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The International Politics of the Arab Spring

The International Politics of the Arab Spring: Popular Unrest and Foreign Policy

  • Book Title:
 The International Politics Of The Arab Spring
  • Book Author:
Robert Mason
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When Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian graduate who was forced to sell fruit illegally because he couldn’t find a job, was mistreated by the police and the municipality refused to hear his complaint, no one could have predicted the consequences his suicide would have.1

Yet, by 2011, the Tunisian uprising had triggered similar protests and demon­ strations in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and Syria. Consequently, as instability, unrest, and conflict have spread across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in the months and years that followed, the necessity for the international community to respond to and coordinate its policies has become unavoidable.

The Arab Spring has quickly come to dominate the international political agenda in the second decade of the 2000s, along with the policy implications of the global financial crisis and the rising eco­ nomic power of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (the BRICS).

This book explores and analyzes how the Arab Spring has affected the political and economic relationship between the interna­ tional community, represented here as the United States, EU, Russia, Latin America, India, and China, and the MENA states. Special attention is paid to those states that have been directly affected by the Arab Spring, such as Egypt, Libya, and Syria, as well as the impacts that the international community has had at the regional and inter­ national levels.

The first case of the Arab Spring to be referred to the UN Security Council (UNSC) was Libya in 2011. Widely seen to be in violation of its obligations to uphold human rights, the UNSC approved Resolution 1973 against Colonel Gaddafi’s government, including a “no­fly zone” over Libya and “all necessary measures” to pro­ tect civilians in March 2011.2 The same month, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its partners (including Sweden, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, and Morocco) had implemented “Operation Unified Protector.”

The operation included enforcing an arms embargo, a no­fly zone, air and naval strikes against military forces involved in attacks, or threatening to attack Libyan civilians or civilian­populated areas.3  By the end of the cam­ paign, 26,000 sorties had hit 6,000 military targets.4

 The collateral damage is estimated to have been 72 civilians killed by air strikes during the seven­month air campaign.5 In October 2011, Colonel Gaddafi had been killed in his hometown, Sirte, and the country’s new leadership, the National Transitional Council, had declared the nation to be liberated.6 However, the international fallout from this episode had not yet been realized.

The UNSC through voting for, or abstaining from, Resolution 1973, which included the wording “all necessary measures,” had supported the preconditions necessary for regime change. UNSC members Russia and China would become much more cautious in the following years to allow such language to be included in other resolutions. This has been particularly evident in the case of Syria.

Less than six months later, Russia and China were back in the UNSC vetoing resolutions for intervention in Syria. Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions in the past three years.7

 It wasn’t until February 2014 that Russia and China were finally persuaded to adopt Resolution 2139, which called on the Syrian government and rebel groups to immediately halt attacks on civilians and allow unfet­ tered humanitarian access, a measure that has failed to work so far.8

Incredibly, the resolution threatened unspecified “further steps,” which could include the use of force (according to the UN Charter).9 However, it did not specify “all necessary measures,” so another UNSC resolution authorizing the use of force would most likely be required.

 The Syrian situation has been accompanied by a mas­ sive humanitarian crisis that has led to various states, such as Brazil, attempting to reconcile or accommodate the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle in international humanitarian law with respect for the internal affairs and the territorial integrity of a sovereign state. The latter points are insisted upon by both Russia and China and remain central to advancing a diplomatic solution on Syria.10

Meanwhile, in June 2013, Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran. His electoral victory brought about a step change in Iran’s international relations, particularly with the United States, not seen since  the election  of  reformist  Mohammad  Khatami in  1997. Its nuclear negotiations with the five permanent members of the UNSC plus Germany (the so­called P5+1) have become vital to relieving the effects of the sanctions against Iran but also in improving oil exports.

If successful, they could not only herald a new era of more cooperative relations with the West but also begin to address some of the contentions between Iran and its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Thus, while the Arab Spring has attracted much attention, there are other important aspects of regional change that should not be forgotten.

The first part of the book discusses the failure of academia to pre­ dict and conceptualize the Arab Spring as a multifaceted phenomena that it has since become.

It is included at the start of the book as a reference point to what researchers and analysts had come to understand about domestic and international politics pertaining to the Middle East, persistent obstacles in the regional democratization process, and the nature and timing of social change.

The policies of the United States and EU are then addressed. They have long implemented policies targeting the MENA region to: improve human rights, encourage democratization, engender more political reform, and enhance economic growth.

Such policies were attempts to modernize, stabilize, and integrate the region into the world economy, which appeared to have been bypassed by globalization throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

They then gained a greater urgency during the G. W. Bush administration as the US government sought to address the root causes of global terrorism after 9/11 through a Global War on Terror and regime change in Iraq in 2003.

Indeed, there are some in the Middle East who believe that the US government was instrumental in causing the Arab Spring as a way to restructure and redraw the political map of the Middle East to more closely reflect its national interests.11 During the Arab Spring, US policies have been complicated by uncertainty about political transitions and a shift favoring multilateral solutions in the UNSC.

They have also focused on maintaining key energy and security equities with regional allies, particularly with regard to the containment of Iran and support for the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP).

The EU has also attempted to export democracy and, therefore, has broadly welcomed the Arab Spring, which held out the promise of a fait accompli for the interests and values embodied in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP).

However, just months after the Arab Spring began, that promise in many MENA states appears to be dashed and shows that the EU must rethink the ENP with a view to becoming more assertive and supporting long­term structural transformations.

In the second part of the book, the growing influence of emerg­ ing powers such as the BRICs, but particularly Russia and China as permanent members of the UNSC, illustrate that powerful (and growing) non­Western national interests in the Middle East must be considered by the West.

Such interests include securing grow­ ing energy imports from the Gulf, recognizing their adherence to enduring principles of nonalignment established since the Cold War and principles of nonintervention enshrined in the UN Charter. The BRICs case studies illustrate that the Arab Spring has been a distrac­ tion to the well­established bilateral relations with the Arab states, which have historically been based on energy, ideology, and migra­ tion. Furthermore, building relationships with the oil­rich Gulf states has remained a top priority for the BRICs as they continue their search for trade and investment opportunities to support their eco­ nomic development objectives.

The economic recession in the West in the 2000s only enhanced their relations as the Gulf states became more receptive to the growth in their relative importance as mar­ kets and powers.

The cases such as the EU and Latin America illus­ trate how interregional relations are conducted and especially how blocs of states attempt to tweak their policies to encourage desired changes and how internal factors may alter their relationships and policy outputs.

The concluding chapter will contribute to conceptual debates about the principles underpinning foreign policy analysis, international relations, and Middle East politics during periods of revolution­ ary change.

The book draws attention to the fundamental questions upon which foreign policy decision­making on the MENA region and IR rest, including:

  • Have ideologically driven foreign policies been abandoned in favor of more pragmatic ones?
  • What is the relationship between the Arab Spring and the inter­ national community’s other MENA policy priorities?
  • What has been the response to the Arab Spring within multi­ lateral forums?
  • How has the Arab Spring impacted on the core­periphery relationship?
  • How have economic policies and domestic factors affected for­ eign policy responses within the international community?

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