Archive | Counterrevolution RSS feed for this section

Rethinking the Arab Spring: Uprisings, Counterrevolution, Chaos, and Global Reverberations

16 Dec

[Prefatory Note: the post below was previously published in the Third World Quarterly 37 (No. 12): 2322-2334 (2016). At this point, following the election of Donald Trump as the next American president, there are likely to be significant geopolitical adjustments with related regional impacts. It is possible that cooperation between Russia and the United States will be forthcoming for the purpose of ending civil strife in Syria and Yemen, defeating religious extremism in the region, and maintaining the Iran nuclear agreement. If Trump carried out his campaign pledges to avoid regime change, democracy promotion, and violent conflicts in distant countries, there could be a gradual lessening of turmoil throughout the Middle East. Yet such a hopeful course is not by any means assured, given Trump’s impulsive tendencies and the kind of ultra-militarists he will be relying upon to shape national security policy. The coming years are likely to be a rough ride for various reasons, including the swing in parts of Asia and Europe, as well as the United States, toward an embrace of right-wing populism that includes the rise of the popular autocrat. The most relevant reflection relating to my essay is ‘What became of the Arab Uprisings? Why did their promise dissipate so quickly? What can we expect in the next five years?’]

 

 

Rethinking the Arab Spring: Uprisings, Counterrevolution, Chaos, and Global Reverberations

 

Attaching the label ‘Arab Spring’ to the remarkable events of 2011 already seems quaint, if not a complete misnomer. Looking back five years later, rather than a pathway to a better future, what is unfolding is a darkening of an already quite dismal regional political canvas. Yet whether this darkening is the final outcome rather than a midway point in a process whose outcome cannot now be foreseen lies at the core of interpretative uncertainty.

 

This article attempts an overview of salient developments during this turbulent period, as well as an extremely selective mention of antecedent occurrences that deepen our understanding of what I continue to call the Arab Spring, partly for convenience, but also to acknowledge the excitement that was brought about by a series of dramatic popular uprisings against entrenched authoritarian regimes that occurred throughout the Middle East during the year of 2011.

 

One significant observation centers on the much weaker resonance of the Arab Spring experience and counterrevolutionary aftermath in relation to the various monarchies in the Arab world as compared to the states with secular governing processes. Explaining more adequately this apparent structural difference requires consideration of the situation prevailing in each monarchy, but the monarchies as a whole seemed to possess greater legitimacy than their secular neighbors. This was reinforced by some transnational connections among royal families, various ties with the Islamic religious establishment and as a result of their relative wealth that enabled the population to be pacified through state subsidies and other material benefits.

 

Antecedents

 

The Arab uprisings of 2011 were preceded by a variety of developments that set the stage for what happened additional to the obvious conditions pertaining throughout the region: a governing process that was corrupt and repressive producing deep discontent and sharp class divisions; massive poverty and joblessness accentuating growing gaps between the privileged wealthy elite and the rest of society. Of course, these overall regional conditions produced different political configurations depending on distinct national circumstances that prevailed in each country, including the character of political leadership and the quality of the governmental machinery.

 

There were four developments in the Middle East that gave religion a particular relevance to these political events. First of all, the widespread sense that secular nationalism had not performed effectively during the period of independence, a view that was intensified by the disappointed post-colonial expectations of the population and the unfulfilled promises of the early post-independence leaders. This disillusionment among the citizenry also extended to the failure of these recently independent states to uphold the sovereign integrity of the country in response to Western intrusive designs.

 

These perceptions in the Arab World were strengthened by a decade of success enjoyed by the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, which was perceived as partly a beneficial result of the Islamic orientation of the political leadership. Secondly, the resilience of the Iranian Revolution that had assumed power in 1979, imposed theocratic rule on the Iranian people, and yet managed to withstand a variety of hostile pressures mounted from outside its borders. Thirdly, the deployment of major resources by Saudi Arabia to spread Islamic militancy throughout the region, and beyond. Fourthly, the unlawful 2003 military intervention in Iraq and its subsequent occupation as a result of the joint efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom. One feature of this occupation was to deepen the Sunni/Shi’a rivalry in ways that contributed to the rise of jihadism throughout the Middle East and to foster sectarian alignments that magnified the scale of violence in Syria and Yemen.

 

Further in the historical background, but exerting a significant influence in the shaping of events and helping to explain the varied national experiences of order and chaos that afflicted Middle East countries, were two other impositions by extra-regional forces of the West.[1] Above all, the diplomacy that ended World War I created conditions that generated internal conflict and regional instability in forms that persist a century later. Perhaps, the most notorious of the results of the aftermath of World War I was the implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which exhibited the colonial ambitions of the UK and France with respect to the allocation of the territorial spoils associated with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.[2] Such a development not only represented a European betrayal of promises made to Arab nationalist leaders during World War I, but it inflicted arbitrary borders and artificial political communities on the region.[3] Under such conditions, only coercive and authoritarian rule could hope to achieve stability. The ‘Democracy Promotion’ ideas implemented during the George W. Bush presidency as a legitimating goal of military intervention in Iraq was a spectacular and discrediting failure. Tragically, Iraq since 2003 has vacillated between severe domestic violent chaos and restored and abusive authoritarianism that reflected the Shi’a sectarian bias of the American governing process imposed upon the country to carry out its project of neoliberal state-building, a dynamic that is significantly responsible for the emergence of ISIS.[4]

 

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising the world Zionist movement British support for the establishment a Jewish homeland in Palestine, has also been a major contributor to the troubles of the region.[5] emergence of the state of Israel reflected contradictory European motivations. It was at once a consequence of colonialist interference with the rights of self-determination enjoyed by the Palestinian people and much later a humanitarian/political response to the horrifying Jewish experience of the Holocaust. Whatever its origins, the rise of Israel as a regional military power in defiance of Palestinian rights and the views of Arab majorities has injected a permanently destabilizing element that is both a cruel legacy of the colonial era and a periodic source of political tension and confrontation that has given rise to a series of wars in the region and a constant atmosphere of tension.

 

It is against this background that the Arab Spring erupted in 2011 as a shock to the widely shared perception that regardless of these deficiencies of the regional order, the established political order was ultra-stable for better or worse. It was believed that the Arab publics were disposed to be submissive and passive, making prospects of populist challenges to the political status quo out of the question.[6] Intelligence agencies and academic experts completely overlooked the political relevance of these antecedents to the Arab Spring, and thus failed to take note of forces at work that were below the surface, becoming dramatically active as agents of challenge, even if not in the end successful as agents of change.

 

 

The Arab Spring can be interpreted from various angles. It seems sensible to distinguish developments in Egypt and Tunisia from those in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. And further to distinguish between the secular states in the region that experienced sustained uprisings and strong countervailing forces from the monarchies that remained stable although despite signs of widespread discontent.

 

 

The Arab Uprisings: Tunisia and Egypt

 

As is now widely known, the series of uprisings in the Arab world started with a typical incident illustrative of the suffering of the poor, but rarely giving rise to political repercussions of national, and even regional and global proportions. The chain reaction of political escalating political developments that produced widespread turbulence in Tunisia started on 17 December 2010. A small vegetable street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi in the interior Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzed set himself on fire after being humiliated and his plea rejected by a minor municipal official, dying a few days later amid a growing furor. Apparently, the underlying situation was so unstable that this single act of self-immolation provided the spark that produced a massive uprising challenging the dictatorial and repressive leadership of the country on the basis of a series of grievance associated with joblessness, massive poverty, corruption, food inflation, and the denial of elementary freedoms. The protest activity continued for many days, concentrating its anger and demands on the person of Zine Abidine Ben Ali, a Tunisian strongman who had ruled the country since 1987. By 14 January Ben Ali abdicated to Saudi Arabia where he was given asylum, and a struggle for a new governing process ensued.

