Who are the winners and losers of the ‘Arab spring’?

In Alpher’s list of “losers” are US presidents, overthrown Egyptian, Yemeni and Tunisian presidents, the Palestinians and the Kurds.
Saturday 21/09/2019
Writer Yossi Alpher. (Courtesy of Yossi Alpher)
“Arab spring”-cum-chaos. Author Yossi Alpher. (Courtesy of Yossi Alpher)

During the years he spent writing his just-published analysis of the “Arab spring,” Yossi Alpher hit on the idea of picking winners and losers.

Alpher imagined a rostrum with victors at the top — Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran’s al-Quds Brigade commander Qassem Soleimani, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, “most” of the Arab monarchs and the “European ultra-nationalists.”

Writing about current politics amid tumult was risky and demanded a cutoff. In “Winners and Losers in the ‘Arab Spring’: Profiles in Chaos,” Alpher drew a line at the end of 2018, signing off a preface in February 2019 with Putin and Netanyahu — “smug, smart, calculating” — conferring over Syria and their “successful exploitation of Arab chaos.”

At 125 pages, the book is slim but peppered with anecdotes and almost epic in dimensions. Alpher traces “Arab state fragmentation and chaos” to the 2003 Iraq invasion. He examines the role of individual Western and regional leaders in creating or reacting to events and argues Arab collapse has had global consequences, partly through a refugee crisis.

Alpher said he’s been repeatedly informed the “Arab spring” isn’t over: “This is all open-ended but I think I was able to draw some fairly stable conclusions.”

As a former intelligence officer and analyst in the Israeli military and Mossad, Alpher concedes a professional admiration for Putin and Soleimani. While he is a critic of Netanyahu — arguing in his 2016 book “No End of Conflict” that Israel was heading towards apartheid by absorbing the West Bank — he salutes Netanyahu’s successes.

“On the Iran issue, he gets high marks,” Alpher said. “Yes, he should have let the [2015 Iran nuclear deal] go ahead, he shouldn’t have egged [US President Donald] Trump on and he bears some responsibility for the current impasse but with Iran on the ground — Hezbollah in Lebanon, these militias in Syria and Iraq — Netanyahu has handled things skilfully.

“Netanyahu’s been successful in improving mainly clandestine relations with the Gulf countries, but also strategic, military and intelligence relations with Egypt and to some extent with Jordan. He’s been able to do this because of… the threat Iran presents and the fact Israel has some answers they don’t have. Israel is the only country in the region striking at Iranians… in Syria and more recently, apparently, even in Iraq.

“The Saudis and Emiratis like what they see and quietly applaud. Asked if they’re giving up on the Palestinians they say ‘No, we support a two-state solution and Temple Mount [al-Aqsa, occupied by Israel since 1967] and so on’ “but like much of the Arab world, they’re fed up with the Palestinians and they feel Palestinian demands in negotiations have been outlandish.”

Alpher regards Arab monarchies generally as victors in the “Arab spring”-cum-chaos. He retains scepticism over Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, partly because of his “trial-and-(mostly)-error” reforms and partly over the Saudi military’s performance in Yemen and over “the attacks on these oil installations” in Abqaiq and Khurais.

The United Arab Emirates differs, Alpher argued, in limiting action to defined strategic goals. This, he said, explains its withdrawal from Yemen and support to Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whom the Emiratis alongside Russia consider a bulwark against Islamist extremism.

“They [the Emiratis] are everywhere, they’ve set up bases all around the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea. They’re saying, ‘We’re not going to wait for something bad to happen here, we’re going to extend our presence to make sure everybody leaves us alone.’”

In Alpher’s list of “losers” are US presidents, overthrown Egyptian, Yemeni and Tunisian presidents, the Palestinians and the Kurds.

Trump is neither winner nor loser: “This is a totally unguided missile, with no strategic thinking and yet I take pains to say in the book — and I would still say — he’s not a loser… He hasn’t made any disastrous error. His basic instinct to stay out of conflict here has saved him from becoming a loser.”

Alpher leaves open whether Arab citizens are victims or authors of their fate. He “bookends” his analysis with UN Development Programme Arab Development reports for 2010 and 2017 highlighting weaknesses in Arab civil society. This was underestimated, he argued, by Western liberals and politicians who encouraged the “Arab spring” and exaggerated — notably former US President Barack Obama — the reformism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

In the book, Alpher cited Tunisia as a positive exception and said he believes it remains so, although he’s averse to early conclusions over the current general election, where voters rejected established candidates.

“The [Tunisian] Army was never strong enough to exercise the influence the army exercised in Egypt,” he said. “Another difference was civil society. Tunisia had a highly developed trade-union movement going back to Habib Bourguiba [Tunisia’s president 1957-87], which played a key role in the transition. Finally, it had a moderate Islamist, Rached Ghannouchi [co-founder of the Ennahdha party], who knew when to step aside.”

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