Tag Archives: counterrevolution

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.

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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.

What is Winning? The Next Phase for the Revolutionary Uprisings

24 Feb


Early in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings it seemed that winning was understood by the massed demonstrators to mean getting rid of the hated leader, of Ben Ali in the Tunisian case, and Mubarak in the Egyptian. But as the process deepened it make clear that more was being demanded and expected, and that this had to do with restoring the material and spiritual dignity of life in all its aspects.

Without any assurance as to what ‘winning’ means in the setting of the extraordinary revolutionary uprisings that are continuing to rock the established order throughout the Arab world, it is likely to mean different things in the various countries currently in turmoil. But at the very least winning has so far meant challenging by determined and incredibly brave nonviolence the oppressive established order. This victory over long reigns of fear-induced pacification is itself a great transformative moment in 21st century history no matter what happens in the months ahead.

As Chandra Muzaffar, the widely respected Malaysian scholar who  religion and justice, compelling argues, the replacement of the old order by electoral democracy, while impressive as an accomplishment given the dictatorial rule of the past in these countries, will not be nearly enough to vindicate the sacrifices of the protestors. It is significantly better than those worst case scenarios that insist that the future will bring dismal varieties of ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak,’ which would change the faces and names of the rulers but leave the oppressive and exploitative regimes essentially in tact. This would definitely be a pyrrhic victory, given the hopes and demands that motivated the courageous political challenges embodied in withstanding without weapons the clubs, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and overall brutality, as well as the uncertainty as to what the soldiers in the streets would do when the order to open fire at the demonstrators came from the beleaguered old guard.

What is needed beyond constitutional democracy is the substantive realization of good and equitable governance: this includes, above all, people-oriented economic policies, an end to corruption, and the protection of human rights, including especially economic and social rights.  Such an indispensable agenda recognizes that the primary motivation of many of the demonstrators was related to their totally alienating entrapment in a jobless future combined with the daily struggle to obtain the bare necessities of a tolerable life.

There is present here both questions of domestic political will and governmental capability to redirect the productive resources and distributive policies of the society. How much political space is available to alter the impositions of neoliberal globalization that was responsible for reinforcing, if not inducing, the grossly inequitable and corrupting impact of the world economy on the structuring of domestic privilege and deprivation? Not far in the background is an extended global recession that may be deepened in coming months due to alarming increases in commodity prices, especially food. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization the world Food Price Index reached a record high in December 2010, a level exceeded by another 3% rise in January of this year. Lester Brown, a leading expert on world food and environment, wrote a few days ago that “[t]he world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.” [International Herald Tribune, Feb 23, 2011]

With political turmoil threatening world energy supplies, oil prices are also surging, allegedly further endangering the uneven and fragile economic recovery in the United States and Europe. Global warming adds a further troubling feature to this deteriorating situation, with droughts, floods, fires, and storms making it difficult to maintain crop yields, much increase food production to meet increasing demands of the world’s growing population.

These impinging realities will greatly complicate the already formidable difficulties facing new leaders throughout the Arab world seeking with a sense of urgency to create job opportunities and affordable supplies of food for their citizenries. This challenge is intensified by the widely shared high expectations of improved living circumstances. If the autocratic prior regime was held responsible for mass impoverishment of the many and the scandalously excessive enrichment of the few, is it not reasonable to suppose that the more democratic successor governments should establish without much delay greatly improved living conditions? And further, how could it be claimed that the heroic uprising was worthwhile if the quality of life of ordinary citizens, previously struggling to avert the torments of impoverishment, does not start improving dramatically almost immediately? An understandably impatient public may not give their new leaders the time that need, given these conditions, to make adjustments that will begin to satisfy these long denied hopes and needs. Perhaps, the public will be patient if there are clear signs that the leaders are trying their hardest and even if actual progress is slow, there is some evidence that the material conditions of the populace are, at least, on an ascending slope.