 

What was notable in Tunisia, and the pattern elsewhere, was the mismatch between wildly ambitious expectations of those on the streets for a new social, economic, and political order and the relatively limited demands for change set forth by the militants. The only specific demand was for Ben Ali to give up his leadership role, and for a reformist constitutional process to be put in place. As elsewhere in the Middle East, the Islamic forces were best organized among the opposition groups, and quickly assumed control of the political process under the leadership of Mohamed Ghannouchi of the Ennahda Movement. The process was not smoothe, and two sets of forces created trouble for this effort to reform the Tunisian governing process. One was militant Islam that rejected the pluralist and inclusive approach favored by Ghannouchi and the other was the secularists who were opposed to the slightest taint of Islamic influence in the governing process. There were political assassinations, turbulent elections, terrorist incidents, but also a willingness to allow a process of compromise take hold that ended up maintaining continuity with the past and ensuring moderation in the present. In this regard, for all its trials and tribulations, Tunisia not only initiated the Arab Spring but has alone among the states affected, achieved so far achieved a steady forward democratizing momentum.[7]

 

Egypt, in many ways the most important of Arab states, followed a much different path than Tunisia after its own spectacular movement succeeding Hosni Mubarak who had ruled the country for three decades. Its uprising centered in Tahrir Square, and was initially notable for its relative nonviolence and for the use of social media to mobilize support, succeeded in getting Mubarak to give up power, and accept internal exile in summer home. It appeared in early 2011 to be a great victory for democratic forces that inspired activists in many parts of the world, a major stimulant of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. and Britain.[8]

 

The formidable Islamic presence in Egypt was centered in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whose leadership has long been kept in prison and was confined to largely underground political activities and the dispensing of social services in communities throughout the country. At first, the MB calmed secular concerns by pledging not to compete in many of Egypt’s political provinces during a series of legislative elections and also not to field a candidate of its own in the all important presidential elections. When it turned out that the MB won dominating support in the legislative elections, results augmented by electoral successes of new Salafi parties, it prompted both the MB and its rivals to reconsider the future of the country. It was this show of strength that undoubtedly led the MB to withdraw their pledge, and compete everywhere in the country and to put forward a MB leader when it came time to elect a president. And there is no doubt that the prospect of Islamic control of the political destiny of the country caused worry and a shift in outlook on the part of many urban Egyptians who had originally supported the uprising.

 

These developments cast a cloud over the victories of Tahrir Square. Although there was an initial consensus that the MB should be allowed to compete politically as part of a move toward inclusive democracy, this mood among the secular elites of Egypt quickly dissipated. The secular elites had originally supposed that MB strength would be no more than 30% in terms of legislative participation, and this could be accepted, but when it turned out to be double that level, a dire prospect confronted secularists: Either Egypt will become dominated by the secretive, hierarchical MB and sharia law or it must revert to an authoritarian form of governance. The seeming unanimity of the Tahrir period disappeared, with the liberal supporters of the anti-Mubarak movement now either withdrawing or joining forces with falool, or remnant of the Mubarak Era. It became clear that the old regime had substantially survived the downfall of the leader, and that the Egyptian armed forces held the key to the future of the country.

 

It seemed that the Egyptian armed forces remained passive in the early stages of the uprising and its aftermath. In an important respect, the uprising achieved an outcome to the liking of the armed forces, namely, disqualifying Mubarak’s two sons from succeeding their father in the governance of the country. There were even indications that the MB and the armed forces had made a deal exchanging political support for assurances that the privileges of the military with respect to budget and a large stake in the private sector would not be challenged. But then things started to go wrong. The MB candidate, Mohamed Morsi, narrowly won the national elections, and secular forces in the government and society refused to accept this outcome, doing their best to create a crisis of legitimacy that would destabilize the elected government. At the same time, Morsi once sworn in as the Egyptian president displayed no skill or tact in managing the governing process, and quickly alienated and frightened minorities, especially the Copts, and handled the economy in a manner that gave few hopes of either equity or growth. Tourism and commercial life declined sharply, and within a few months there were many whispers from former supporters of the uprising that things had been better under Mubarak. At least tourists came then, and small businesses flourished.

 

A second popular movement took hold, actually larger than the one that captured the world imagination in 2011, culminating in huge street demonstrations and a widely supported coup led by General Abdel Fattah el- Sisi, the current president. The coup has been followed by a bloody repression of the MB, and more recently, anyone who criticized the regime faced torture and prison. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is now more authoritarian than under Mubarak, and although enjoying vast economic support from the Gulf countries and strong backing of the Egyptian armed forces, it has not found a way to revive the economy or to satisfy the grievances of the poor and unemployed.

 

We note then that Tunisia and Egypt as of 2016 have seemingly reached very different outcomes, but perhaps examined more closely, the present phase of governance is not that dissimilar. To be sure, Tunisia has managed a transition to a democratic process, although it is beset by unresolved problems and faces serious threats of disruption. Yet as of now, it has navigated the turbulent waters, partly by not threatening the Ben Ali bureaucracy or class structure, and partly by working out some viable accommodation with Islamic forces and their flexible and realistic leadership.

Egypt, in contrast, has achieved comparable continuity with the past, but by

jumps and starts, accompanied by harsh and bloody crackdowns. Neither country has found a way to overcome the fundamental economic difficulties arising from mass poverty, accompanying unemployment, corruption, and gross forms of inequality, and both are vulnerable to spikes in food prices or renewed global economic recession, and possibly to renewed political agitation.

 

 

The Arab Uprisings: Syria, Libya, and Yemen

 

The same societal longing for change evident in Tunisia and Egypt was experienced elsewhere in the region. This anti-regime political mood led quickly to a further series of popular uprisings in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Unlike the Tunisian achievement of an incremental transition to a more democratic form of governance and in contrast with the Egyptian moves toward democracy generating a counterrevolutionary reaction that restored authoritarian governance, Syria, Yemen, and Libya have each in its own way experienced sustained civil strife that has caused major suffering for the civilian population and led to the collapse of orderly governance. Although the regional dimensions of state/society relations helps explain the similarity of the challenges mounted against the status quo, the specific situation in each country, especially the contrasting national reactions of the governmental leadership account for the great differences from country to country. One further similarity is the presence of a resolve by the ruler and his immediate entourage to use state police and military power to override the societal demands for drastic reforms.

 

A significant point of contrast with Tunisia and Egypt concerns the presence and degree of foreign intervention in the conflict arising subsequent to the uprising. It is notable that the events in Tunisia and Egypt unfolded primarily in response to the play of internal political forces, although especially in Egypt outside hidden influences, especially on the armed forces and via foreign economic assistance, were exerted to uncertain degrees by both the United States and Saudi Arabia.

 

In the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Libya, all currently beset by severe disorder the magnitude of the political violence following upon a challenge to the established national governing process was greatly increased by direct and indirect forms of foreign intervention emanating from the region and beyond. The unfortunate effects of these interventions, although very different in the three instances, adds to the strong arguments against military intervention, even when it is authorized by the UN as was the case with Libya.[9]

 

Syria. In Syria, the leadership from the initial expressions of protest in the southern city of Daraa, responded violently and the movement of opposition seemed to grow and spread rapidly, assuming the form of an armed insurgency. The United States and Turkey after a short interval were open in their support of the Syrian rebel forces, as was Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although it soon became evident that the opposition to the Damascus regime headed by Bashar al-Assad was very fragmented. At the same time for the first year or so of the insurgency it was widely believed that Assad regime would be quickly overthrown.

 

Such an expectation turned out to be misguided. The armed forces of the Syrian government were well equipped and trained, possessing advanced anti-aircraft defense systems and other modern weaponry. Furthermore, the Alawite leadership in Damascus had the backing of the Christian and Druze minorities in the country, except for the Kurds, and were largely supported by the urban business community. Beyond this, Russia and Iran were engaged allies, and rendered material and diplomatic assistance, as was Hezbollah, which supplied significant number of combat troops. The Syrian struggle was bloody from the outset, and casualty totals are now put at over 250,000 killed, and at least half of the total population of an estimated 23 million either internally displaced or refugees.

 

There have been many international initiatives seeking both ceasefire and a more vigorous Western intervention.[10] The situation has grown ever more complicated with the rise of ISIS as a leading anti-Assad force and the efforts of Syrian Kurds both to fight on the ground against ISIS and to establish a de facto state of their own on the ground. These developments have greatly confused the alignments of intervening state and non-state political actors. Priorities for the United States and Europe have shifted to emphasize the struggle against ISIS, minimizing the goal of replacing the Assad leadership, while those of Turkey alternate back and forth between anti-Kurdish and anti-Assad objectives.

