Interview with Prof. Gerd Nonneman*
GN: There is no question at all in my mind that the causes are a combination of grievances, first, over poor economic conditions, second, over the lack of human dignity and room for expression that came with authoritarian regimes, and third, the extent of corruption and misallocation of resources that those same regimes were responsible for. Three key things enabled it to happen. The first was a spark that had to be struck and reported on: the suicide of the Tunisian market seller became that spark. The second was the widespread availability of communications networks, both internal and external. Internally, such things as Facebook were important; externally, the key role was initially played by Al-Jazeera, and this was built upon by other Arab and international networks. The third was the willingness of traditional external supporters of these governments to criticise and then drop them.
Any ideas that these events might have been somehow caused by external forces or conspiracies, are without foundation, even if some may afterwards have tried to make the most of the events.
It seems that Bahrain and Libya is occupying a central place on the discussion on Arab insurgency and its causes and possible effect on the Middle East. What do you think about what makes them so special? Is it because of the level of violence in these countries or there is something more political concern on them?
GN: Bahrain and Libya are not the only ones at the centre of attention: so are Syria and Yemen. The reason is fairly obvious: they're the cases that have most recently featured serious violence and may put into question the wider success of the Arab Spring. There are also serious wider security questions raised by all these cases: in Bahrain because of the impact on the GCC states and the country's role as a US base; in Yemen because of the fear of state collapse; in Libya because of the effect on Egypt and Tunisia as well as on immigration to Europe; and in Syria because of the impact on Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli theatre.
In terms of Bahrain, there is a common debate as to being a centre of cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Do you think that the only problematic issue is the rule of Sunni government over majority Shiite population? Is not there a global perspective on this issue? For instance, power struggle between Iran and the USA in the region?
GN: Clearly Bahrain does play a role in both these cold wars, but the Saudi and US reactions have nevertheless been different. Saudi Arabia simply wasn't willing to accept any apparent challenge to monarchy or even the least hint of Iranian influence. Hence the hardline reaction. This clashed with the US, which did want to see genuine reform in Bahrain, both because they do not believe that Iran was behind the upheaval, and because they felt it was the best way to avoid medium term instability. The difficulty for the US, of course, was that in this case Bahrain also is a hard-to-replace base for regional and even wider operations, including for repairs etc. Also, there is a realisation that a majority of the Sunni population probably do not share the agenda of the protesters, so it is not a clear-cut regimes versus the people scenario. For both these reasons, US (and Western) condemnation of Bahrain have been more restrained than in other cases.
It might come to you really strange but if somebody asked you about possible emergence of religiously conservative and democratic Middle Eastern powers against the conservative and democratic Western powers what would your answer be? One of them is originally coming from the Islamic civilization and the other one from Christian civilization.
*Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 2
** Rahman Dağ is Doctoral Researcher at the University of Exeter.