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The Middle East in Revolt: Twelve Months On

Opening Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AO QC to University of Melbourne Asia Institute/Freedom House Conference, Middle East in Revolt: The First Anniversary, Melbourne, 17 March 2012

Most of us following events in the Arab world over the last twelve months have had a kaleidoscope of emotions:  initial exhilaration at what has been the most triumphant reaffirmation of the human spirit that we have seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the colour revolutions of Central and Eastern Europe, but then anxiety as to the sustainability of the momentum, depression where achievement has fallen way short so far of expectation or revolutions have been stillborn, and  despair when  they have been crushed or attempted to be crushed by the kind of brutality with which the Assad regime is now horrifying the world in Syria.

Trying to make sense of it all – as this important conference will, attracting as it has some of the best and brightest not only of Australia’s but the world’s Middle East scholars and practitioners ­– is going to involve another kaleidoscope, of analyses and analytic approaches, as we wrestle with the issues over the next two days from a multitude of political, military, economic, social and cultural perspectives.

Maybe someone here will be smart enough – and brave enough – to come up with a single overarching explanation of everything that has happened in North Africa and the Middle East over the last year.  But I suspect that there is more likely to be agreement that the beginning of wisdom here is that we simply can’t generalise: that every country in the region, from Morocco to the Gulf, that has seen revolutionary stirrings in the last twelve months – whether successful, repressed or simmering –  is different, with its own dynamic.

There are certainly some common themes that no doubt will be pointed to:  youth disaffection with job and life prospects; corruption, or at least grotesquely evident inequality; widespread suppression or repression of basic civil liberties that taken for granted at least in the global North, and certainly in next-door Europe;  a sense of humiliation and despair  (brilliantly captured in the UNDP’s Arab Development Reports) at the way in which the Arab world has been trailing way behind its historical weight, and potential weight, on almost every conceivable economic and social indicator; and the essentially internally generated character of the revolutionary momentum we have seen, however many outsiders may have sought to share in the action one way or another.

But there are many more differences, from country to country: in basic governing systems, republican or monarchical; in the strength and cohesion of the military and other security forces on which governing regimes can rely; in the nature and extent of majority versus minority fissures, sectarian and otherwise; in the degree of repression in which those governing regimes have traditionally engaged; and in their capacity to buy off dissent with oil-generated revenue.

And these differences have translated into the familiar transformation checklist of successes and partial successes, and partial failures and outright failures, and still very much simmering situations, we have seen over the last twelve months:

  • the successes – probably close to unequivocal only in Tunisia, where events have put paid to the long-standing Western anxiety that the only beneficiary of a popular revolution would be radical Islamism;
  • the partial successes – most important Egypt, with the euphoria evaporating as the military dug in, and deep anxiety now as to how the presidential election and what follows will play out; Libya, with the dictatorial Gaddafi regime well and truly overthrown, but at a very high cost in international solidarity (as we are now seeing with the paralysis of the Security Council over Syria) and high continuing anxiety as to how the transition will consolidate; and Yemen, with the president gone but the jury still out on whether any kind of sustainable peace can be secured;
  • the failures – certainly Bahrain, with the Saudi’s propping up of a discredited minority regime and the US turning  from its naval base a Nelsonian eye on the repression of Shiite dissenters not a pretty story;  and  I fear probably Syria, despite the widespread optimism in the West that its demise is inevitable, where the Assad regime has been demonstrating what we have long known – that a government prepared to turn its guns on its own people, and which can hold the loyalty of enough of its gunmen, can survive a long time in the absence of external military intervention;  and
  • the simmering situations – Algeria, where most of the ingredients for revolution are present, but memories of the horrifying cost of past failed efforts to overturn the pouvoir have been a huge restraining factor;  Jordan, where breakdown  may be much closer to erupting than most people in the West – still captivated by Abdullah and Rania – can conceive; and the other monarchies in the region, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states,  which have survived so far through a certain amount of inherent tribal or religious legitimacy in their rulers – and buying off discontent, but which are fairly obviously going to have to move forward faster on some serious economic and social reform if the quiescence is to remain sustainable.

As we look both backward and forward at this conference, the two biggest thematic issues with which we need to wrestle are first, how to bring nascent revolutions – where all the underlying preconditions for change are obviously present – to the point of actual transition,  and secondly, how to sustain a transition once that tipping point has been reached and the old regime has gone.

The first question requires us to look at a whole variety of transition scenarios – from external intervention to negotiated extrication – to try to determine which are most likely to succeed in the particular circumstances of each country.   As one of the founding fathers of the responsibility to protect doctrine, one of the most difficult questions for me has been to wrestle with the dilemma of how (not whether) the international community should respond in the face of the kind of mass atrocity crimes committed by Gaddafi in Libya and now Assad in Syria: in particular when and in what circumstances and to what extent condemnatory pressure and non-military coercion – targeted sanctions, ICC prosecutions and the like – should be supplemented by coercive military force.

The other big question is how to manage transitions once successfully initially achieved.  We all know by now that the crucial objectives are electoral democracy, development, the rule of law and security; that all four must be pursued in parallel tracks; and that to try to achieve just one of them in isolation is a recipe for tears.  But what we haven’t been very good at, as an international community, is learning how to deliver those objectives simultaneously with the right balance and mix of local ownership and external support.

I won’t attempt to pre-empt or delay your discussions any further.  There is a vast and exciting menu ahead in the next two days. It remains simply for me to warmly thank those whose efforts and resources have brought us together, starting with Shahram Akbarzadeh of Melbourne University’s Asia Institute and Charles Dunne of Freedom House; to warmly welcome those of you who have travelled far to be here; to wish you well in your deliberations, which I am sure will be productive; and to declare this conference duly launched.