 

What has given the Syrian aftermath of the Arab Spring a particular historical relevance is its character, which seems to epitomize the new shape of warfare in 21st century.[11] The originality of this terrible civil strife is the extent of extra-national spillover from the struggle in the form of massive flows of refugees and transnational terrorism extending the battlefield beyond Syria to include the foreign sources of intervention including Turkey, Europe, and even the United States; the multi-layered and contradictory mix of state and non-state actors involved pursuing shifting and sometimes inconsistent goals, and the intermixture of regional and global intervening governments and political movements. The Syrian struggle exhibits also a distinctive form of hybridity, mixing a conflict between the state and a mobilized domestic opposition with both a struggle to contain a terrorist actor that controls substantial territory, sectarian alignments, and involving an armed effort by the Syrian Kurdish minority to achieve de facto statehood. As well, the intervening actors have their own diverse goals that are often at cross-purposes and confused by shifting and contradictory priorities: anti-Assad at first, then anti-Russian and anti-Iranian, then pro- and anti-ISIS as well as pro- and anti-Kurdish, and not to be overlooked, pro- and anti- Islamist, pro- and anti-Sunni. It is hardly an exaggeration to contend that there has never been such a multi-dimensional and hybrid war in all of history. It is also evident that geopolitical standoffs and the limits of interventionary leverage make it dangerous and imprudent to act coercively to shape the political outcome of the conflict.

 

Libya. Libya, at first, seemed to follow closely the pattern established by Tunisia and Egypt. A popular uprising against an abusive dictatorial leadership under Muammar Qaddafi who ruled the country for decades, managing to suppress the ethnic and tribal tensions that defied national cohesion and sustained by abundant energy resources. The uprising quickly turned violent, abetted by the involvement of European foreign advisors, and Qaddafi responded violently, refusing to give ground, and raising global concerns by condemning opposition forces with hysterical rhetoric that had a genocidal edge. Several Western countries expressed humanitarian concern, convened the UN Security Council, and despite skepticism achieved a mandate to establish a No Fly Zone to protect the imminently threatened civilian population of Benghazi. The limits embedded in the Security Council mandate, which was a weak endorsement of military force in view of abstentions from five important countries, were ignored from the outset of the military operation carried out under NATO auspices.[12] Instead of protecting the beleaguered Benghazi population from advancing government troops, Tripoli was bombed, and a regime-changing undertaking was implemented, ending with a grisly execution of Qaddafi by rebel forces.

 

What ensued in Libya has been a series of failed state-building undertakings that have left the society in chaotic turmoil, dominated by local militias and

tribal rivalries, lacking an effective central government. The political disorder has also created a situation in which ISIS has been able to establish a strong presence, posing a threat to local and Western security interests that had not existed during the Qaddafi period. Libya’s instability seems likely to persist, and contrasts with the kind of repressive stability (except in the Sinai) achieved in Sisi’s Egypt and the sort of fragile constitutionalism that has so far survived in Tunisia.

 

The Libyan aftermath is distinctive in several respects. Above all, as with Iraq, it suggests that from a Western perspective and in terms of domestic public order, military intervention does not deliver on its promise to produce a more humane form of governance even when it succeeds in toppling the authoritarian regime and encouraging the emergence of a constitutional order. In Libya as in Iraq the abuses of the old political order seem far less destructive than the violence, devastation, and displacement caused by a heavy handed foreign intervention. Instead of ‘democracy promotion’ what took place in Libya, as earlier in Iraq, is best described as ‘chaos promotion,’ and as the region is now constituted, this also opens the door to political extremism that can flourish in ways that were never possible in the old order.

 

The Libyan intervention was costly in other ways, as well. The manipulation of the Security Council by understating the goals and nature of the contemplated intervention completely undermined the trust that had led the five skeptical members to abstain rather than cast negative votes, which in the case of Russia and China would have nullified any UN authorization due to their right of veto. As it turned out, these memories of institutional manipulation from Libya, impeded a possibly more constructive role for the UN in response to the strife in Syria.

 

Of course, there are relevant questions raised about why intervention in one country but not in others. Is the oil dimension part of the explanation of large-scale interventions in Iraq, and then later after the Arab Spring, in Libya, but not to anything like to the same degree in Syria or Yemen, which lacked oil and did not offer lucrative prospects for construction arrangements to repair the damage wrought by the ‘shock and awe’ tactics relied upon by foreign interventions from the air.

 

Yemen. As elsewhere, the popular uprising in Yemen was at first directed at the hated, corrupt, and abusive ruler, Ali Abdellah Salah, producing a raging state/society struggle that remains inconclusive. The challenge to the established order also revived geographic and ethnic tensions involving the Houthi minority in the north, and introduced a regional proxy dimension to the internal conflict. The Houthi were Shi’a and perceived by the Gulf monarchies as an extension of Iran’s influence, which induced Saudi Arabia to side with the challenged regime, eventually producing a large-scale intervention taking the form of punishing air attacks, causing widespread devastation and considerable civilian loss of life, and yet not managing so far to control the political destiny of the country. The outcome in Yemen hangs in the balance, remains in doubt, but once more reinforces the impression that external intervention to control the political dynamics of a country in the wake of the Arab Spring is likely to produce negative results, and make the old order, as objectionable as it was, seem less damaging to the society than the counterrevolutionary effort to defeat the societal forces seeking change.

 

Several conclusions emerge: (1) the original uprising in Yemen was a further regional indication that the authoritarian political order was deeply resented by significant portions of the citizenry; (2) unlike Egypt and Tunisia, but in manner resembling Syria and Libya, the challenged regime fought back rather than gave way to the popular movement; (3) as with Syria, the internal balance led to a prolonged struggle that remains unresolved, with no transition to a new normalcy in the offing; (4) Yemen’s difficulties were compounded to the extent that the internal struggle was also perceived as containing sectarian implications, prompting a ferocious Saudi intervention, but unlike the anti-regime intervention in Libya, the intervention in Yemen was pro-regime.

 

The Monarchies. The Arab Spring phenomenon had clear reverberations in the main monarchies in the MENA region, especially Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco. Protest demonstrations occurred in these countries but were quickly contained, often accompanied by royal pledges of economic and political reforms that promised the citizenry greater economic equity and more meaningful participation in the governing process.

 

As with secular governments, the monarchies had their own distinctive national characteristics that explain some differences in the response of governments and regional actors. For instance, Bahrain, partly because of its Shi’a majority and the presence of a major American naval base was perceived as the most vulnerable to a credible internal insurrectionary challenge. To forestall such an eventuality, Saudi Arabia intervened with ground forces and helped the kingdom restore stability by suppressing the opposition, and imprisoning civil society leaders, including advocates of human rights. Jordan and Morocco, both having strong internal security forces, met opposition activity with police discipline and some royal gestures of accommodation. In Morocco and especially Saudi Arabia the relationship between Islam and the state contributed to the stability and legitimacy of the prevailing political order, although in Saudi Arabia these conditions were reinforced by a pervasive set of oppressive constraints, which included human rights outrages that rivaled the behavior of ISIS in their disregard of standards of civilized law enforcement, especially with respect to women and the Shi’a minority.

 

The case of Saudi Arabia is particularly illustrative of the interplay between the Arab Spring and geopolitics. Because of the special relationship with the United States, Saudi Arabia like Israel, enjoys unconditional support from Washington. This included turning a blind eye to beheadings and public displays of severed heads of dissidents and more incredibly, overlooking Saudi support for jihadi terrorism throughout the region, including evidence of startup funding of ISIS.[13] This special relationship was initially based on the importance of positive relations for the West with Gulf oil production and reserves, seen as a vital strategic interest ever since the end of World War II, but it has persisted in recent years despite the falling price of oil and the diminished dependence on Gulf reserves due to the development of other energy sources.

