September Issue 2013
The Arab Summer of Discontent
When the so-called Arab Spring bloomed nearly three years ago with almost no warning, it seemed almost like a miracle. The sense of wonder was enhanced by the fact that it was sparked in an ostensibly stable dictatorship.
Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been comfortably ensconced in power since he took over in 1987 from Habib Bourguiba, after 30 years of the latter’s rule. The undercurrents of dissent and despair went more or less unnoticed. But when Tunisians took to the streets in unprecedented numbers following the suicide by self-immolation of a street vendor who felt he had been insulted by the authorities once too often, it wasn’t long before Ben Ali felt compelled to flee to Saudi Arabia — the favoured destination of rejected Muslim tyrants.
It didn’t stop there. The Tunisian example prompted Egyptians to follow suit, even as several other Arab countries sought to stave off uprisings via superficial reforms and substantial bribes. Mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square prompted the Egyptian army to push out Hosni Mubarak, who had been at the helm even longer than Ben Ali.
Eruptions elsewhere in the region followed in short order. All of a sudden, in early 2011, it seemed as if a democratic wave was sweeping through a vast swathe of the Middle East. The monarchies panicked, but it was chiefly in countries that paid lip service to the electoral process where the established order faced challenges unprecedented in living memory.
The prospect of exemplary democratic transformations held high hopes in a region unaccustomed to heeding the popular will. Many Libyans saw it as a template, as did Syrians. Muammar Gaddafi, however, proved a tough nut to crack. Syria’s Bashar Al Assad followed suit.
What was tagged the Arab Spring had actually been launched at the height of winter. And in all too many cases, the subsequent seasons have turned out to be cautionary rather than exemplary.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that Islamist forces would take precedence during the transition, after having been repressed for so long.
In Tunisia, Bourguiba had consistently veered to the West, even during the Suez crisis in the early 1950s. Ben Ali followed suit. There ought to have been little surprise, though, that he was succeeded, following elections, by a party consisting of “moderate” Islamists.
In Egypt, the long suppressed Muslim Brotherhood was on the sidelines of the popular mobilisations that persuaded the nation’s army to dispense with Mubarak’s services. It declared it would stay out of presidential elections, but then changed its mind. As a consequence, last year’s election was ultimately a contest between a symbol of the Mubarak regime and Mohammed Morsi, the latter representing the Brotherhood’s political wing.
The latter succeeded by a narrow margin, and vowed he would be the head of state of all Egyptians, but fell well short of the challenge, prompting mass mobilisations directed against him — their ranks swelled by many of those who had voted for Morsi but lived to regret it.
Negotiations with the forces opposing him would have been a logical response. But a defiant Morsi demurred — albeit without launching mass repression against his opponents. But the millions of agitators on the streets offered a cue to the armed forces, which had effectively been in power since the colonels’ coup of 1952.
That had led to the ascendancy of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who proved to be an inspiration to Arabs everywhere — and a thorn in the sides of the former colonial powers. Britain and France colluded with a young Israel to thwart Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, but ultimately failed, not least because the United States wasn’t keen to intervene.
Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, switched sides in the Cold War and ultimately signed a deal with Israel that compelled other Arab nations to ostracise his country. It wasn’t a particularly bad deal, considering what has been on the table thereafter, but Sadat had grievously erred in not persuading his friends and neighbours beforehand. He was assassinated by Islamists during a military parade in 1981, making way for Mubarak, who clung to power for three decades, periodically holding elections in which he garnered nearly 100 percent of the vote.
The performance could not endure amid levels of unemployment that reached 30 percent in some categories, and the army to which he had belonged wasn’t particularly sympathetic in 2011. The wide range of forces opposed to Mubarak were not terribly well organised, though, and last year’s presidential election was ultimately reduced to a contest between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and a representative of the ancien regime, after the remaining candidates had been eliminated.
Not surprisingly, a substantial proportion of the anti-Mubarak forces voted for Morsi, who narrowly won and subsequently vowed to be a president for all Egyptians, but failed to live up to that promise.
