The Arab Spring In Review

A protester waves an Egyptian flag in Cairo, February 4, 2012
A protester waves an Egyptian flag in Cairo, February 4, 2012 (Alisdare Hickson)

Five years later, the dismal record of the Arab Spring is all too apparent. Syria burns, Egypt’s new pharaoh goes from strength to strength while the Gulf monarchs, having launched war in Yemen, have rarely seemed so lethal. Democracy, it is clear, did not sweep in with the revolutions of the 2011-12.

But that’s no reason to dismiss the spring entirely. All such wide-scale events have resonance. For better or worse, the Arab world is certainly different and in some slim ways even improved since 2011.

Here now is the geopolitical review of the Arab Spring. Read more “The Arab Spring In Review”

Trying to Find a Rhyme: The Middle East’s New Age

The skyline of Cairo, Egypt, December 18, 2008
The skyline of Cairo, Egypt, December 18, 2008 (Ed Yourdon)

It’s tempting to compare developments in the Middle East to historical ones. The current geopolitical struggle has been likened to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War when deadly religious and political conflicts raged before the establishment of the modern “Westphalian” nation states. The Syrian Civil War can be compared to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s which was heavily swayed by foreign intervention. Regional tensions are eerily reminiscent of the Cold War’s chilling peace, assured by the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation, especially as Iran develops nuclear arms. Receding American power reminds some of the midcentury decline of the British Empire, the erstwhile “global policeman.”

However, as Mark Twain (apocryphally) said, history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. Many analysts extrapolate the Middle East’s future based on historical parallels. When taken together, however, these disparate rhymes don’t quite make a neat harmony. The cacophony of comparisons reflects the difficulty to grasp and forecast the Middle East’s future. It reveals social and political shifts unprecedented in the region’s modern history, as strained governments repress a growing desire for more freedoms. Read more “Trying to Find a Rhyme: The Middle East’s New Age”

After Revolution, Tunisians Call for Dictator’s Return

Nearly two years after the start of the “Arab Spring,” Tunisians are openly calling for the return of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who resigned and fled the country in January of last year after a month of protests.

“Ben Ali put people in prison but he didn’t shoot at us,” a mother whose son was shot in the eye by police during a riot told a reporter for the Dutch Nieuwsuur program. “I regret the revolution and would give up freedom of speech for more jobs,” a student told the BBC in October.

Ben Ali was the first Arab dictator to fall in a wave of revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011. He was also the most aggressively secular one. Although 98 percent of Tunisians is Muslim, Ben Ali’s government banned headscarfs, closed mosques and persecuted Islamists who were suspected of radicalism or ties with terrorist groups.

Since his regime’s downfall, attendance at prayer services is up and religious schools, where students are separated according to gender — something that would have been unthinkable while Ben Ali was president — are growing in number. Read more “After Revolution, Tunisians Call for Dictator’s Return”

Mediterranean Engenders Tyranny of the Majority

As predicted, the fate of the “Arab Spring” democracies is leaving much to be desired. Liberal societies can simply not arise from illiberalism and the alternative is, and has always been, to either have secular, authoritarian, pro-Western elites or Islamist, populist, unreliable governments. Between liberal dictatorship and Islamist democracy, the choice is a dilemma.

What makes the choice more difficult is that it is also one between civil rights and political freedoms. In all of last year’s Arab revolutions, the observed constant was ethnic or ideological majorities politicizing the Mediterranean spillover of the Western financial crisis in order to unseat minority regimes. In Tunisia, the Islamists removed the secularists. The same happened in Egypt. In Bahrain, the Shia majority tried to overthrow a Sunni regime; vice versa in Syria, and in Libya there was no majority to be had. Read more “Mediterranean Engenders Tyranny of the Majority”

Turkey Has One Big Problem in Neighbor Syria

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey's foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18, 2011
Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18, 2011 (NATO)

The popular uprisings that toppled decade-old dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya last year forced the Turks to reconsider their famed “zero problems with neighbors” policy and take sides. They welcomed the winds of change and proved quite willing to cut their ties with Middle Eastern despots after years of engagement in order to promote their own model of Islamist democracy and maintain an influence.