 

There are other developments in the five years since the Arab Spring that help

explain the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree, the other monarchies. Principal among these are the combined search for regional stability, positive connectivity to the neoliberal world economy, and the encouragement of convergent interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This latter development became especially evident in Saudi tacit support for Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014. The rationale for convergence was the supposed links between Hamas and Iran, as well as the perception of Hamas as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. As is evident both Hamas and the MB are Sunni in orientation, making it clear that the overriding Saudi priority is the insulation of its royalist regime from hostile forces regardless of whether Sunni or Shi’a. In this regard, the sectarian card is played pragmatically to oppose the regional ambitions of Iran in several national settings, but sectarianism does not explain Saudi hostility to MB grassroots Islamic movements, which are seen as possibly encouraging to anti-royalist social movements throughout the region and hence treated as threatening.

 

Concluding Observations

 

The most striking conclusion is to appreciate that from the perspective of 2016, the counterrevolutionary reaction to the Arab Spring seems far more durable than the challenges posed by the 2011 uprisings, none of which created an enduring discontinuity with the authoritarian antecedents. Tunisia came closest, but it preserved relative stability after the uprising, despite being punctuated by Islamic extremist challenges and secularist anxieties. The political leadership maintained continuity in both the governmental bureaucracy and among the privileged elite. It did permanently rid the country of the authoritarian leader, as did Egypt, but with the latter, authoritarianism returned to govern in an even more oppressive form.

 

In many ways, the Egyptian and Syrian stories are the most influential and pronounced legacies of the Arab Spring. Egypt is the keystone state of the Arab World with the secretariat of the Arab League located in Cairo. The Egyptian uprising seemed to expressed the highest hopes of the Arab Spring through the remarkable upsurge of peaceful oppositional gatherings in Tahrir Square. Yet two years later the uprising and its reformist hopes were completely erased, and replaced by the restoration of the old order, astonishingly with the blessings of the overwhelming majority of Egyptian people. Mass disillusionment with the post-Tahrir political process had resulted from the failure of electoral democracy to bring either improvements in material circumstances or respect for the new political leadership.

 

In contrast to Egypt, Syria is emblematic of what can ensue when the inspirational encouragement of the Arab Spring challenges a regime that is determined to prevail even at the cost of unleashing virtually unlimited warfare against its own people and destroy its own cities. The Syrian experience is illustrative of the tragedies that befall an insurrectionary challenge that cannot shift the balance of forces against the status quo. Syria also illustrates the regional stakes of such a national struggle, as well as sectarian rivalry that produced a regional proxy war, with Iran and Hezbollah supporting the Assad government and Saudi Arabia siding with the rebel forces. Additionally, Russia with its only warm water naval base in Syria, a circumstance similar to that of the United States in Bahrain, not surprisingly allied with Damascus, while an opposing geopolitics led the United States to support anti-Assad so-called moderate forces.

What seems evident in retrospect is that none of the movements that followed the Tunisian uprising were sufficiently revolutionary to create the intended discontinuity in terms of freedoms, constitutional governance, and economic growth and equity. Again the Egyptian case is most illustrative. The very qualities of mounting a nonviolent challenge against Mubarak based on stirring displays of religious and societal unity, with an avoidance of program or leadership, produced a political vacuum filled on the one side by the Muslim Brotherhood and on the opposite side by adherents of the established order. When a showdown came, as might be expected the armed forces, relied upon to manage the political transition, mounted a counterrevolutionary coup and suppressed the MB. It completed a dynamic featuring a triumphant and popular counterrevolution following upon a fractured series of failures to create societal progress in post-Mubarak Egypt.

 

Finally, what we learn from these developments in the Middle East that have occurred during the past five years is the close links between national, regional, and global confrontations and differential priorities. Such strong interconnectedness gives alignments and military interventions of varying degrees of overtness, with the Libyan experience being at one end of the spectrum and Egypt at the other end due to its apparent relative national autonomy. Syria, above all, has been grossly victimized during the past five years by seeming to invite struggles for ascendancy by an array of external state and non-state political actors compounding the state/society strife occasioned by the Arab Spring.

 

As this time, the only future that can be discerned is seen through a glass darkly, meaning persisting chaos or oppressive authoritarian governance. [14]There are no trustworthy bright spots, although the fragile polities of Tunisia and Lebanon seem at least for the present to have avoided the worst of the counterrevolutionary storm, but neither has much assurance that future developments could bring chaos and internal strife.

 

 

[1] For perceptive overview see Mohammed Ayoob, Will the Middle East Implode?

[2] See Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans

[3] For assessment of World War I peace diplomacy on contemporary Middle East see Richard Falk, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Chapter 9.

[4] See Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement; also helpful, Phyllis Bennis, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.

[5] Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict;

see also Victor Kattan, From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949.

[6] See Farhad Khosrokhavar, The New Arab Revolutions that Shook the World; also, Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring

[7] See Khosrokhavar, Chapter 2.

[8] An insider account is Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0; see also Khosrokhavar, Chapter 3.

[9] On humanitarian intervention see Fabian Klose, ed., The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention; Rajan Menon, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention;

Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution

[10] For a range of views see Nader Hashemi & Danny Postel, eds., The Syria Dilemma

[11] What has ensued in Syria goes far beyond Mary Kaldor’s innovative analysis of new wars in Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars, 3rd ed..

[12] For text see Security Council Res. 1973 (2011), including its provocatively ambiguous phrase authorizing ‘all necessary measures’ to enforce the No Fly Zone.

[13] See citations Note 4.

[14] For varied assessments see Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East; Richard Javad Heydarian, How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings; Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution.

Advertisements

Five Years after the Arab Spring: A Critical Evaluation

7 Dec

[Prefatory Note: The post below is an introduction to a series of articles on the theme of assessing the Arab Spring jointly written with the prominent Turkish scholar, Bülent Aras, whose bio-sketch appears below. It was published in the Third World Quarterly, 37 (No. 12): 2258-2334 (2016).]

 

Five Years after the Arab Spring: A Critical Evaluation

Bülent Aras  and Richard Falk

a Professor of International Relations, Sabancı University, Turkey bRichard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, United States.

[Abstract: A new political geography has emerged in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after the Arab Spring. The transformative impact of the popular upheavals appeared to put an end to long-term authoritarian regimes. Today, the region is far from stable since authoritarian resilience violently pushed back popular demands for good governance and is pushing to restore former state structures. However, the collective consciousness of the popular revolts endures, and a transformative prospect may emerge on the horizon. The chaotic situation is the result of an ongoing struggle between those who seek change and transformation and others in favor of the status quo ante. A critical evaluation of the Arab Spring after five years indicates a continuous process of recalculation and recalibration of policies and strategies. There are alternative routes for an eventual settlement in the MENA region, which are in competition against both regional and transregional quests for a favorable order.]

 

 

The transformative impact of the Arab Spring on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) symbolizes a turning point in the recent history of the region. The change is obviously visible, although five years is not long enough to see the full effects of a popular movement with the transformative goals of the Arab Spring. The protests and the immediate aftershocks remain confined within regional boundaries, which affect only Arab countries, although the anti-authority discourse has reached a wider resonance. In this sense, one obvious dimension of this novel political development has been the “Arabness” of its core mobilization.

In more specific terms, the MENA region faces transformations on a range of fronts, from state-society relations to resilience of authoritarian regimes, from state failures to shifting alliances in the region. This complex picture is the result of interaction and socialization of new and old actors in the domestic to regional and regional to global flows. The domestic environments in the regional contagion range from failed transitions to civil wars, while regional order as a whole is almost a perfect example of “the anarchical society” without the existence of any overarching authority and institution capable of enforcing rules and establishing order.

On the domestic fronts, the Arab Spring brought the analyses of democratization and robustness of authoritarianism to the fore with a rich variety of cases for discussion. We put forward the idea that the Arab Spring represents a search of the masses under authoritarian regimes for honor, dignity, liberty, good governance, and accountability of rulers. These uprisings created a new collective consciousness or subjectivity strongly influenced by the transnational diffusion of international norms of governance, freedom, and equality. The uprisings in various authoritarian states thus made sense beyond the geography of immediate impact and created a strong transnational impetus for change in a series of countries outside the Arab World. The demands for change, search for representation, and struggle for honor created a new collective consciousness that provides motivation, solidarity, belief, and strategy in various national contexts to engage in similar struggles against rulers. Societal groups enjoy the empowerment of sub-state actors and benefit from state vulnerabilities in undertaking political initiatives within authoritarian settings. The opposition to authoritarian rule also finds its expression in a relatively democratized context, giving rise to further political demands, especially for stronger societal participation. Throughout the different phases of the Arab Spring, the masses have faced several challenges and difficulties associated with imposing their new collective consciousness on rule and transforming authoritarian regimes in desired directions.

