Asharq Alawsat - By Amir Taheri - With the “Arab Spring” still in the headlines, academics and politicians are debating the direction that affected countries might take.
There is speculation about the “Turkish model” as an inspiration for new governing elites in Arab countries. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has encouraged that view by assuming a high profile with regard to the uprisings.
At the same time, Iran claims that the “Arab Spring” would lead to the adoption of the Khomeinist model. Tehran tried to encourage that view by organising an “Islamic Awakening” conference and creating a secretariat to press the claim.
For their part, some American and European politicians hope that Arabs would adopt the Western model.
How valid are such claims?
All three are based on three questionable assumptions.
The first is that a nation could take any socio-political model off the shelf, just as one picks a product in a supermarket.
Real life, however, is different. Even where new ruling elites share ideological affinities they do not adopt each other’s models. In 1949, China fell under Communist rule but did not, indeed could not, adopt the Soviet model. The North Korean Communist model has little in common with that of Communist Cuba.
Western democracies do not follow a single model either. France’s democratic capitalism is quite different from that of Italy. Although its Constitution was shaped by Americans, Japan is not based on an “American model” even if such a thing existed.
At symbolic levels, virtually all nation-states have many features in common. All have a flag, a national anthem, some sort of parliament, and a standing army. Most also have a national currency.
With the tide of globalisation, the economic and cultural landscape is also becoming increasingly uniform. Today, one finds the same shops and cafes from Brasilia to Bangkok, passing by Bratislava and Baghdad. Some call this new world “The Great Everywhere.”
However, beyond symbolic levels, we have a world of diversity in which countries develop their way of life according to their history, culture, tradition and aspirations.
The second assumption is that what is known as this or that model is fixed and immutable. In real life, however, a nation’s political system, like its economy, could and does develop and change.
Take the “Turkish model”, for example. Originally, it meant the coexistence of an Islamist government alongside a secular army with a foreign policy of mild hostility to the United States.
Over the past decade, however, Erdogan and his party have accepted the secular foundations of the Turkish republic. In government, their “lite” version of Islamism has been more directed at securing privileges for their supporters rather than imposing real or imagined religious values.
In foreign policy, Erdogan’s government has gone out of its way to maintain close ties with NATO and the United States. Ankara’s decision to host NATO’s missile shield, largely directed against Iran, and cooperate with the European Union on Tehran’s nuclear project, have dramatically reaffirmed Turkey’s alliance with the United States.
The third assumption that needs to be questioned is that the Arabs are somehow incapable of developing a model, indeed models, of their own.
As an adjective, the word Arab is applied to many different countries with different historic backgrounds, traditions and socio-economic structures. Even Algeria and Morocco, though close neighbours, are on quite different trajectories.
What is known as the “Arab Spring” is not a single event just as the 1848 revolutions in Europe were a cluster of different events, rather than an upheaval following a mythical model.
The process of change in countries collectively known as the “Arab World” is likely to produce many different models in both domestic and foreign policies.
Nevertheless, a number of common trends are already visible.
Syria, after liberation, plus Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt are likely to join the North African states in redirecting the orientation of their “historic view” towards the Mediterranean world and Europe. That trend would exclude radical shifts towards anti-West, or even anti-Israeli, postures. In Egypt, national interests dictate the maintaining of the Camp David Accords while good relations with the US and the European Union are vital for developing a new economy to cope with mass poverty and unemployment.
At the same time the Gulf countries are increasingly likely to look to the East, as China becomes the world’s biggest importer of crude oil. Iraq is likely to remain a lone wolf, at least for a while, if only because it has to face multiple challenges to its national identity.
Another trend is towards the acceptance of power-sharing, as something that even if not desired, has become inescapable. In many of the countries concerned, coalition politics is likely to evolve into the matrix of government.
The military-based state, a model developed in different versions by several Arab countries after shaking off colonial rule, is likely to be relegated to the oblivion of history. Having failed in all its versions, that model enjoys little support outside those nostalgic for the ancien regime.
Most parties in “Arab Spring” countries have specifically rejected the idea of adopting the “Turkish model”. The most prominent exception is Tunisia’s Ennahda (Awakening) party which publicly sees itself as an Arab version of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). But even there, what is meant by the “Turkish model” is the acceptance by Ennahda of Tunisia’s partially secular political system.
As for the Khomeinist “model”, Iran’s tragic experience serves as a warning rather than an example to everyone in the region. If anything, opposition to Khomeinism may become a unifying factor in the foreign policies of the emerging “Arab Spring” nations, the traditional Arab states and Turkey.
In the academic game of “models”, why remain fixated on Turkish, Iranian and Western models? Why shouldn’t different Arab nations develop different models of their own?
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.