Regime change in Egypt and Libya was brokered by Western powers, alleviating Turkey of the burden of balancing their rhetorical support for anti-government protests with a realist imperative to compromise with (military) caretakers.

In Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is refusing to listen to the rest of the world and continues to crush the revolt against his regime, the Turks have finally to come to terms with the situation and decide how serious they are about supporting the Arab cause.

For now, Ankara doesn’t appear willing to do more than let the Syrian opposition organize on its soil and refugees pour in from the south despite demands from Damascus that it seal the border. Turkish diplomacy appears to have little effect. Writes Leon Hadar in The National Interest, “Turks certainly seem to have made very little impression on the Machiavellian rulers in Damascus, who rejected Erdoğan’s pleadings to play nice.” The Turkish leader urged his Syrian counterpart as early as March of last year to “respond positively” to the demands of his people. Instead, Assad sent tanks into rebel cities. “So much for Turkish soft power,” concludes Hadar.

The Arab Spring, he believes, has taught Turkey that reshaping the Middle East in its image “involves more than just sending trade missions to the Arab world, producing captivating television soap operas or pledging a commitment to promote the Palestinian cause.”

Indeed, while Americans may be from Mars and Europeans from Venus, the Middle East is now experiencing an explosive big bang, and Turkey is finding that being pulled into the developments in the region is like being drawn into a political black hole — and that getting out of it requires more than just soft power.

Hoping that the next generation of Arab leaders copying the Turkish model will put an end to the unrest is naive, he adds.

After all, the evolution of Turkey into a more or less functioning democracy was a century long drama involving larger than life players like Atatürk, social instability, political crises, ethnic warfare, military coups, the emancipation of women and the rise of a new middle class and business elite.

Even today, there is a very real tension between Turkey’s secularists and conservative Muslim majority represented by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party. Similar tension is apparent in the new Egypt where the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood secured nearly a majority of seats in the nation’s freely elected parliament this year. In Egypt as well as Tunisia, religious minorities and secular Muslims fear an Islamist revival that could crush their freedoms and those of women.

In Syria, it seems that minority Alawites, Christians and Druze as well as the inhabitants of cities in the coastal areas are far less in favor of regime change than people in the Sunni dominated south and southwest of the country where the uprising is strongest. They are afraid that the revolt, if successful, will make life harder for them in the short term.

Hadar nevertheless recommends that the Turks work with the Arab League to negotiate Assad’s exile even if the aim of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, is probably to see the Sunnis take power and move Syria away from its alliances with Hezbollah and Iran. Arab and Turkish peacekeepers should then move in to restore order.

It may not bring about the sort of multiethnic democracy that Western observers are hoping for overnight. But it would be a chance for the Turks to prove that they are prepared to assume the responsibility that comes with being a regional power.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, told France 24 that he was “ready to do everything for [the] Syrian people” last month but stopped short of endorsing calls for military intervention at the time. The Turks hesitate to go it alone and for good reason but the United States will probably not make the choice for them this time.

Western Nations Silent as Libya Tumbles

Dozens of angry protesters surrounded the building of Libya’s National Transitional Council in Benghazi during the last week of January, the first to willingly come under the control of the post-Gaddafi interim authority. The members of the NTC, who have stepped into the governing vacuum left by the dismantling of the colonel’s regime, are increasingly under hot water with a growing segment of Libya’s population.

Some of the very rebels who volunteered to fight under the NTC’s banner during the country’s eight month civil war are now turning against the body’s leadership which is often described as inept, corrupt and at times incompetent. The days when Mustafa Abdel Jalil and his colleagues on the council were hailed as revolutionary heroes and the guardians of Libya have gone. Or, as The Washington Post rightly put it, the “honeymoon is over.”