The first challenge was the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East and the differential ability of rulers to learn and recalibrate policies to preserve their hold on power. Second has been the lack of support from the international community in the struggle for freedom and liberties despite the fact that these ideas have been promoted with “universal” validity. The third challenge has been the fragility and fracturing of the societal consensus that has unleashed the uprisings, which underscores the vitality of sustainable coalitions that could have functioned as a social glue for realizing the transformative goals in its aftermath. The original consensus that gave rise to the new collective consciousness was severely challenged and even broken in some cases when it came to reforming the governing process along more democratic lines. When the popular expectations accompanying the uprising were dashed, active social forces backing the revolution became divided and certain elements indeed turned against the revolution to settle for what has been a reversal of the uprisings in the form of a counterrevolutionary backlash. This was actually what happened in Egypt after the election and overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The reactions of the ruling regimes vary according to their receptivity and resistance to the transformative claims set forth by the new collective consciousness. The Arab Spring has also been a learning process for all sides in terms of new calculations, recalibration of policies, and the development of effective strategies to cope with the new political atmosphere. The rulers and establishment elites as well as the popular movements also face fundamental challenges. Above all is the challenge of meeting societal demands for change in the domestic political order and the governing process. A second challenge concerns the transnational nature of the Arab Spring. This makes countries vulnerable to the potentially subversive transnational diffusion of the new collective consciousness. Inside/outside differences in policy-making have been more fluid than ever during this period. A third challenge has arisen when Arab rulers have found themselves with a capacity and incentive to exert an influence for or against the transformation of other states while at the same time facing a similar situation at home. Attitudes toward transformation of neighbors usually conform to the positions adopted at home. Rulers tend to support resistance to change outside if they adopt status quo policies at home: Most leaders seek outcomes that resemble as much as possible their domestic policies and are in conformity with their interests.

The fourth set of challenges may be the most confusing. The new transnational web of regional and international relations occurs within an atmosphere of flexible alliances and shifting alignments and priorities. Yesterday’s enemy may selectively become today’s friend. The contradictions and multiple dimensions of conflict that have risen to the surface in Syria during the last five years highlight this concern. A number of countries in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, have reacted to the situation elsewhere in the region to raise firewalls to protect their hold on power at home. A fifth set of challenges follows from the involvement of global political actors, mainly Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States. The aspirations of these actors are not always clear, and may alter under pressure and in response to national shifts in the balance of forces. This further complicates an assessment of internal strife, exhibiting both mixed signals coming from some of these actors and rigid attitudes from others. The relations of Middle Eastern countries with these external actors have often become strained by the shifts and turns in response to the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring is now at a critical phase as both popular forces and the ruling elites are recalculating their policies and reshaping attitudes toward change and the option of resistance. This is a distinctive moment in history that is showing the limits of creativity to meet the challenges of the Arab Spring, which ranges from the particularistic such as determining the future of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to broader issues of the role of Islamism such as the legitimacy and role of the pro-democracy Ennahda movement in Tunisia. The mobilization of new political movements in Iraqi Kurdistan and Northern Syria, or the Saudi attempts to empower the administration in Bahrain and shape an anti-Houthi outcome in Yemen also undermine the political order of the region in different ways. It is possible to analyze the Arab Spring within four subsystems, categorizing their adaptability and resistance to the diffusion of transnational values. The four categories that we set forth are the Arab I and Arab II, Turkish-Iranian complex, and Kurdish de facto autonomy systems.

The Arab System I refers to those Arab states that share the commonalities of high population and low natural resources. These countries have been vulnerable to popular revolts and possess a limited ability to address societal challenges through peaceful means. The Arab System II consists of Arab states having a small population and a strong resource base. They exert more control over societal demands and also enjoy surplus financial capacity to influence political outcomes in other countries. The societal demands are more basic in terms of democratization and appropriation of civil rights and liberties. The state-society tension, in general, has risen to unstable levels and in some cases has led to the outbreak of civil war. One could depict several sub-regions within these subsystems. Furthermore, these two Arab configurations of states are not mutually exclusive. There occur complex and multiple interactions with each other that are further complicated by extra-regional involvements. The “Syriraq” crisis, the rise of Daesh, and the Saudi-led coalition’s air war against Yemen, among others, are issues concentrated in the Arab System I, although these events are also of clear relevance to the Gulf Kingdoms of the Arab System II that are preoccupied with maximizing authoritarian survival beyond their own borders, and devote resources to ensuring the persistence of an authoritarian neighborhood.

The Turkish-Iranian system is different than the Arab systems in reference to political institutions and societal demands. The 1979 revolution put an end to the authoritarian monarchy in power, replacing it with Islamic rule. Iran has regular elections, a diverse civil society, and a functioning parliament. Despite these moderating features of the governing process, the Iranian opposition seeks greater democratization, protection of human rights and basic freedoms. Thus the fundamental questions in Iranian politics are how to secure free and fair elections, political liberalization, the empowerment of civil society and politicians, and normalization of relations with the West against the stronghold of the establishment. In 2009, people protested against the presidential elections with the slogan “Where is my vote?”, yet were suppressed in the name of raison d’etat. The Iran nuclear deal seems to be a game changer since it carries the potential to put an end to Iran’s international isolation and turn Iran into a legitimate actor in regional politics. Iran’s new status helped it to have a psychological upper hand in the course of the scaling down of the U.S. presence in the Middle East, which lessens the likelihood of any new hegemonic order in the region for the foreseeable future. The region will now become even more prone to rivalries, conflicts, and protracting crises as regional actors pursue contradictory goals. This is what has happened during the five years after the Arab Spring. The geopolitics of the Middle East is now being manipulated predominantly within a framework of sectarian conflict and the overall rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.

The Turkish situation is more about the enhancement of democracy, fine-tuning, and active participation in decision-making processes and a fundamental emphasis on economic development.. The societal demands are centered on the call for transparency, accountability, freedom of expression, and further civil rights. There is also an issue of cultural and language rights sought by Kurdish political forces. The Gezi Park protests in 2013 are exemplary in this sense of Turkish unrest. Young people resisted the building of a shopping mall in one of the few green parks in the urban center of Istanbul. The Turkish subsystem, compared to the others, despite its shortcomings, comes closest in the region to institute a democratic order. Turkey has taken strides in good governance and economic development, but has ever since been haunted by the quest for sustaining a democratic transition. In that sense, societal demands for better representation, checks on the political leadership, and the desire to control and limit political excesses fits into the general spirit of the new collective consciousness that has already been in motion within the dynamics of the Turkish system. The challenging issues for Turkey are responding demands for wider representation, addressing growing societal polarization and consolidating democratic institutions against a counterproductive trend in favor of reaching political goals through violence in the Kurdish problem and an undefined social call for security in the face of terrorist attacks launched by the extremists including Daesh.

The failed attempted coup of July 15, 2016 in Turkey can be connected to the Arab Spring experience, including the aftermath, in several significant ways. The most obvious reverberation of 2011 was the degree to which the leader was able to summon the people of Turkey to exhibit historical agency by displaying their support for the existing government and sacrificing their bodies to uphold the elected political leaders of the country. At first glance, the contrasts with Egypt are most striking. In 2011, the Egyptian masses in their revolt against Mubarak’s rule proved themselves and to the world their historical agency by opposing an unelected authoritarian government, and following the overthrow of the regime in Tunisia, catalyzed uprisings throughout the region. Then in 2013, disappointed by the failures of the elected leadership to perform, the Egyptian people were again mobilized effectively, this time to support a military coup against the elected leadership. In these fundamental respects, what happened in Turkey on July 15th is the exact opposite of the second Egyptian uprising that brought General Sisi to power, an outcome later ratified by elections conducted unreliably in a post-coup atmosphere of repression focused on crushing the Muslim Brotherhood that had won the prior nationwide elections held in 2012.

