‘Democratic upsurge in Arab world a path of promise, but full of challenges’

The developments we have witnessed over the last two years in the Arab World are unprecedented, have brought in phenomenal changes and have altered the character of regional politics. Whether these constitute a March towards Democracy is for history to judge. Let me just preface my remarks by saying that the significance of the developments is not only for individual countries in the region, but equally important for India too, and the subject of the seminar is indeed one of global significance. Hence this conference here in Kottayam (Kerala) is particularly valuable. When we talk of the Arab world it is necessary to recall that a significant part of this world is in Asia, and has therefore the so called Arab Spring has some meaning for the future of Asia and of India. Even before independence Pandit Nehru spoke of India’s place as the natural centre and focal point of many forces at work in Asia. “The history of India is a long history of her relations with other countries of Asia. If you should know India you have to go to Afghanistan and West Asia, to China, Japan and then countries of South East Asia”.

I started by saying it is for history to come to judgement on the so called Arab Spring. Two years is clearly too short a time to deterministically and accurately judge the implication of these events, especially when they continue to unfold even as we speak. (Recall the answer which Premier Chou en Lai never actually gave about it being “too early to tell” how he assessed the French Revolution!) At the same time, while a rush to judgement should be avoided, policy makers need assessments of what has happened so far to help them in the task of policy formulation. And policy is about people not about abstract concepts. I am glad, therefore, that we are holding this conference in Kottayam which is the heartland of the area from which millions of our citizens have gone to the Gulf; and for whom, the issue unfolding in West Asia are of critical importance in their daily lives.

It is obvious that for India, the Gulf which we consider our extended neighbourhood and the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region is of vital strategic importance. We have said this to all our partners – who seek our views on matters ranging from Iran to Syria. The region is home to more than 5 million Indians (a significant percentage of them from Kerala) who contribute over US$ 35 billion in remittances every year. Some estimates are that more than 20 % of Kerala’s GDP is dependent on the Gulf. India’s overall economic and commercial engagement with these countries is around US$ 160 billion per annum. The region is a source of around 60% of our oil and gas requirement and hence critical for our energy security. It is also a major source of phosphatic and other fertilizers and hence a factor in our food security. Stability in the region is, therefore, vital to India’s national interest. This has become a mantra in Delhi today – but decades ago – in Kerala this was instinctively understood. That is why so many have sought to build ties with the region and influence foreign policy decisions, and do want calculations based on the importance of stability.

I must assure you that the interests of our working people have been uppermost in our minds when we analyze West Asia. Yet India’s policy towards the region and developments there, and our posture in the Security Council have also been guided by our principled desire not to interfere in the internal affairs of States and being non-prescriptive. We are aware of the ramifications of the movements for democracy. We are aware that in many countries rulers have not accepted the new tide of democracy. We have called for restraint in the use of coercive measures against people who we believe should be permitted to articulate their aspirations. But we are absolutely clear – (to put it in PM’s words) that societies cannot be re-ordered from outside through military force and that people in all countries have the right to choose their own destiny and decide their own future. In some cases that may take time particularly in countries with traditional power structures – but in the end the democracy that emerges is sustainable.

Developments which we are witnessing in the Arab World affect, first and foremost, the countries and peoples of that part of the world. While transition in some countries has been relatively smooth, such as in Tunisia, in others like Libya it was affected by a drawn out campaign and blatant external intervention – however explained. That said we do respect the new leadership that has emerged in Libya and its commitment to representative government. Our ambassador to Libya has developed contacts with the new leadership. Many of them have experience of India and respect for our governance model. We hope circumstances will enable the thousands of Indians who left to revive their professional and business ties with Libya. The conflict in Syria is still being waged and there has been considerable loss of life and blood-shed. The outcome is still in the balance and it is too early to say what will emerge. Egypt, which saw a change in leadership soon after the popular uprising is today witnessing violence and clashes as it moves to put in place a new system and structure of governance. Clearly, the road to transition and change has not been easy. We helped a little with election management. Elections are a critical condition but not the only one for democratic government. I am reminded of the description of Kerala as the Yenan of India and my response to the praise of Kerala as the first place where Communists took power through the ballot; viz. that they have won many elections, but Kerala is also the first place where they exited from power through the ballot. And there is a profound message in this – because it is only through repeated elections that the democratic roots are laid down; when people look to interests and broader aspirations beyond slogans and religious appeals – which may be dominant in the first elections. And it is this long term view which provides a degree of optimism. Any government in the region which has to provide welfare to its people – will ultimately need safety and stability of its administration, of its workers and investors, steady production of natural resources and trade partners. What we need is a way of navigating the short term.