Even if the public is patient beyond reason, and understands better than can be prudently expected, the difficulties of achieving economic justice during a period of transition to a new framework of governance, there may be still little or no capacity to fulfill public expectations due to the impact of these worsening global conditions.  It is quite possible that if the worst food/energy scenarios unfold, famines and food riots could occur, casting dark shadows of despair across memories of these historic victories that made the initial phases of each national uprising such a glowing testament to the human spirit, which seemed miraculously undaunted by decades of oppression and abuse.

It needs also to be kept in mind that often the slogans of the demonstrators highlighted a thirst for freedom and rights. Even though there is little experience of democratic practice throughout the region, there will likely be a serious attempt by new governing institutions to distinguish their practices from those of their hated forebears, and allow for the exercise of all forms of oppositional activity, including freedom of expression, assembly, and party formation. Unlike the problems associated with creating jobs and providing for material needs, the establishment of the atmosphere of a free society is within the physical capacities of a new leadership if the political will exists to assume the unfamiliar risks associated with democratic practices. We must wait and see how each new leadership handles these normative challenges of transition. It remains to be seen as to whether the difficulties of transition are intensified by counterrevolutionary efforts to maintain or restore the old deforming structures and privileges. These efforts are likely to be aided and abetted by a range of covert collaborative undertakings joining external actors with those internal forces threatened by impending political change.

And if this overview was not discouraging enough, there is one further consideration. As soon as the unifying force of getting rid of the old leadership is eroded, if not altogether lost, fissures within the oppositions are certain to emerge. There will be fundamental differences as between radical and liberal approaches to transition, and especially whether to respect the property rights and social hierarchies associated with the old regime, or to seek directly to correct the injustices and irregularities of the past. Some critics of the Mandela approach to reconciliation and transition in South Africa believe that his acceptance of the social and economic dimensions of the repudiated apartheid structure have resulted in a widely felt sense of revolutionary disappointment, if not betrayal, in South Africa.

There will also be tactical and strategic differences about how to deal with the world economy, especially with respect to creating stability and attractive conditions for foreign investment. It is here that tensions emerge as between safeguarding labor rights and making investors feel that their operations will remain profitable in the new political environment.

This recitation of difficulties is not meant to detract attention from or to in any way diminish the glorious achievements of the revolutionary uprisings, but to point to the unfinished business that must be addressed if revolutionary aspirations are going to be able to avoid disillusionment. So often revolutionary gains are blunted or even lost shortly after the old oppressors have been dragged from the stage of history. If ever there exists the need for vigilance it at these times when the old order is dying and the new order is struggling to be born. As Gramsci warned long ago this period of inbetweeness is vulnerable to a wide range of predatory tendencies. It is a time when unscrupulous elements can repress anew even while waving a revolutionary banner and shouting slogans about defending the revolution against its enemies. And a difficulty here is that the enemies may well be real as well as darkly imagined. How many revolutions in the past have been lost due to the machinations of their supposed guardians?

Let us fervently hope that the mysteries of the digital age will somehow summon the creative energy to manage the transition to sustainable and substantive democracy as brilliantly as it earlier staged the revolutionary uprisings.

 

Revolutionary Prospects After Mubarak

15 Feb

The Egyptian Revolution has already achieved extraordinary results: after only eighteen intense days of dramatic protests. It brought to an abrupt end Mubarak’s cruelly dictatorial and obscenely corrupt regime that had ruled the country for more than thirty years. It also gained a promise from Egyptian military leaders to run the country for no more than six months of transition, the minimum period needed for the establishment of independent political parties, free elections, and some degree of economic restabilization. It is hoped that this transition would serve as the prelude to and first institutional expression of genuine democracy. Some informed observers, most notably Mohamed ElBaradei worry that this may be too short a time to fill the political vacuum that exists in Egypt after the collapse of the authoritarian structures that had used its suppressive energies to keep civil society weak and to disallow governmental institutions, especially parliament and the judiciary, to function with any degree of independence. It is often overlooked that the flip side of authoritarianism is nominal constitutionalism.