The situation in Turkey remains uncertain as the aftermath of failed coup has created contradictory signals about what to expect from the perspective of stability, human rights and democracy. In the early post-coup atmosphere in Turkey was dominated by a problem unique to the region, the deep penetration of all governmental institutions by the Gulenists, the followers of Fethullah Gülen who resides in the U.S. This left the Turkish government led by its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with the formidable task of rebuilding the Turkish state without destroying Turkish democracy. On the one side, there are encouraging signals suggesting a new and welcome willingness of the main political parties to work together to preserve constitutional democracy in the country while restoring confidence in the security apparatus of the state. On the other side, there is challenging task of dealing with the detentions of Gülenist suspects from the various branches of government including the armed forces along with mass dismissals from educational institutions and an array of interferences with journalists and writers in a situation of state of emergency.

How these dramatic developments will play out in the region remains to be seen. Even before the coup, Turkey was engaged in a foreign policy reset, featuring successful efforts to renew normal diplomatic relations with Russia and Israel, which had become antagonistic in the prior five years. The Turkish relationship with the United States is also under unprecedented pressure due to the coup as its accused leader, Fethullah Gülen, resides in the United States. The Turkish government has formally requested extradition in accordance with a bilateral treaty, and whether it is granted or denied could affect the future of U.S./Turkish relations, as well as the coherence of NATO.

The Kurdish system is the most problematic challenge confronting Turkey. Although the Kurds do not have a state of their own, they have been empowered in their respective geographies during the Arab Spring, which has raised their expectations. Kurds are a minority group in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. There are three Kurdish sub-systems emerging within the atmosphere of change and transformation in the Middle East. First is the Syrian-Iranian sub-system, which seems best characterized by war and survival. Second is the Iraqi subsystem, which is a quasi-state structure that faces the challenges of securing the autonomy and consolidation of political and economic order, which may require an opening up of its political structure to satisfy societal demands. Third is the Turkish subsystem, which oscillates between war against the PKK and a peace process with Kurdish political representatives in an environment of a relatively advanced political structure. In the last year or so there has been a definite move away from peace and diplomacy and a firm embrace of armed struggle tactics.by both sides

Against this backdrop, Emirhan Yorulmazlar and Bülent Aras deal with the geopolitics of the Arab Spring and develop a framework to combine the factors that brought the previous regional order to an end. The domestic to regional and regional to global flows are examined in detail as the authors analyze and assess the regional disorder that emerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Ever since the regional political landscape appears to have been completely altered. The article identifies the emerging subregional systems in the Middle East, which could pinpoint the basis for further changes and evolve to constitute the prospective regional order.

Fuat Keyman deals with the regional crisis and explains how this contributes to global turmoil. In this regional to global flow, regional problems are elevated to matters of international security. Keyman analyzes Turkey’s dilemma specifically, facing both the rise of Daesh and the refugee problem. He rejects the idea that Turkey is a buffer zone and encourages a more constructive and integrative dialogue between both Turkey and EU and Turkey and the U.S. with the objective of addressing these issues.

Pınar Akpınar focuses on the limits of mediation with respect to conflict resolution in the five years of Arab Spring. Akpınar’s focus on the effects of the multi-actor environment, the results of various trials of mediation, and a particular consideration of the mediation attempts in Syria underlines the necessity to rethink the means, nature, and capability of mediators as an alternative to chaos and armed struggle.

Halil Ibrahim Yenigün explores the repercussions of the purported failure of Islamist experimentations with democracy during the Arab Spring in terms of the inclusion-moderation hypotheses with a specific focus on the Egyptian case. He puts forward that moderation can only go so far because of the relevance and limits of Islamists’ political theology and further democratization may be dependent on a more viable Islamist political theology that accords better with rights and freedoms than a simplistic understanding of majority principle.

Richard Falk evaluates the aftermath of the Arab Spring through the dual optic of a regional phenomenon and a series of country narratives. These narratives are categorized by reference first to the secular states that found a path to stability after experiencing strong uprisings that drove rulers from power , second to the states in which the uprisings generated prolonged resistance and continuing acute instability, and third to the monarchies that neutralized the uprisings at their inception and restored stability. When other dimensions of conflict are taken into account it seems likely that the Middle East will continue to experience chaos, intervention, and counterrevolution for years to come, and possibly even a second cycle of uprisings directed at the evolving order.

 

Notes on Contributors

Bülent Aras is Senior Scholar and Coordinator of the Conflict Resolution and Mediation stream at Istanbul Policy Center, Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabancı University and Global Fellow at Wilson Center. He is Academic Coordinator of POMEAS (Project on the Middle East and Arab Spring). His current research interests include geopolitics of Arab Spring, non-state actors in peacebuilding and bridging the gap between theory and practice in foreign policy. Recent work has been published in Middle East Policy, International Peacekeeping, Political Science Quarterly, International Journal, Journal of Balkans and Near Eastern Studies, Journal of Third World Studies, Third World Quarterly.

 

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus at Princeton University where he was a member of the faculty for forty years (1961-2001). He is Chair of International Board of Advisers of POMEAS. Between 2002 and 2013 he has been associated with Global & International Studies at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California, and is continuing to direct a research project on ‘Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy’ in his role as Fellow of the Orfalea Center. Professor Falk has been the Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine for the United Nations Human Rights Council between 2008 and 2014. He served as Chair of the Board, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2004-2012, and is now its Senior Vice President. In 2008-2009 he was appointed expert advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly. Over the years, Falk has published more than 50 books. The most recent one is Power Shift: On the New Global Order (2016).

 

* Corresponding author. Email: bulent@sabanciuniv.edu

ISIS, Militarism, and the Violent Imagination

18 Sep

 

 

 

 

Before ISIS

 

The beheading of American and British journalists who were being held hostage by ISIS creates a truly horrifying spectacle, and quite understandably mobilizes the political will to destroy the political actor who so shocks and frightens the Western sensibility, which is far from being free from responsibility for such lurid incidents. Never in modern times has there been a clearer example of violence begetting violence.

 

And we need to ask ‘to what end?’ Political leaders in the West are remarkably silent and dishonest about what it is that they wish to achieve in this region beset since 2011 by a quite terrifying outbreak of political extremism, whether from above as in the cases of Syria, Egypt, and Israel or from below as with ISIS and al-Nusra.

 

It is difficult to recall that at the start of 2011, just three years ago, progressive voices around the world were inspired by the Arab upheavals, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, that burst upon the political scene unexpectedly. These extraordinary events appeared to repudiate the prevailing patterns of authoritarian, exploitative, and corrupt collaboration between oppressive domestic elites, neoliberal economic forces, and the regional imperial juggernaut that had kept this humanly disastrous reality stable for so long. Yet even during that time of optimism about the Arab future, a closer scrutiny of what was happening disclosed many reasons to be worried. It is helpful to look to this recent past to have some comprehension of the perplexing present.

 

A Revolutionary Spirit Without Revolutionary Action

 

The goals of these upheavals were far too ambitious to be realized by such limited challenges directed at the established order. These movements were essentially confined to getting rid of a hated ruler. Associating single individuals such as Mubarak, Ben Ali, or Assad with the grievances of an exploited and oppressed people overlooks the degree to which class interests and entrenched bureaucracies constituted structures. The popular forces bravely challenging the status quo lacked leadership, program, and even a clear agenda, and naively expected the remnants of the old regime to disappear or go along with the anguished call of mass discontent that sought bread, freedom, and dignity as the effect of removing the hated leader.

 

This innocence of exaggerated expectations made what had seemed a remarkable achievement of doing the impossible more vulnerable to reversal than was generally understood at the time when the immediate results seemed so stunning. What particularly impressed thoughtful commentators was being described as ‘a new subjectivity’ of the Arab masses. It had long been presumed that these Arab publics were reconciled to their fate, and would remain passive victims of their sorry fate. That they rose up with such force and resolve surprised the world, and themselves, by these courageous displays of self-empowerment and political creativity. It was also impressive that these upheavals, each distinct, shared a vision of an inclusive democracy that when established, would henceforth govern society with respect for all classes, religious and ethnic identities, genders, and political persuasions.

