The conventional wisdom, among observers at least, is that the people of the Middle East from Morocco to Iran are yearning for radical change and have followed events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt Yemen, Bahrain and Syria with intense interest and vaulting hope.
The destruction of the system that Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi built, however, fails to fit into the narrative structure that has guided the reporting of regional developments.
Regime change, rather than just change at the top, has at last been achieved in one Middle East state as a result of the Arab Spring. The conventional wisdom suggests that further dominoes must and should fall in due course. In anticipation, practically every newspaper and website still has a section allocated to stories about such developments in Arab countries. The assumption is that it is only a matter of time before the machine of history would deliver more of them.
The destruction of the system that Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi built, however, fails to fit into the narrative structure that has guided the reporting of regional developments. It was Nato air strikes, not people power that smashed the regime’s capacity to repress. If this is spring, then the seasons are governed by Paris, London and Washington. Actors outside the Middle East are once again shaping the course of events within it.
It is consequently difficult to identify anything learned since the start of the year that we didn’t already know about the politics of the region. Not a single head of state of an Arab country has yet been deposed through elections and that record has been subject to no alteration since January. We knew that regimes across the region are heavily armed and willing to use lethal force against anyone trying to challenge them. Those advocating radical political change jeopardise their freedom, livelihoods and their hold on life itself. And the concern of the world outside is largely rhetorical.
So it remains as true today as it was this time last year that you have to be either very brave or very foolhardy to march in the streets of the Middle East demanding swift change. In fact, events in Libya have been an advertisement for the imperfect merits of the status quo. Chaos, economic collapse, nihilistic violence and foreign intervention have limited appeal to the silent majority who just want a quiet life.
The real test of whether anything has actually changed in the region will come in elections this autumn for a new parliament and president in Egypt and a poll in Tunisia about a new constitution. In both places, expectations have declined since the uprisings. Getting the elections properly organised in a peaceful environment would probably now count as a major achievement. It’s almost inconceivable that the governments that will eventually emerge won’t include senior figures from the previous regimes in both countries.
If there are winds of change in the Middle East, then their force is fickle to the point of being imperceptible. In the UAE, voting for the partly-elected Federal National Council (FNC) takes place on 24 September. The number of those eligible to vote has been substantially expanded and the elections are an important landmark for the federation. But concern has been expressed that the quality of FNC candidates is lower than it was in the first elections in 2006.
Real political progress, unlike the dramas television news often delivers, is largely a dull business that involves the time-consuming process of drafting and debating legislation in detail. It depends upon quiet collaboration among allies and compromises with opponents. It requires administrative efficiency and consistent leadership.
The message delivered this year in contrast is that change only comes through street demonstrations, strikes and, ultimately, armed rebellion. This has appeal to some, but probably only a small minority. If political progress entails disorder, the call for change will secure a limited hearing among the rest, and rightly so.