The popular movements which emerged in countries across the region were not ideology led or driven by a cohesive group. In fact, there is some debate about how it all started – in Tunisia. But at the same time recall the history of popular movements in Egypt, the rise of the Wafd and other parties from the 1920s and you realize there is a historical basis for democratic upsurge. Just as in India in Egypt it was tied to national resurgence. There was of course a long period of political stagnation when democratic expression was suppressed, so there is a learning curve to be climbed. Now the movements, in some countries where they were successful in affecting regime change are said to have ceded political space to “Islamists” as outcomes of democratic process. What are the implications of this? I have an issue with the simplistic term “Islamist”. But even if one accepts it, the issue is:- would “Islamists” dominate the political space or would it be shared in democratic manner with other more secular political actors? With this question comes the issue of the place for religious minorities and women in new power structures – these groups were in the fore-front of many of the popular movements. And, most importantly, we should ask ourselves the question as to what we can do to contribute to the process of capacity and institution building in these countries. It is in our interest that democracy stabilizes and brings the religious and secular forces into an evolutionary framework. As I said earlier – above all democracy means submitting government to popular will at the end of the term; and meanwhile governance in accord with the freedoms that make participatory democracy meaningful. Thus our analysis would require looking beyond the economic calculations of long and short term that I earlier made.

Equally significant are the implications of the unfolding developments for regional and global geopolitics. Some of the regimes which had provided the bulwark of a particular vision of security in the region for superpowers are no more. What kind of role would the successor regimes play? The turmoil in Syria has far reaching reverberations which go well beyond the country’s or the region’s borders. The Shia-Sunni fault-line which runs through the region adds its own volatility to the potent mix. The impact of the developments on the Arab-Israeli conflict, major power rivalry and the regional power equations requires close monitoring and in-depth analysis. For us in India – and China – and perhaps Europe – the impact on oil production trends also has to be factored in. It is we in Asia (not US) who are now critically dependent on oil from West Asia. If the democratic upsurge affects oil production it is Indian and Chinese consumers who will feel the effects first. It is heartening that there are so many professionals and technocrats in the democratic movements.

At another level, the developments in the region have a direct bearing on global terrorism and hence on our national security. The situation in Mali today is inter-alia a consequence of the turmoil in Libya whether acknowledged or not. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates such as Ansar-dine in Mali, Al-Shabaab in Somalia and others have sought to exploit the political instability in the region to their advantage. Arms pumped into the region are finding their way to terror groups. The unending conflict in Syria is facilitating similar trends in that country, providing terror groups arms and sanctuary. It would be worthwhile for this Conference to look closely at this phenomenon and its very serious implications for the world at large. Are these forces exogenous to the region? Are they separate from the democratic surge? And do we need international cooperation to deal with the menace of terrorism.

While a number of countries in the region witnessed popular movements, only six – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain have witnessed large scale upsurges which challenged the regimes. Would such movements spread to other countries of the region? While swift change in leadership and/or regime could encourage popular unrest in other countries, drawn out, violent and bloody conflicts could well act as a deterrent. While technology facilitated the spread of information and mobilisation of people, there are other traditional networks including social and religion-based which act as countervailing forces. (This is by the way something which even fully functional democracies are familiar with!) Except Bahrain which sits on the Shia-Sunni fault line and where the demonstrations were contained through regional effort, all other countries which have witnessed large scale popular movements, are non-monarchies. Will this continue to be so? Do monarchies enjoy greater credibility amongst the populace? There are questions which your seminar needs to address: Let me say we have been conscious of the need to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach. We have been guided by a sense of solidarity with democratic movements, opposition to external interventions, and being very clear about the preservation of our relations in the national interest.

The issue of whether the Spring is actually a regional phenomenon could be put differently by posing the question, whether the desire for change is a Pan-Arab phenomenon. Rami G. Khoury, Editor-at-large of the Daily Star in a piece written at the end of last year said that there is no such thing as a cohesive, single “Arab World” as every Arab country follows a different path in pursuing its own political re-configuration. Khoury, however, added that the 350 million ordinary Arab men and women across the region are nevertheless expressing some common grievances, attitudes and aspirations. Among them there is a desire to acquire freedom that people in other parts of the world take for granted. To restore their place in the global movement of ideas and achievements. This is not just about social media led middle classes – though these media facilitate a leadership role; they are conscious they once had a great place in the world of ideas. Recall Nehru’s words about the extraordinary achievements of Arab civilization in historical times: “The intellectual curiosity, the adventures in rationalist speculation, the spirit of scientific enquiry, among the Arabs of the 8th and 9th centuries are very striking”. The heirs to such a great tradition cannot long accept being unable to participate in the globalization of cultural, scientific and spiritual movements. We in India certainly cannot stand aloof from this mobilization.

To conclude, ‘the march towards democracy’, as the Conference title refers to Arab aspirations, is a path of promise but fraught with challenges and pit falls. It is a path of far reaching consequences and would need to be traversed with caution. There will be no dearth of self-serving detractors working for their own narrow interests; but in the end democratic movements are larger than the specific interests which might motivate some among them. And as beneficiaries of democracy ourselves, we believe the implications of the democratic upsurge would be positive in the long run.

(This is the edited text of the speech delivered by India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai’s inaugural address at the conference on ‘The Arab World: March Towards Democracy and its Implications’ at Mahatama Gandhi University, Kottayam on Feb 4, 2013).