 

The reluctance to challenge the old order more fundamentally and punitively became coupled with a paradoxical and perverse situation of dependence on the old regime to manage in good faith the transition to the promised new dawn of constitutional democracy and freely elected political leaders. There seemed to be no understanding that these old elites in each country had interests that had been generally served by the previously established order, and would inevitably be threatened by the longings of the people, including expectations of moves toward greater social and economic equity threatening the prior acceptance of predatory arrangements with neoliberal globalization.

 

Preconditions for Transformative Political Ambitions

 

In this sense, there seemed little awareness in these movements of Lenin’s insistence that a successful transformative politics necessarily depends on substantially destroying the prior state structures; (“you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”), that is, by rebuilding the new transformed state from the ground up and getting rid of the old bureaucracy. This generalization is especially true if the old order was managed by indigenous leadership, and not imposed from without as in the colonial era. Also, as Hannah Arendt argued in her book on revolution, if the overthrow of the former regime does not have a radical social agenda, as was the case with American Revolution, only then does the possibility of a smooth and peaceful transition exists. [See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1969). Excluding the prospects for improved material conditions, including jobs for youth, was a political impossibility in the Arab world, where conditions of mass misery were what partially explained the role of oppressive structures and the assignment of security forces to prevent workers from organizing effectively.

 

Revealingly, in contrast to the activists in Tahrir Square, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran encouraged a kind of Islamic Leninism, rejecting all pleas to reach compromises with the Shah’s regime in exchange for social peace and shared political power. From the perspective of late 2014 we take note of contrasting realities: Iran’s Islamic Republic is celebrating its 35th anniversary without a serious threat to its governance, while the so-called Egyptian Revolution barely lasted two years before the old regime in a more extreme form was fully restored under the bloody military leadership of General Sisi.

 

 

 

Underestimating Political Islam

 

There were additional factors at work in Egypt and the region. Perhaps, most significantly, those who sought to liberalize the governance structures without shaking their foundations greatly underestimated the electoral strength of political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the ideals of the Tahrir movement affirmed inclusionary democracy, the assumption of many who initially championed a new political order was that the MB would participate as a minority presence that would not displace the old urban ruling classes or threaten its privileges. When this turned out to be wrong it immediately shifted the political balance in such a way as to promote counter-revolution. As Europe discovered after 1848, nothing is worse for progressive politics than revolutionary ambitions to exceed revolutionary means.

 

This situation was further stressed by the rich and influential Gulf oil dynasties that felt deeply threatened by the Arab upheavals, and cared far more about their own stability than they did about promoting Sunni politics in the region. These governments were disturbed by the fall of Mubarak, and hoped for a political reversal in Egypt, welcoming the counter-revolution led by Sisi with an avalanche of funding, without blinking when this new military leadership proceeded to commit major atrocities against members of the MB and to criminalize the organization. It should not be ignored that this counter-revolutionary violence also served the strategic interests of Israel and the United States, restoring stability, marginalizing Muslim and democratizing forces, and avoiding the emergence of governments much more inclined to support Palestinian aspirations and to challenge neoliberal links with global capitalism. Into this mix that emerged in Egypt, must also be added the political ineptness of the MB, neither appreciating its popular support nor recognizing that MB political hegemony would never be accepted by either the remnants of the old regime nor by secular liberals who wanted Mubarak overthrown, but not the system. In this sense, it appears in retrospect that it was a great mistake of the MB to withdraw their earlier pledge after the Tahrir success story to refrain from seeking either to dominate the parliamentary elections or compete for the presidency.

 

Not Forgetting Iraq or Syria

 

If we consider other developments in the region there is another disturbing ‘truth’: the region at this stage seems better off being governed in an authoritarian manner than by either the sort of ‘democracy promotion’ that was the theme song of the George W Bush presidency (2000-2008) or through the political responses to the kind of popular uprisings that erupted in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, elsewhere, but turned out to be unsustainable. The least bad outcomes as of now appear to be those countries where the old authoritarian regimes prevailed without much struggle (e.g. Morocco) and made a few gestures of reform averting both civil strife and a more brutal turn in authoritarian rule. The alternatives to authoritarian in the region now seem far worse: terrible civil warfare (as in Syria) or chaos without respite (as in Libya). Given the mess that unfolded in Iraq during a decade of American occupation, what Washington policymaker would not at this point secretly consider the second coming of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as a gift of the gods?

 

Syria, as well, sent the wrong signal throughout the region. First, there occurred a popular challenge to the Assad regime that occasioned a bloody counterinsurgency campaign. Then outside forces, Turkey, the United States, Gulf countries teamed up as ‘Friends of Syria Group’ to help the insurgency prevail, badly underestimating the military capabilities and political support of the Damascus government, which enabled it to withstand these efforts to repeat the Mubarak/Qaddafi experience of overthrow either from below (by a mass movement) or from without (by a NATO air campaign). In Syria instead of regime change there occurred an ongoing civil war that has taken upwards of 200,000 lives, caused millions to flea the country as refugees and millions more to become internally displace.

 

Three negative political effects also followed: neighboring countries were destabilized, the unresolved Syrian struggle gave rise to various forms of Islamic extremism within Syria and in the region, and the atrocities of Assad gave license to others in the region (such as Sisi) to commit crimes against humanity with the prospect of impunity.

 

What lessons can we learn? Above all, beware of what is wished for. In effect, above all else, the last several decades should teach the West that the days of staging successful colonial interventions at acceptable costs are long past, and that premising post-colonial interventionist diplomacy on a moral crusade of human rights, democracy, and counter-terrorism fools almost no one except some of the people in the metropole, and wins few real friends in the target societies other than cynical opportunists or desperate insurgents. If intervention is followed by military occupation many of those who were initially willing to accept any and all outside help to get rid of the hated leader quickly get disillusioned and turn on their earlier benefactor, a process dubbed ‘blowback.’ [For identification of the phenomenon and its naming see Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2004) If the intervention is not followed by an occupation the results are not much better. Piles of bodies and debris are left behind, but the new reality is likely to be, as in Libya, the kind of ungovernable chaos with armed militias substituting for the rule of law. Washington tends to call such situations ‘failed states’ as if it had nothing to do with the collapse of governance.

 

America’s and NATO’s Unlearned Lessons

 

America and NATO should have learned the limits of military superiority and the problematics of occupation from their failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military superiority and shock and awe tactics can generally overwhelm a Third World government and quickly destroy its military capability, but that is only initial and easy phase of an effort to control the political future of a targeted country. Notoriously, Bush didn’t understand this in relation to Iraq when he infamously announced ‘mission accomplished’ to the world immediately after Iraqi military resistance crumbled and Saddam Hussein was driven from power.

Phase two of the Iraq undertaking involved occupation and state-building neoliberal style, and the emergence of formidable political resistance. The early glow of victory soon fades away, and a variety of troubles start to overwhelm the intervening side. A movement of national resistance takes shape, and adopts insurgent tactics against the foreign invader that takes away many of the benefits of military superiority that earlier achieved an easy battlefield victory. Resistance consists of various acts of violent disruption that gradually turn a hostile and foreign occupation into a long nightmare. The high tech weaponry of the occupier remains an effective killing machine, but it increasingly kills the wrong people, alienates far more, and seems helpless to establish minimal order much less to deliver on the promise of democracy, economic prosperity, and human rights for all. The prime objective of the occupier becomes one of crafting a graceful exit that disguises the abandonment of the original enterprise, and if that fails, leaving in a humiliating manner without being able to disguise the defeat. It should have been evident from the outset in Iraq that the effort to embed democracy is in tension with the strategic goal of integrating the country in accord with Western ideas of security and political economy. The idea of turning over security to an indigenous and partisan army trained to make safeguard the government put in place by a military intervention is truly a ‘mission impossible.’

