The Arab uprisings mark a historic milestone in a region long ruled by dictators and have reshaped the political map, heralding the rise of a Sunni Islamist bloc against a waning Shiite axis led by Iran, analysts say.
From Tunisia to Egypt, Syria and Yemen, a new order is emerging in the Arab world with the traditional balance of power fading as a new — mainly Sunni — political front emerges.
“The Arab world will never be the same,” said recently Amr Mussa, an Egyptian presidential hopeful and former head of the 22-member Arab League.
At the helm of new bodies of governance in the region are Sunni Muslims, who form the vast majority of the estimated 367 million people in the Arab world.
“Egypt, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, maybe even Morocco, all have an Islamist orientation now, and Syria could potentially join those ranks,” said Shadi Hamid, senior researcher at the Brookings Doha Centre.
“They all share an interest in having a more independent assertive foreign policy that is neither tied to the Americans nor tied to the resistance axis of Iran-Syria,” said Hamid.
For the first time, experts say, a region once ruled by seemingly unshakable autocracies is witnessing the birth of governments with some semblance of popular support.
“That is the new dynamic here,” said Hamid. “Governments that have popular legitimacy… are empowered to play a more active and more independent role abroad.”
For the United States, which has long had major pull with the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, the ouster of long-time allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak creates new opportunities as well as challenges.
“The Arab Spring in a way reduces external influence in favour of native influence,” said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“The region is likely to become more self-reliant, like Turkey,” he told AFP. “Ankara previously obeyed Washington. Today it does as it pleases.”
— TURKEY’S STAR RISES, IRAN FACES DECLINE —
With its economic success, pro-Palestinian stand, and growing role as an indispensable regional mediator, Turkey’s position in the Arab world for years has been on the rise.
But the majority Sunni Muslim country’s popularity rocketed after it threw its weight behind anti-regime protesters across the region — particularly neighbouring Syria.
“The Turks are coming out on the side of democracy… on the right side of history,” said Hamid.
“Turkey is no longer a regional power, but a regional superpower.”
Though initially hesitant, Ankara has taken a lead role in calling for its once ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to step down, further consolidating its position as a key regional player.
“Ankara will be involved to the very end (of the Syria crisis)… hand-in-hand with the international community and the Arab League,” said Agnes Levallois, a Paris-based Middle East expert.
The Arab League, long dismissed as politically impotent, has also been spurred into action by the revolts, backing NATO intervention in Libya and slapping unprecedented sanctions on Damascus.
But analysts say behind the Arab bloc’s sudden awakening are the ulterior motives of mainly Sunni member states.
“There is a strong desire to dismantle the Shiite axis that links Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, particularly among the Sunni Gulf monarchies,” Levallois explained.
Such a collapse would be tantamount to a political earthquake for the embattled Syrian regime and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
“From an American perspective, if Syria falls it’s almost as if you’ve hit three birds with one stone: Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are all weakened,” Hamid said.
Salem said that while Hezbollah and Iran were once viewed as heroes for many in the region, the Arab Spring has tarnished their image.
“Today, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is viewed as just another dictator, and (Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah is standing by Bashar al-Assad,” he said.
While the Iranian leader in 2009 managed to suppress a popular revolt against his contested re-election, analysts say the Arab Spring may inspire people to take to the streets once more come legislative polls in March.
“The era of Iranian ascendancy is over,” said Hamid.
— ISRAEL, SAUDI ARABIA WATCH AND WAIT —
One key regional player watching the fundamental changes in the Arab world with trepidation is Israel, which has voiced fears of an “Islamist winter” as it seeks to adapt to a new regional equation.
“The Israeli government is very paranoid now about the changes going on right now,” explained Hamid.
“They feel the Arab Spring will undermine their security… and (fear) the emergence of new governments that are going to be more hostile to Israel.”
Faced with the possibility of more Islamic states in its vicinity, Israel has chosen to “hunker down and isolate itself” rather than face reality, he added.
This will likely affect the already-dismal prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
“The Israelis have become even more rigid as concerns the Palestinian issue and their campaign against a Palestinian state,” said Levallois.
Another country laying low is oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a Sunni rival to Turkey.
“Saudi Arabia is very much a status quo power,” said Hamid.
“It is stuck in the past, using old paradigms in a rapidly changing region,” he added. “You don’t see their leadership having the same vision as Turkey.”
And as 2011 winds to an end, and unrest escalates in Syria, experts say the international community will likely adopt a more aggressive approach in dealing with Damascus.
“There is a chance that the international community will… perhaps decide to intervene militarily in Syria,” said Hamid.
“That could define 2012 in terms of Middle Eastern politics.”