That unprecedented numbers of Egyptians took to the streets earlier this year is perhaps not all that surprising, given Morsi’s performance. His regime was reticent, though, in unleashing its firepower against his opponents. What’s more surprising than the fact that the army chose at that juncture to overthrow Morsi is that an overwhelming proportion of self-described liberals supported the thwarting of democracy via a military coup.
The US administration, which had grown accustomed to dealing with the components of the Egyptian dictatorship, faced a mighty quandary. It had been extremely reluctant to see Mubarak go, but eventually established a working relationship with Morsi, despite his fundamentalist streak. It was again thrown off-kilter by his removal, but proved incredibly reluctant to describe the development as a coup — which would have entailed cutting off about $1.5 billion a year to the second largest recipient of American aid in the region, after Israel.
The latter was delighted to see Morsi go, no least because he had established a rapport with Hamas, the party in charge of the Gaza Strip — which had been thwarted in its effort to govern the Palestinian territories after winning an election, because its philosophy was deemed inimical to Israel — never mind that the latter had facilitated Hamas’s evangelical mission in order to undermine the relatively secular Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that once held unchallenged sway in the territories.
Recent Egyptian developments were also reminiscent of the events in Algeria 20 years previously, when a military coup — unchallenged by the West — undermined an electoral triumph by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), leading to a civil war that claimed thousands of lives.
The relative toll in Egypt thus far is considerably smaller, notwithstanding a massacre of Brotherhood supporters, but the future is extremely tenuous, with much of the Brotherhood’s leadership, including Morsi, incarcerated, and Islamists under the impression that democracy, as far as they are concerned, is a farce.
Developments elsewhere in the revolutionary zone are none too gratifying either. The change in Tunisia led eventually to elections won by “moderate Islamists”, but the latter’s government was recently compelled to declare Ansar Al Sharia a terrorist organisation after it was held responsible for the assassination of two liberal politicians.
The situation in Libya is even more fraught. There, regime change required western intervention, despite substantial defections from the Gaddafi regime. The US, France and Britain obtained the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council to protect civilian lives and establish no-fly zones to that effect, but went considerably further in assisting anti-Gaddafi forces, even colluding in the capture of the long-standing leader but thereafter denying responsibility for his brutal arbitrary execution.
Gaddafi was by no means an innocent party, but even he surely deserved a trial. And a Nato general involved in precipitating his overthrow was sufficiently honest to note that the kinds of people the West was assisting in Libya two years ago were precisely the sorts it was simultaneously combating in Afghanistan. American awareness of this was enhanced when its ambassador in Libya was murdered in Benghazi by one of the ant-Gaddafi militias it had helped ensconce in power.
Yet even recent history lessons tend to be consigned to the dustheap once the drums of war start beating and the tin helmets are dusted off. When evidence emerged last month of a chemical weapons attack in Syria, where the undeniably brutal regime of Bashar Al Assad has lately scored some successes against a rebellion whose most effective elements are believed to be affiliates of Al Qaeda, the US and its acolytes — notably Britain, France and Australia — expressed the desire to respond militarily.
Responsibility for the attack was not immediately clear. The more belligerent western governments immediately took it for granted that the Assad regime was responsible, although it was far from clear why the authorities in Damascus would have opted for such a dastardly measure when United Nations inspectors were just a few miles away and the western response could easily have been predicted.
To all too many observers, the process of designating a target was clearly reminiscent of the process a decade ago whereby the Bush and Blair administrations decided to invade Iraq without the UN’s imprimatur. Saddam Hussein was then deemed to be harbouring weapons of mass destruction, specifically a nuclear capability.
It subsequently turned out that he had destroyed his stockpiles years before, in keeping with UN injunctions. It is not necessary to repeat all that followed, but it is important to note that the past couple of months have been the bloodiest that Baghdad and its environs have witnessed in several years, evidently as a result of Sunni and Shia militias targeting each other in tandem.