 

Strategic Failure

 

What was the real outcome of both of these major military interventions that cost many lives, generated mass refugee and internally displaced populations, and expended trillions of dollars on these futile ventures? In Afghanistan the results were a mixture of chaos, destabilization of Pakistan, and the reemergence of the Taliban as a formidable political force. In Iraq, the ironic outcome after a decade of occupation was a strategic victory for Iran and its pro-Shi’ite foreign policy, along with sectarian strife and widespread chaos, culminating during this past year with the eruption of ISIS occupying a significant expanses of territory in Iraq, and Syria. ISIS had the audacity to proclaim itself the Islamic State and to found a new caliphate without regard to international borders.

 

In both societies these results are exactly the opposite of the goals set by the intervening side. What were the real motivations of the intervenors? There are, I believe, three overlapping answers given varying weights by commentators: for oil, for arms sales and the political economy of militarism, and to ensure the desired strategic hegemony of the American/Israeli partnership throughout the Middle East.

 

The failure results from a basic disconnect. Securing the neoliberal priority of assuring access to Middle Eastern oil at stable prices bolstered by a maximum Western private sector investment depends upon maintaining good relations with stable governments and receptive societies. Stable political structures, given the American commitment to Israel, together with capitalist predatory behavior, produces a hostile cleavage between state and society throughout the region, making political order fully dependent on effective authoritarian governance. Under these conditions it is evident that any claimed commitment to human rights and democracy is hypocritical, and at best peripheral. Such claims serve as misleading rationalizations for intervention in a post-colonial era where naked imperial justifications are no longer credible. It puts the West in the position of inevitably collaborating with national elites that suppress the most fundamental human right of their own peoples—that of the right of national self-determination, which is highlighted as common Article I of both the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

 

Remembering Vietnam

 

There is a further disconnect. Relying on military intervention to achieve the goals of foreign policy is not a new recipe for political failure, and such an approach should have been discarded long ago for realist reasons. A repudiation of interventionary diplomacy should have been the crucial lesson learned from the Vietnam War. Remember America won all the big battles, controlled every combat zone, and yet lost the war. A Vietnamese military commander’s response is worth pondering made to an American official who insisted that despite the political outcome of the war, the United States was never defeated militarily by Vietnam: “Yes, that is true, but it is irrelevant.”

 

Understanding why it is irrelevant is the great unlearned lesson in relation to the conflicts taking place the period since World War II. It should by now be clear even to the most dimwitted real politik analyst that every colonial war since World War II was won by the militarily inferior side. Perhaps, the most dramatic instance of people power triumphing over imperial power occurred in India’s defeat of the mighty British Empire without firing a shot. In Indochina and Algeria French colonialism finally gave way to national movements with far worse weaponry. National resilience in the end proves stronger than foreign military and police control.

 

The real untold story of this string of losses sustained by the West is the empowerment of people. This empowerment was eventually accorded moral and legal respect by a global diplomatic process that now seems a false gesture of imperial disempowerment. Acceptance of the moral claims of and legal right to self-determination was formally acknowledged, but the geopolitics of power and wealth went on as before, and continued at great costs to seek by force of arms what could not otherwise be justly acquired.

 

The recent Israeli military operation against the helpless people of Gaza is an extreme illustration of this dynamic. No people in the Middle East have endured as much cruelty and suffering during their long national movement for independence and sovereignty than have the Palestinians. And no state has been as determined as Israel to rely on its vastly superior military means to maintain control, expand, and ruthlessly suppress opposition. And yet after nearly 70 years of dispossession, occupation, militarist subjugation, and Western backing, the Palestinians are far from defeated. In the recent one-sided Protective Edge campaign over 2100 Palestinians were killed, 75% of whom were civilians, as compared to Israel reporting losses of 70 dead, of whom 66 were members of the IDF. It suggests that ‘state terrorism’ is far deadlier for the civilian population than is the violence of enemy resisters. But consider the political dynamics: the Israeli reasons for staging this horror show seemed to be mainly to convince the collaborationist leadership in Ramallah to stop cooperating with Israel and to weaken decisively the organization structure and political support of Hamas. As with the cases mentioned earlier, the military dominance produced great devastation combined with a political defeat: instead of weakening Hamas, the organization gained in popularity not only in Gaza, but even more so in the West Bank where new polls show that in any forthcoming election Hamas would easily win over the Palestinian Authority, which was unlikely before Israel launched its latest deadly attack to once more ‘mow the lawn’ in Gaza.

 

The next concern, following from what has been argued, is ‘why such a clear pattern of repeated failures should not lead to policy adjustments?’ There are two explanations: the political elites of the world are hard-wired to think within an anachronistic realist box in which military power is the controlling force of history. Such thinking is also part of the political culture of the United States where security is correlated with hard power, no matter the facts are. This defiance of reality is sadly reinforced by American political culture. When recent horrific crimes in movie theaters and schools where innocent persons are willfully slaughtered by a deranged heavily armed individual, the militarized mentality of the citizenry leads it not to demand the prohibition of assault weapons in private hands, but perversely to a surge in private arms sales.

 

The ISIS Challenge Revisited

 

This brings us back to ISIS, and what might be done that improves the situation rather than worsen it. Barack Obama has presided over shaping the regional response. He was confronted by a multifaceted dilemma. He had been elected president twice partly to end American engagement in overseas wars, especially in the Middle East, and here he was once more rallying the region and Europe for yet another war against an adversary that posed no discernable threat to the American people. To overcome this awkward fact, it was necessary to dramatize the barbarism of ISIS tactics, pointing to the

American victims of ISIS atrocities, and at the same time promise there would be no American casualties. Barbarous as were these atrocious acts, beheadings were unfortunately not new to the region, and were regularly used upon by the Saudi Arabian government in punishing convicted criminals. True, these incidents involved American and British nationals who were innocent of wrongdoing, but the emphasis was not so much placed on their innocence as on the horrifying technique used to carry out the executions.

 

Here is the core problem: America’s leadership in the region depends on actively protecting the authoritarian status quo, especially in the Gulf, and so doing nothing about ISIS was not an option. What Obama is proposing to do repeats the old formula of failure: air strikes; training, arming, and advising friendly forces (Iraqi Kurds, moderate Syrians, Iraqi military units), disrupting ISIS overseas recruiting and funding. Obama’s program is a pale version of post-Vietnam counter-insurgency doctrine where risks of American casualties must be minimized while air power, including drones, plus native ground forces with their own political agendas are relied upon to carry out the dirty work. Yet, as in earlier encounters, the likely result is to induce chaos and alienation arising from accidental targeting of innocent civilians arousing public resentment, and a no win/no lose standoff that causes great suffering to the society, including producing many refugees and internally displaced persons. It is illustrative of thinking within the old militarist box, and its prescriptions are almost certain to make any particular situation worse than if left alone.

 

Of course, there are far preferable options, but to adopt these requires looking below the surface. It would have to start with the admission that the American occupation of Iraq was the proximate cause of the emergence of ISIS, especially due to the purge of Bathist elements in the government and armed forces, and the encouragement of Shi’ite sectarianism. Abandoning sectarian maneuvers is one way to avoid some of the worst recent mistakes.

 

Another productive path presupposes an American diplomatic outlook oriented around wider ethical and world order concerns. Such an adjustment would require loosening the dependency ties to Israel, and follow a rational line of geo-strategic self-interest in the Middle East. Such a course of action, hardly ever mentioned because it seems too unrealistic, would involve taking three steps: bringing Iran into the effort to find a political solution for the Syrian civil war; proposing a nuclear free zone throughout the Middle East; exerting pressure on Israel to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. This is a distinctly political approach that contrasts with militarism that has produced destructive turbulence in the region in the period since the partial stabilities of the Cold War era collapsed along with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

 

Militarist geopolitics seems destined to lead to yet another Western catastrophe in the tormented Middle East. There is no political will visible anywhere on the horizons of world politics that might pose a humane challenge to such disaster-prone policymaking. And so the murderous cycle of violence repeats itself yet again, the alien militarism of this Western led coalition is confronting the indigenous violence of ISIS that the mistakes of earlier interventions by the West have helped to nurture. And so dispiriting repetition occurs instead of uplifting innovation, and the wheels of violence turn with accelerating velocity.