The restoration of public security has been a significant concern for Libyans of all backgrounds and tribal affiliations since Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was officially declared dead last August. Five months later, most of the country’s security work is left to the armed brigades that swept up loyalists and drove them out of the capital of Tripoli. Read more “Western Nations Silent as Libya Tumbles”

Brain Drain, Soft Power and Orientalist Revolutions

There is a narrative at work. Man has evolved from a savage uncivilized species to a level of sophistication which is today best exemplified by the Western world. This view of history is linear, it allows only for Hegelian progress and it is also ethnocentric since it makes Europe and America the leaders of human progress. Huntington’s “Western civilization” concept reflects this view.

When large political upheavals take place, most of the commentariat resorts in a Pavlovian fashion to this narrative to explain them. Thus is the case with all the series of revolutions since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Velvet Revolution, the color revolutions and now the Arab Spring are all framed as being just one more step in the world’s adaptation to the Western concept of society and civilization. But are they?

If that were the case would they all happen to happen in Europe’s periphery? We have not seen dominos fall in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia or in the Far East.

The truth as British historian Timothy Garton Ash puts it is that:

One might suggest that the best chances are to be found in semiauthoritarian states that depend to a significant degree, politically, economically and, so to speak, psychologically, on more democratic ones — and most especially when the foreign states with the most passive influence or active leverage on them are Western democracies.

NATO states gave their best efforts to influence the elites of the Central and Eastern European states during the Cold War. Propaganda and subversion activities aside, even if very few of these intellectuals actually visited the West, Western books and culture were predominant in the world and therefore also, to a degree, behind the Iron Curtain. It is no surprise that Western influence continued to be felt in spite of Soviet censure since that had always been the case prior to the Cold War. Russian, Polish or Serb elites had always drifted westward in search of inspiration and that did not change with the old continent’s division in ideological blocs.

The same holds true for the color revolutions in Russia’s “Near Abroad.”

What to make of the Arab Spring? Unfortunately the same. It is not just a matter of European neighbors being demographically bigger and economically stronger; it is also the fact that the international narrative is dominated by European encultured states and societies: Europeans have colonized most of the world and the cultural standard is today a socially liberal, free-market economy-oriented, democratically-ruled nation state.

Phenomena such as brain drain and soft power only further emphasize this tendency. Where do the wealthiest and brightest Arabs study and obtain their entertainment if not in Europe and America? Sayyid Qutb sensed this very phenomenon and called it Jahiliyyah — referring to the prevalent “ignorance” prior to Islamic rule to categorize a contemporary prevalent corruption from within which hinders Islamic values.

What is important to understand is not that Western values are wrong but that they aren’t absolute. They may make sense to Westerners but not necessarily to other cultures and it is wrong to frame every political struggle as a conflict aiming at emulating the West. This has been done before by the Orientalists who analyzed Eastern cultures only by holding them to a Western standard.

The consequence of this narrative is a growing décalage between the perception of reality and reality itself. Al Jazeera is a perfect example of a corporate culture which is embedded with graduates of European and American universities and which covered the Arab Spring — and the terminology here is telling — as a struggle for democracy and liberalism, as if the values of the nonsecular protesters who prayed in Tahrir Square were reason for shame.

The mishaps of this décalage are evident in all of these cycles of revolution with socially conservative and illiberal parties and politicians “surprisingly” emerging in Central and Eastern Europe and the Arab world. Who knew that the same people who toppled dictators were prejudiced against homosexuals and Jews? Antisemitism, Euroskepticism, homophobia or misogeny are just some of the most depressing gifts that media such as Al Azhar magazine or the Polish Radio Maria bring us from these revolutions.

The most direct effect is counterrevolution and reactionary movements which view Western intervention and influence as intrusion in domestic affairs and turn to Moscow or Beijing for investment, trade and strategic relations.

