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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Damming the stream of the Arab spring

Damming the stream of the Arab spring
by Ahmed E. Souaiaia

After months of fighting, the Libyan rebels entered Tripoli, the capital from which Muammar Qadhafi had ruled for more than 40 years. What will become of Libya is significant not only for the Libyan people but also for the world. The consensus among world leaders regarding the need for him to depart should not be understood to mean that they also agree on the reasons why he should step down. The context and subtext are complex. The Libyan uprising can be soundly understood when taken in comparison to other events taking place around the world.

World leaders and international affairs experts worry that the fall of Qadhafi will be marked by instability and infighting, increasing the potential for a humanitarian crisis in Libya. Many ordinary Arabs, hopeful for a future better than the past, contend that the fall of Qadhafi will not only usher in an era or freedom and stability for a country rich in natural and human resources, but it will also inspire reluctant peoples in the rest of the Arab world to overthrow the brutal despots and authoritarians.

Journalists and pundits are already picking the next stop of the train of freedom that is journeying across the Arab world. Is Syria next? Or is it Yemen? Perhaps it will be Bahrain? And what about the rest of the Arab regimes?

To answer these and other questions, one must consider the circumstances and the cultural and political environment for each country. Indeed, in each of the three countries that succeeded in overthrowing the rulers, the people rose up because they have specific grievances and particular goals. But the revolution and the post revolution events too were different from country to country.

In the case of Tunisia, disregard of human dignity broke the hold of fear and brought thousands of Tunisians to the streets. In less than one month, the Tunisian dictator was forced out. However, he left behind a well entrenched partisan institution that had monopolized its hold on power and bureaucracy. While low and midlevel partisans continued to run the state's bureaucracies, the top level state leaders are diehard Bourguibists--if not remnants of Ben Ali's regime. The post-revolution transition was guided by the old regime's constitution and the interim president was a member of Ben Ali's party. Despite the rhetoric, the regime seemed to be unable or unwilling to transition within the timeline allowed to a post-Ben Ali era. The elections that were supposed to be held in July were postponed until October and the institutions that were supposed to realize the demands of the revolution became engaged in partisan disputes despite the allusion of "independence."

The Egyptians have already attempted to force the regime to reform months before the Tunisian revolution. But Mubarak's regime was able to take back with its left hand what its right hand offered in the form of concessions. For instance, while the regime allowed independents (mostly supporters of the Muslim Brethren) and representatives of other smaller parties to contest parliamentarian elections, the regime enacted election laws that made it all but impossible to compete with the ruling party.

Moreover, the regime routinely arrested opposition leaders before elections further disadvantaging their parties and preventing them from making any significant gains. Additionally, the regime used the perpetual emergency laws to arbitrarily arrest political dissenters, intimidate journalists, and deny the establishment of key political parties. Lastly, there was ample evidence that the regime was preparing to either have the 82-year old Mubarak to run for another term or to bequeath his powers to his son, Jamal.

The Tunisian people's success inspired the Egyptian people to commit to fight not only for political reform but to overthrow Mubark. In less than one month, Mubarak fell but he, too, left behind the leaders of the armed forces--the institution that protected his rule all these years--in charge. Consequently, change was slow and the military seemed keen to protect its interests and preserve its power. They promised elections but they refused to fix a definite timeline. They amended the constitution and asked people to approve the changes in a referendum but they pushed to establish another legal document that would govern the elections if not predetermine its outcome.

On February 17, the Libyan uprising broke out in all major cities. Quickly, Qadhafi's regime used brute force to crush the uprising and he did so in Tripoli. However, as he prepared to send his troops to the eastern part of the country, key regime figures sided with the protesters who by then took control of the city of Benghazi. As Qadhafi and his son Saif al-Islam threatened the use of force to kill the protesters whom they called "rats," the protesters turned into armed rebels. While Qadhafi forces marched east, the UN approved a resolution authorizing NATO to take all necessary measures to protect civilians. Subsequently, NATO imposed a no-fly zone and started bombing Qadhafi's troops who were threatening Benghazi. In the meantime, the newly established National Transitional Council appointed members of the Executive Transitional Council to act as an interim cabinet. The emerging military and political leadership eased the fear of the Libyans as well as the concerns of world leaders who feared chaos and the rise of Islamist groups. The hope for the emergence of a democratic Libya and the resentment of a regime led by an unstable, quixotic dictator both contributed to uniting rebels with different agendas. However, the post-Qadhafi era will be more significant than the revolution itself.

With the fall of these three regimes, we are left with three different models. It is tempting to use them as predictors of the outcome of future uprisings across the Arab world; but it will be a mistake to do so. Indeed, the loss of dignity and respect felt by the Arab masses remains the most powerful force that drives millions to face death while challenging these brutal regimes.

The Arab rulers oppress but they seldom oppress impulsively or reflexively. In fact, they oppress selectively and systematically. They use one ethnic, religious, or political group against one another. They use fear as a tool to control and subdue. They manufacture narratives for national identities to divide peoples and to preserve their rule. The more blatant the narrative the more indignant the people would feel. That is what generally determines the extent and context of uprisings.

The Arab Spring has produced a powerful force capable of flooding the entire world with change—not just the Arab or Islamic worlds. For now however, all eyes will be on Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Jordan.

