Wigtown Book Festival: Beyond the Arab Spring
Rosemary Hollis, Martin Bell, Robert Irwin and Robin Yassin Kassab
Events in the news this year have changed things for many of us who only had a vague idea of the kings and dictators who have made life hell for many people in North Africa and the Middle East. Suddenly we are much better informed as the electrifying events have unfolded. Thus, it was a room of the interested and engaged who listened to Martin Bell (wearing his signature white suit) discussing the struggles and politics there alongside Robert Irwin, a medieval Arab history expert and Robin Yassin Kassab, an Iraqi journalist living in London.
They were discussing the “Arab Spring” and whether the revolution which it seemed to herald has stalled. Each had an informed view and all three were sure that installing a democratic process was not necessarily the answer for the Arab world. Martin Bell put it well when he said that any political resolution which is found should reflect the will of the people of that country, not just tick a box for the West. Sadly, violence is too obviously a weapon used by those in power, and so are the divisions between Shia and Sunni, and the minority Christians who out of insecurity tend to side with the old regimes: identity politics is an easy card to play in order to fan the flames of fear. All three of the speakers agreed that this was an Arab awakening, if not an “Arab Spring”, and that the people had broken free with their spirit after so many years of oppression and that this has already brought about amazing changes.
Robin Yassin Kassab was eloquent in expressing the Arab wish to get rid of the old leaders and rid too of the alliance between the corrupt rich and those in power. Only then can the majority of Arabs benefit from an improved economy. Robert Irwin struck a pessimistic note in expressing that he did not think that enough has changed yet in Egypt and Tunisa - that the old guard is still there. Martin Bell noted that the turbulence was mostly in the republics and that new media had been a catalyst in spreading the world, in particular, good old fashioned TV in the form of Al - Zajeerah, which was banned in many Arab countries but has succeeded in informing and stirring people up. Mobile phones too have played a role in organising the youth of these countries to co-ordinate their protests.
The discussion about new media touched on its use in the recent London riots – in this case it was used for ill rather than good and Martin Bell remarked that the British youth showed a massive interest in all manner of material goods but that not one bookshop was broken into in the orgy of looting. This raised an ironic laugh amongst the audience.
The role of the British and French in history was touched on, especially their dismally mistaken policy of carving up of territory into countries without taking into account natural geographical barriers and the spread of different clans. All three on the podium were cautiously supportive of the West’s intervention in Libya, although none were supportive of the intervention in Iraq. Martin Bell brought up the unresolved question of what will happen in Saudi Arabia, all agreed that this was going to have a huge impact on what happens in the whole of the Middle East.
Looking beyond the confusion and apparent stalling, the speakers' cautious optimism was tempered by the fear that future wars will be fought over natural resources, with water providing the flashpoint. There is already conflict as the Sahara moves south and river water from the Nile is used for irrigation, and to the north between Turkey and their southern neighbours.