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Arab Society in Revolt. The West's Mediterranean Challenge

06/09/2012, Rome

The rich and the Christians at the center, the poor and the Sunnis in the periphery: that is how the cities of Syria are divided. In Syria, devastated by insurrection for the last eighteen months and what amounts to an outright civil war since spring of this year, the forces of President Assad's regime are trying to suppress the rebellion, while the insurgents, often intermingled with people from outside the country, are not giving up. And yet, the West just looks on, with feelings that range from guilt to disinterest, justifying its attitude with the fig leaf of Russia’s and China’s opposition to any form of military intervention. In fact, it has not taken any concrete action, apart from some humanitarian aid, and there is no apparent intention to become involved, as in Libya, in a conflict of unpredictable duration in a context that is extremely delicate for almost all of the Middle East.

According to Cesare Merlini, researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington and president of the Board of Trustees of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, the revolts in Syria “are endogenous, but have been influenced by external developments; the West, which is not in a position to intervene in any case because of the political-economic crisis in the European Union and the presidential elections in the United States, is unable to have much of an effect on the final outcome”. 

Arab society in revolt delves into the stalled situation in Syria and sets it into the broader horizon of the Arab Spring, whose causes and consequences it analyses. The book, written by Merlini and Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence and director of research at CNRS in Paris, was presented in Rome with the cooperation of the IAI. 

Illustrating their work, Prof. Merlini emphasized how much changes in society triggered by religion, emigration, entrepreneurship, the role of women and telecommunications have reduced the distance between the Arab-Muslim world and the West. By way of confirmation, Prof. Francesca Maria Corrao observed that, “the new media have changed the culture: they open a window onto a more complex reality than the one provided by ordinary television. Al Jazeera, teaching people to discuss things, undermined the power of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gheddafi and Assad.” 

Prof. Roy put the accent on the main actors of the Arab revolutions; “It’s a new generation, unlike the preceding one, with no strong ties to the old colonizing countries; they are young, educated people. They’re young people, men and women, that go to university. They are the factors of modernization of the society that they themselves have subverted. They are the new electorate that wants a democracy that guarantees stability and non-violence”. 

But, as emerges from the words of Giuliano Amato in the introduction, “the revolt has not established democracy, and the role of external actors is fundamental”. The real challenge for the West is understanding the changes that have taken place in Arab society in order to come up with more subtle, concrete and effective ideas – and perhaps actions. According to Prof. Carrao, “Arab society in revolt reflects the need to look beyond the facts to observe events from another point of view”.

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