other Mideast countries since the present rulers are mostly US allies?
ACHILOV: It will depend on larger geo-strategic security consideration. The U.S. would be less enthusiastic to see a rebellion in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, but more enthusiastic to see a change in Iran and Syria (both countries have no diplomatic relations with the US).
But I think the U.S. will use a tone (language/rhetoric) to support democratization in the region. However, how “sincere” that voice/call will be is questionable. To be politically correct and avoid hypocrisy, the US must provide support for democracy in the Middle East. But in order to protect its security interests, the U.S. will probably do it very carefully and selectively.
IBTIMES: How do you think all this unrest is being viewed by the Palestinians (who, technically, have no state, but also have problems with their leadership).
ACHILOV: I think the majority of Palestinians, if not all of them, support the uprisings sweeping through the Middle East. They view it as a “positive change.” According to the average public opinion in Palestinian-occupied territories, the Arab leaders were widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent. The West Bank is particularly happy to see Mubarak go because of Mubarak’s alliance with Israel.
IBTIMES: Turkey, a modern vibrant Islamic state, must be closely monitoring the developments to its south and east. Plus, they have a restive Kurd minority in the southeast.
ACHILOV: Turkey remains a relatively strong and dynamic democracy in the region. I don’t anticipate a mass uprising of the Kurds in Turkey.
In Turkey, the majority of Kurds are well integrated and living in one society with ethnic Turks. Both ethnic groups practice Sunni Islam and coexistence between the two ethnic groups extend back for centuries.
However, the PKK Kurdish rebels (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) represent the secularist, Marxist communist ideology. More importantly, PKK is denounced by most ethnic Kurds living in Turkey (a small percentage of Kurds living in Turkey actually support the PKK). It is important to note that the state of open civil society (including the media) in Turkey is very high.
However, given that the parliamentary elections are coming up this June, I think there may be more terrorist activities organized by PKK Kurdish rebels. This has been the usual pattern of PKK strategy. While the PKK may try to stir up a conflict to attract masses to the streets, I don’t think that they will be successful in mobilizing the majority of Kurds to march against the Turkish government.
In fact, the ruling party of Turkey -- the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – has recently sponsored a record number of bills that promote civil liberties and political rights granting substantial rights and privileges to minority groups.
IBTIMES: Is there a chance that the unrest could spread further east into Iraq, Afghanistan and even into Pakistan?
ACHILOV: Instead of framing it as “unrest,” I would say that the “idea of change” and the extent of “power of the ordinary people” originating from recent revolutions (Tunisia and Egypt) will spread to other authoritarian countries. I think the timing and the scale of “unrest” will vary depending on the maturity level of how well organized the opposition groups are.
At a minimum basic level, the current events in MENA will strengthen, embolden and revitalize the opposition groups around the world to increase their pressure on incumbent autocratic regimes.
The quest for freedom in the Middle East is far from over. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome in building democracy in the Middle East.