That is in keeping with the fact that the sectarian divide has lately turned into one of the primary fault lines from Afghanistan and Pakistan through to North Africa. It was always the main divide in Bahrain, which remains volatile and, by choice, out of the big picture, although other Gulf states are freely deploying their petrodollars. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has proved to be a loyal neighbour to the ultimate repository of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, with the two not only unloading billions in Egypt but also promising the military authorities in Cairo that they will make up for any shortfall should the US suspend its payroll.
Qatar, the base of Al Jazeera television as well as a US fleet, has been throwing its weight about with abandon in recent years, notably since the intervention in Libya, but is reportedly at odds with the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the situation in Egypt, while backing them in the context of Syria. Saudi funding has been flowing into Syria for a couple of years, apparently directed at the fundamentalist forces that have come to dominate the opposition to Assad.
The likes of Saudi Arabia, in their vehement opposition to Assad, find themselves in the same camp as Israel, though neither side would be willing to acknowledge it. It seems likely that last month’s allegations regarding the chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus came from Israeli intelligence sources. For whatever it is worth, the members of Britain’s House of Commons voted by a small majority to reject the idea of attacking Syria, thereby thwarting David Cameron’s ambition to cast himself as Tony Blair.
Western democracy undoubtedly has its shortcomings, but there are times when it scores a goal for common sense, and this was one of those occasions, with Cameron and his ministers compelled to acknowledge immediately afterwards that Britain would play no part in military action against Syria, never mind that it had deployed a squadron of warplanes to Cyprus shortly before.
The extent to which this might affect the inclination of the US authorities was unclear at the time of writing, although it was clearly a setback. It would undoubtedly have helped 10 years ago had the British parliament then had the good sense to outvote Tony Blair, George W. Bush would probably have gone ahead with his aggression all the same, but with a smaller cover.
Barack Obama declared some months ago that evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would constitute the crossing of a red line, and there-after felt obliged to respond with belligerent rhetoric to the latest massacre, with several of his aides indicating they were almost certain this attack was perpetrated by the regime in Damascus rather than its diverse opponents. Interestingly, polls suggested a substantial majority of the American public was opposed to intervention — although that did not mean a vote in the US Congress would go the same way as the House of Commons result.
It has been emphasised that western intervention would be more in keeping with Kosovo rather than Libya, let alone Iraq or Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, all too many people find that commitment less than reassuring — not least because there has been no good outcome in the case of nations such as Yemen, where US drones have been dropping ordnance for years. And, of course, the question of introducing democracy in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait or the UAE does not arise for the State Department.
Opposition to punitive strikes stretched from those who feel any military aggression should be followed through until regime change is achieved, to those who fear that the collateral damage would not be a price worth paying for weakening a regime that has lately been making headway against rebels.
It has been emphasised that western intervention would be more in keeping with Kosovo rather than Libya, let alone Iraq or Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, all too many people find that commitment less than reassuring — not least because there has been no good outcome in the case of nations such as Yemen, where US drones have been dropping ordnance for years. And, of course, the question of introducing democracy in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait or the UAE does not arise for the State Department. It’s ambivalence over the events in Cairo conforms to that pattern.
It’s impossible to predict what lies ahead for the Middle East, what with the Syrian civil war spilling over into Lebanon, with Jordan awash with Syrian refugees, and with the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians off to another false start. It’s reasonably clear, though, that the potential of the Arab Spring has substantially, and perhaps decisively, been deflated. The primary blame for this lies in the societies that opted for change but failed substantially to follow through – although it doesn’t hurt to remember that the lines drawn through the region a century ago by the colonial powers that have lately been so eager to relive their glory days via Iraq or Syria are at least partially responsible for the incoherence that continues to be reflected in so many ways.
The nonsensical Sunni-Shia divide, though, is a local affair. Its deepening could condemn the Middle East and its environs to strife that stretches across generations to come. And nobody in their right mind would thereafter have the right to blame the pathetic plight of Muslim civilisation chiefly on outside forces.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.