Liberal elites are frequently the vanguard of revolutions in the West’s periphery but the people these intellectuals claim to speak for and liberate don’t often identify themselves with their Washington Consensus agendas. The Arab revolts cannot be Twitter or Facebook revolutions when most Arabs don’t use the Internet, much less in English, and they should never have been portrayed as liberal democratic revolutions when those values are indigenous only to Europe and European colonized territories.

Arab Monitors Begin Their Mission in Syria

Last Monday, Syria witnessed the bloodiest day of the Syrian uprising with close to one hundred people killed across the country by Bashar al-Assad’s army and police forces.

The government-sponsored violence over the next two days either kept that pace or accelerated in some areas, particularly in northwest Syria, where activists and villagers have reported scenes of a “massacre” by tanks and machine gunners. During arguably the worst period of intimidation since the democratic protests began last March, the Syrian National Council, the most prominent anti-government political organization outside the country, has released figures suggesting that two hundred and fifty people were killed last week over a 48 hour span.

It is now undeniable that the Syrian regime is intent on stopping the protest wave any way it can, even if heavy weapons like anti-aircraft guns and tank warfare need to be used to get the job done.

The total death toll is now probably far higher than the 5,000 reported by the United Nation’s senior human rights official this month. It will continue to go up as more conscripts chuck their Syrian army uniforms and run into the arms of the opposition — a development that Assad’s Republican Guard forces have quickly responded to with summary executions, indiscriminate arrest operations and tank shelling.

With the cities of Syria literally running red with blood, it would be inappropriate, if not downright insulting, to suggest that Bashar al-Assad truly wants to usher in democratic reforms for his country. As long as Assad’s Ba’ath Party is considered to be the heart and soul of Syrian political life, the prospects of Syrians voting the way they would like to is just as delusional.

The crisis has caused even Syria’s allies to think twice before vouching Assad in public. Close to two months ago, China and China vetoed a Security Council resolution demanding that Syria halt violence against its citizens and pull its army from civilian areas. Now Moscow appears to be edging closer to the Western position, disregarding its previous stance of refusing to meddle in the affairs of a sovereign state.

In a draft resolution circulated to other Security Council members by the Russians, the Syrian government is urged to suspend its “suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.”

The Russians also call on the Syrian authorities to initiate a judicial investigation targeting those who have either ordered, were a part of or who were in any way implicated in abuses. The statement is an about-face from last October, when Moscow teamed up with Beijing to block a unified Council response to the violence.

In what may be another boost to the protesters, Arab League officials have reported that Syria’s foreign minister has accepted the Gulf Arab plan to send mediators into Syria to make sure that the government is actually doing what it says it is doing — pulling its forces back, releasing political prisoners swept up in the violence, reaching out to the Syrian opposition and generally ending the killing and arrests. On this front, Russia also appears to be at the forefront with the Foreign Ministry confirming that the government decided to allow monitors in after poking and prodding by Russian diplomats.

Moscow is still far away from where France, the United Kingdom and the United States would like it to be and with the Syrian regime having broken so many promises in the past, activists and Western powers are reluctant to celebrate the Arab League mission prematurely.

Although the Syrian government has promised unfettered access, there is a disbelief that the Arab monitors sent into the country will be allowed to travel to the worst effected areas freely. President Assad will be sure to make the lives of these monitors difficult, because he rightly understands that failing to obstruct the mission would confirm what nearly everyone has been saying about his regime since the unrest broke out — that it is brutal, inhumane and entirely at fault.

Similarly, withdrawing troops from centers of protest and releasing the tens of thousands of prisoners who have been thrown into jail cells would be an act of capitulation to the opposition.

Agreement aside, Assad has passed the point of no return. Minus resignation and a publicly humiliating trial, Syrians will not react to any of his reforms positively. The killings will continue with the Arab League now directly involved. Without stronger words and actions from China and Russia, a complete enforcement from Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan of the Arab League sanctions, and a Syrian president that inexplicably changes his stripes, a diplomatic solution to the crisis seems no longer a viable option.

