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'Political change is an inevitability'
Max Rodenbeck is of the most distinctive and articulate voices coming out of the Arab world. Chief Middle East correspondent for the Economist, Rodenbeck has been living in Cairo for the last 30 years, following the upheavals and the political shifts at close quarters. His most recent book, 'Cairo: The City Victorious', tells the story of his hometown like none other, and has been translated into many languages. During a recent visit to India he spoke about the Arab Spring and why a democratic Arab world is an inevitability.
Is the Arab spring taking its natural course and giving way to the Arab winter?
No I don't think that's true. Firstly, it hasn't spread to every country in the Arab world, but in the broader sense one has this sense that virtually every country in the region is downloading, to use a modern day metaphor, some version of this, although it is happening at different speeds. Some of them have slowed down, the connection is broken for the time being, and it will resume eventually. But I don't think it's the Arab winter. There are some fundamental things that have changed, but such fluctuations have held true for any similar wave of political change. And political change, like the wave of decolonization which started in 1920s, is an inevitability. These countries couldn't continue in the same way, and once the tipping point happens, the ball gets rolling.
What was the tipping point?
The big question is when did the Arab Spring begin. It might actually have begun 20 years ago, when elections in Algeria produced an Islamist government that was crushed by the military. That was a similar kind of popular street movement to what we are seeing now. Or consider the Palestinian Intifada, the first one, back in 1987-88. The Tunisian experience was the tipping point for this wave. But there are many things that happened before, building up to it.
Which country in the Arab world has achieved the most and benefited the most from the uprisings?
Right now the political transition has worked most smoothly in Tunisia, where they have moved on from more than 20 years of dictatorship under one man to a fully elected government. And all that within a space of 12 months, fairly smoothly with very little trouble. It does seem right now that the government there has an agenda for continuing change. However, the mood inside Tunisia is not that positive actually. People had high hopes, and now the reality sinks in. It is a country in serious economic trouble. But basically the political transition has been three-quarters achieved, while in places like Egypt the political situation has been stuck somewhere. Syria, for instance, is now stuck in the beginning phase.
In Syria things are getting worse by the day. Is Western intervention an option?
Syria, I am afraid is going to go through very, very bleak times. It's sad but inevitable. But another inevitability is that this government will go, and will be replaced by something more pluralist. Every country is quite unique. As for intervention, the Western intervention of Libya is not a model that is very easy to repeat. For two simple reasons - geography and demography. Libya is a very big country, a very empty country. So the opposition managed to secure a big chunk of the country from day one, and this became the operating base for the rest of the country. It was militarily feasible. And in Syria it isn't like that - it is densely populated and socially fragmented. Physical intervention is hard to pull off, it's hard to see where you would insert yourself geographically. Now, a lot of economic pressure is being put on the regime, and that probably will bear some result, but it is going to be painful for the people of Syria.
In Egypt, the Salafist front - the Nour party - might not have enough seats yet, but their vision of an Islamized Egypt is a disturbing one. Will they succeed?
The Salafists are changing their stance because that's the only way they will survive politically. Just a month or so ago the Nour party had issued a statement saying that they would never share power with liberals, because they are infidels. Two weeks after the statement, they are actually deep in negotiations with all the liberal parties in order to create a front to counterbalance the Muslim Brotherhood, which has the majority in the House. So not only are the Salafists are dealing with a liberal party, they are doing so in order to fight another Islamist party. This is what happens when the politics is meaningful.
Will the Arab Spring be a success?
Yes. In the same way similar movements around the world have. Look at Latin America - 25-30 years ago, virtually every government there was a military government, and now they have all turned democratic. The road may be much rougher in the Middle-East because there is more baggage to get through. The societies are more fragmented, more injured, more damaged by history. They have to get rid of the problem of Islamism, which is a serious one. The end result will be governments more pluralist and more representative of their people's needs.
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