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Politics in mena is Regional

The distinguishing feature of the Arab Spring is its regional character. Within weeks of the first manifestations of the movement in Tunisia, many other countries were engulfed in rapid succession: Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Libya. A total of five countries accounting for close to 50 per cent of the total population of mena were soon fully involved in the phenomenon, while others were more marginally touched—notably Oman and Jordan. In North Africa, only Algeria, which had experienced its own aborted ‘Spring’ twenty years earlier, and subsequently saw a very bloody civil war, was not involved. In the Levant, Iraq had been experiencing civil war conditions ever since regime change in 2003, and Lebanon has a fragile and very imperfect, yet democratic, order. The major Gulf rentier states (a grouping of which Bahrain is not a member) were almost untouched.

The regional dimension of democratic transitions has often been postulated and tested in the literature (Kuru, 2014; Freund and Jaud, 2013; El- badawi et al., 2011). It is frequently found that the regional environment has an important bearing on the outcome of individual countries’ transitions: democratisation is facilitated in regions where democracy prevails, and more difficult where authoritarian regimes are numerous. There clearly is an imitation effect, and also open support for similar regimes—at least in the case of authoritarian regimes, which tend to fear ‘democratic contagion’ and support each other more effectively than democracies do. We have seen the same in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC—encompassing Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), a regional body created with the objective of ensuring mutual support among patrimonial monarchies, which quickly intervened to terminate the popular revolt in Bahrain.

Thus, regional influence is not new, but the speed with which the democ- ratisation contagion spread during the Arab Spring was unprecedented, and justifies the quest for regional, rather than purely national causes and interpretations. Looking forward, it is apparent that the battle between democracy and authoritarian rule is also being fought and will be decided at the regional level. In mena, all domestic politics have a regional impact, and no country’s internal equilibria can be independent of regional developments (Luciani and Salame, 1988). Political permeability inevitably turns the region into an arena for conflict rather than compromise and cooperation. It is the very close interdependence of domestic and regional affairs—close to an extent that has no parallel in any other region of the world—that makes it inevitable that mena states will be involved in each other’s internal affairs.

The region has known ‘democratic exceptions’ in a context of prevailing authoritarian rule. Israel has been the most prominent case, and in the economic sphere it has been almost completely alienated from its regional environment while pursuing integration with the United States of America (us), Europe and other regions. Lebanon has maintained a democracy, while being constantly on the brink of civil war, in which constitutional dictates are ignored more often than not. Tunisia might possibly also succeed in consolidating a democracy against the regional tide, and pursue a strategy of economic integration with Europe rather than its Arab neighbours. But these are exceptions, and fragile exceptions at that—Israel apart.

At the regional level, the battle is raging: while civil wars are being fought in only four countries (Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya) all other countries are in fact implicated. The whole region is engaged in a regional civil war whose active front is primarily in the four countries mentioned, but new fronts may open. And the GCC member states, which have so far succeeded in maintaining substantial control of their territory, are—in any case—active participants, contributing funding, providing weapons or, in the case of Yemen, Syria and Libya, via military involvement on the ground and from the air.

If and when the regional civil war will be resolved, economic policies will also need to be defined at the regional level. The task of providing for the reconstruction of Syria and Yemen will inevitably fall on the shoulders of the major Gulf oil exporters, just as the task of maintaining the Egyptian economy is already theirs. Iraq and Libya are also major producers and might possibly be able to fund their own reconstruction, but they too will need to define a regional economic strategy. The Arab civil war will inevitably define a new regional order, which will be economic as well as political.

In seeking appropriate economic strategies that may support the democ- ratisation process—assuming democratisation will still be on the agenda at the end of the civil war—the regional dimension cannot be forgotten: purely national recipes have little chance of success.

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