France Steps Up Pressure on Syria’s Assad

International pressure is mounting on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad who for months has brutally suppressed an uprising in his country that was inspired by the “Arab Springs” in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia where veteran dictators were forced to relinquish powers in the face of mass civil unrest.

France, which along with Great Britain pushed for a NATO intervention in Libya in March of this year, called for humanitarian corridors to be erected in Syria on Thursday. The french foreign minister stopped short of endorsing military action to protect a “buffer zone” but conceded that an intervention may be necessary to defend a “secured zone” and ensure the delivery of aid.

Following authorization from the Arab League, which suspended Syria as a member two weeks ago, Turkey is expected to take the lead in enforcing a buffer zone, presumably in the north of the country which is also home to a Kurdish minority. In combating a Kurdish insurgency in its southeast, Turkey entered Iraqi territory in August; a move that may well be repeated in Syria.

After Syrian-Turkish relations had improved markedly in recent years, when Turkey, under the guise of a “zero problems with neighbors” policy, refused to criticize neighboring authoritarian regimes, Ankara distanced itself from President Assad this summer. Turkish president Abdullah Gül said that he had “lost confidence” in Assad’s ability to democratize Syria. There was no place for dicatorships in the Middle East anymore, he added. “Clearly, the leaders of these countries will take the initiative or they will be changed by force.”

The Arab Spring has forced a realignment of Turkish foreign policy that was previously geared toward maintaining the status quo. “Zero problems with neighbors” has not fostered the stability Ankara wished for while the popular uprisings in Egypt and Syria may prove to be an opportunity for Turkey to assert itself as a regional hegemon.

France is similarly looking to expand its influence in the Levant where it has a long, colonial history. Lebanon and Syria were League of Nations mandates governed by the French before the Second World War. President Nicolas Sarkozy included Syria in his Union for the Mediterranean and may hope for a role there after Assad is removed from office.

In the short term, Paris is probably aiming to boost relations with the Arab monarchies that have largely escaped protests but are aligning against Iran and its Syrian ally.

After Saudi king Abdullah condemned the violence in Syria in August, his fellow Gulf sovereigns in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates quickly followed with denunciations of their own. The Shiite uprising in Bahrain prompted a Saudi military intervention there and the tentative expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council to include Jordan and Morocco, two other kingdoms that are generally pro-Western and anxious about the Iranian specter. An axis of moderate regimes is emerging in the Middle East, one that France hopes to do business with.

It has already signed nuclear technology exchange agreements with Morocco and the UAE and President Sarkozy extended offers for similar arrangements to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Areva, Électricité de France, GDF Suez and Total, four French companies, failed to secure a contract to build four nuclear reactors in the UAE in 2009. Sarkozy has urged them to cooperate to help France win contracts abroad. Aircraft builder Airbus and French arms manufacturers may also hope to expand sales to grateful oil sheikhs.

Arab States, West Keeping Boot on Assad’s Neck

Eid al-Adha, or “Festival of Sacrifice,” is one of the most joyous and religiously significant holidays for observing Muslims around the world. The start of the celebrations are typically marked by Muslims of all nationalities as a time to count their blessings, mingle with friends and spend quality time with family members.

The day commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God’s sake and comes after the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s two holiest sites in the Arabian Peninsula, the cities Mecca and Medina. It’ss such an important holiday to the Islamic faith that millions upon millions of people participate, some celebrating in groups as large as entire villages.

For Syrians, this year’s celebration was of particular significance. Only a few days before the events were to begin, President Bashar al-Assad had accepted an Arab League proposal from the prime minister of Qatar to stop the bloodshed against demonstrators in his country. Read more “Arab States, West Keeping Boot on Assad’s Neck”