2018 Was A Dark Turn Towards Autocracy. Will 2019 Bring Change?

Throughout 2018, the Arab world continued to slide down to new lows. We stand before brutality led by blood-thirsty generals, by despotic princes and by corrupt politicians. It is a scene that will burden the conscience of humanity for many decades to come. All of this has been due to one main reason: the assassination of hope. If anything good ever comes out of this year, it is the fact that the brutality of the official Arab regimes has been fully exposed for all to see.

When the Arab Spring began in 2011, it heralded two values: freedom and dignity. It was led by a new generation equipped with an enormous energy of forward-looking hope combined with profound conviction that democracy was the solution;  religious, cultural and ethnic diversity was viewed as a source of strength. The Arabs lived their best days and the world started paying attention, with considerable admiration; for the first time in a century, the Arabs were exporting with pride a great political product to the world. 

We almost crossed to the future and almost shed off the burdens generated by a sense of incapacity and inferiority. However, the youthful dream never reached its destination. It was assassinated by the forces of the counterrevolution, headed by regional states that possessed what the youthful forces of the Arab Spring did not possess: wealth, and Western support.

That dual capacity was destructive, and the harvest of the past five years across the region has been bitter. Saudi Arabia and the UAE spent considerable amounts of money on organising and maintaining the 2013 military coup in Egypt. They then went on to provide support for General Haftar in Libya and spent money in order to undermine the democratic transition in Tunisia. In the meantime, the Syrian regime benefited from the persecution inflicted upon the democratic forces and continued its bloody war against its own people. The Saudi-led war in Yemen has plunged the country into catastrophe with seventeen million of its inhabitants driven to the brink of starvation. That the West could turn a blind eye to the situation in Yemen to such a degree is demonstrative of just how destructive the dual capacity of Western support and wealth has been.

Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman has been at the helm of Saudi policy-making for the last 18 months. Having initially appealed to Western nations by implementing reforms that suggested a new direction of economic openness and social tolerance for Saudi Arabia (allowing women to drive cars and promising abundant profits to international firms,) the Prince managed to coax Western leaders into turning a blind eye also to his inherently autocratic policies. Even as he was directing the horrific war in Yemen, Bin Salman detained the Lebanese Prime Minister, laid siege to Qatar and sent to prison more than 1600 activists and intellectuals including the women who led the struggle for the right to drive cars. His rampage of impunity culminated in the savage murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The Prince’s true colours had been shown. Absolute power leads to absolute corruption, and the Prince saw himself as infallible, an individual who enjoys divine right to kingship, a man above any critique. He believed he could do anything and get away with it; it was this sense of impunity, together with his impulsiveness, that led him to murdering Khashoggi.

If there were a single positive thing that came out of the horrimurder of Khashoggi it is that the world media finally rose to the level of responsibility. A spontaneous international alliance of journalists and human rights activists formed leading a campaign that soon echoed inside governments and parliaments. It was only then that the true nature of the Prince, who puts on a false robe of reform, was uncovered and he stood naked before the world stripped of every virtue.

Following the comprehensive brief presented by the CIA Director, and despite President Trump’s persistence in defending his ally, the US Senate unanimously voted to hold Muhammad bin Salman responsible for murdering Khashoggi. This, indeed, is a positive development.

Yet, in the European capitals the official responses have been less than what they should be. European governments condemned the murder but failed to condemn the murderer, and that is a grave mistake.

Europe should awaken to the following fact: The Middle Eastern neighbourhood is no longer a geopolitical spot that is separate from Europe. Rather, it is a natural extension of the European reality, politically and socially. The Middle Eastern neighbourhood, actually, shapes the European reality. The chaos precipitated by ignoring the crime of assassinating the Arab Spring soon found its way to Europe. The growing far right is putting at the core of its populist discourse sowing fear among the Europeans of the immigrants and of the Muslims. Arab dictatorial realities can no longer be something one can remain silent about under the pretext that they maintain stability or fight terrorism. These dictatorial regimes are responsible for the reality that generates chaos and begets terrorism.

Western capitals should not remain hesitant in the face of a reality that clashes with all human values. They should raise their voices in defence of democracy in the Arab world, if not for the love of virtue then in pursuit of their own best interests and to maintain security and stability in Europe and beyond. A key example is Tunisia. For the last few years, Tunisia has been emblematic of a successful democratic reality in the region; the West should champion the values of tolerance and liberalism emanating from Tunisia and should seek to support future democratic development here.  Tunisia, the Middle East’s only successful democratic reality should be a beacon of hope to which the West should look to support. Protecting the Tunisian case is a moral necessity and a strategic interest, for its fall will send one single message to the Arab peoples: The hope for a peaceful change is no longer there.

This was first published by Newsweek