Syria is similar to Tunisia and Egypt in some respects but different from them in other aspects. But it is radically different from Libya. But let’s face it: no country in the world is like Libya under Qadhafi—except perhaps North Korea. Qadhafi is a delusional, megalomaniac who forced everyone in the country to live in his shadow. He declared himself the king of African kings and the leader of Arab leaders. He suffocated his people and assassinated their creativity. He is like no other Arab leader. Assad, on the other hand is an educated and articulate man with whom one can reason. He recognized that he needs to reform and he seemed interested in doing so. But no one will believe him until he acts on those promises and sets a timetable for actual and real change.

Moreover, the Syrian regime is a functional bureaucracy more like the Chinese model. Although the Assad family plays a critical role in the leadership, the Baath party is the ideological entity whose membership includes individuals from all social groups, classes, and professions. Baathism, after all, as an expression of Arab nationalism, provided the ideological platform for other Arab countries including Iraq. In fact, it was under this ideology that Egypt and Syria once flirted with the idea of a unified Arab republic. That can’t be said about Qadhafi and his “green book” drivel.

Given these differences, some Western leaders’ call on Assad to step down seemed naïve. In Syria, the Syrian opposition is very fragmented and they lack the experience to run a country that is fractured along ethnic and religious lines. Syria’s proximity to Iraq (a country still recovering from war), Israel (with whom it has theoretically an active war front), and Turkey (who is yet to solve its Kurdish problem) make it a country that is of utter significance to the region and to the world. The best scenario for Syria is to continue the pressure on the current regime until it consents to hold free and transparent elections and gradually transition to a pluralist system.

Yemen saw a glimpse of a post-Saleh era and with it came a period of relative stability. After Ali Saleh was wounded, he was taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment. While away, relative calm was observed in the streets and the opposition groups were prepared to work with Saleh’s deputy to transition to a new era. Then, Saleh returned and so did the protests and the violence. The tribal structure makes Yemen a very volatile country and for that reason Saleh needs to step down in favor of a more representative government that embraces the separation of powers. For months, he resisted because the Saudis and the Americans seem to favor him over any other alternative.

Bahrain is more like an outpost for the Saudis. For that reason, Saudi Arabia had sent its military to put down the first uprising. But there is no indication that the protesters are willing to abandon their quest for social justice and dignity. There is room for compromise whereby the Shi`ite majority can accept a monarch with very limited powers. But cosmetic changes such as the ones suggested by the monarch will not silence the people of Bahrain forever.

In Morocco, the King called for a revised constitution and many people seemed to like the changes. However, the main test will be the outcome of the coming parliamentarian elections to be held within months. If the same faces and the same parties continue to exert a monopoly on the political life and if the king continues to control key ministries, more people will take to the streets and this time they will demand the overthrow of the king, not just political reform.

Most interesting is the Saudi handling of the Arab Spring. First, the Saudis appeared to choose Ben Ali over the Tunisian people. They offered him sanctuary and refused to extradite him to stand trial—although there is no evidence that the Tunisian interim government requested it. In short, the Saudis were not in favor of the regime change in Tunisia.

They also took the same stance on Mubarak. When the US administration finally made its mind and called on Egyptian ruler to step down, the Saudis were irked. In fact, they showed their displeasure by unilaterally sending troops to crush the uprising in Bahrain. In all these three instances, the Saudis appeared to be interested in preventing the flood of change or at least in slowing it down. In reality, the Saudis feared an ideological Arab Spring more than they feared change itself. This was evident from their reaction and role in igniting and supporting the Syrian and Libyan revolutions.

To be sure, the Saudis and their Gulf allies were among the first to condemn the Libyan and Syrian regimes for their treatment of the protesters. In fact, it was bewildering to learn that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar were among the 24 members of the UN Human Rights Council that called on the Syrian regime to stop the “brutal treatment” of their respective peoples and end the military crackdown. This position is peculiar given that it was Saudi Arabia that sent troops to Bahrain to support a regime that killed and jailed thousands.

Clearly, the Saudis and their allies feared an ideological Arab revolution that is motivated by disdain for the so-called moderate Arab governments. The Syrian uprising did at least two things for the Gulf States. First, it limited the influence of the so-called camp of resistance (mumana`ah). Second, it slowed the pace of change especially after many activists started social network sites calling for protests in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and UAE. The Saudi rulers moved on all fronts: they pumped more money into social programs helping youths with housing and marriage stipends, they encouraged Salafi groups to rise up in Syria and Iraq, and they banned protest condemning it as forbidden under Islamic law.

Ultimately, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Jordanians, and the Moroccans should know that slowing down the Arab revolutions is not the same as stopping them. In fact, if Syrian and Libya are transformed into stable representative governments, the authoritarian Gulf regimes will be the only holdouts. Their influence will diminish and their rhetoric will haunt just as did their support of puritan religious groups in Afghanistan who turned into a case of chicken coming home to roost.

Undoubtedly, the Arab spring has impacted other countries beyond the Arab world. The demonstrations in Britain, Israel, Spain, and Greece show how contagious social change can be in the age of virtual social media and open access to information. But as change takes hold of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the West too will be forced to change its ways in dealing with Muslims. This is an era where the interests of the peoples will dictate the actions of their leaders. When Arab governments are forced to actually value the life and dignity of the peoples they lead, the West needs to change its ways. It would need to be mindful of all humans’ yearning for dignity and respect; the first step in that direction is to monitor the pulse of the massesnot the temperament of the leaders.

* Ahmed Souaiaia, teaches classes in the department of Religious Studies, International Programs and College of Law at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the University or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

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