In contrast, some of the activist leaders that found their voice in Tahrir Square are concerned that even six months may be too long, giving the military and outside forces sufficient time to restore the essence of the old order, while giving it enough of a new look to satisfy the majority of Egyptians. Such a dismal prospect seems to be reinforced by reported American efforts to offer emergency economic assistance apparently designed to mollify the protesters, encourage popular belief that a rapid return to normalcy will provide this impoverished people (40% living on less than $2 per day; rising food price; high youth unemployment) with material gains.

The bravery, discipline, and creativity of the Egyptian revolutionary movement is nothing short of a political miracle, deserving to be regarded as one of the seven political wonders of the modern world! To have achieved these results without violence, despite a series of bloody provocations, and persisting without an iconic leader, without even the clarifying benefit of a revolutionary manifesto, epitomizes the originality and grandeur of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Such accomplishments shall always remain glories of the highest order that can never be taken away from the Egyptian people, regardless of what the future brings. And these glorious moments belong not just to those who gathered at Tahrir Square and at the other protest sites in Cairo, but belong to all those ignored by the world media who demonstrated at risk and often at the cost of their life or physical wellbeing day after day throughout the entire country in every major city. Both the magnitude and intensity of this spontaneous national mobilization was truly remarkable. The flames of an aroused opposition were fanned by brilliantly innovative, yet somewhat obscure, uses of social networking, while the fires were lit by the acutely discontented youth of Egypt and kept ablaze by people of all class and educational backgrounds coming out into the street. The inspirational spark for all that followed in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, let us not forget, was provided by the Tunisian Revolution. What happened in Tunisia was equally astonishing to the amazing happenings in Egypt, not only for being the initiating tremor, but also for reliance on nonviolent militancy to confront a ruthlessly oppressive regime so effectively that the supposed invincible dictator, Ben Ali, escaped quickly to Saudi Arabia for cover.  The significance of the Tunisian unfolding and its further development should not be neglected or eclipsed during the months ahead. Without the Tunisian spark we might still be awaiting the Egyptian blaze!

As is widely understood, after the fireworks and the impressive cleanup of the piles of debris and garbage by the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, itself a brilliantly creative footnote to their main revolutionary message, there remains the extraordinarily difficult task of generating ex nihil a new governing process based on human rights, the will of the Egyptian people, and a mighty resolve to guard sovereign rights against the undoubted plots of canny external actors scared by and unhappy with the revolution, seeking to rollback the outcome, and seeking above all by any means the restoration of Mubarakism without Mubarak.  The plight of the Egyptian poor must also be placed on the top of the new political agenda, which will require not only control of food and fuel prices, but the construction of an equitable economy that gives as much attention to the distribution of the benefits of growth as to GNP aggregate figures. Unless the people benefit, economic growth is a subsidy for the rich, whether Egyptian or foreign.

Short of catastrophic imaginings, if interpreted as warnings may forestall their actual occurrence, there are immediate concerns: it seemed necessary to accept the primacy of the Egyptian military with the crucial task of overseeing the transition, but is it a trustworthy custodian of the hopes and aspirations of the revolution? Its leadership was deeply implicated in the corruption and the brutality of the Mubarak regime, kept in line over the decades by being willing accomplices of oppressive rule and major beneficiaries of its corrupting largess. How much of this privileged role is the military elite ready to renounce voluntarily out of its claimed respect for and deference to the popular demand for an end to exploitative governance in a society languishing in mass poverty? Will the Egyptian military act responsibly to avoid the destructive effects of a second uprising against the established order? It should also not be forgotten that the Egyptian officer corps was mainly trained in the United States, and that coordination at the highest level between American military commanders and their Egyptian counterparts has already been resumed at the highest levels, especially with an eye toward maintaining ‘the cold peace’ with Israel.  These nefarious connections help explain why Mubarak was viewed for so long as a loyal ally and friend in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh, and why the inner counsels of these governments are reacting with concealed panic at the outburst of emancipatory politics throughout the region. I would suppose that these old relationships are being approached with emergency zeal to ensure that however goes the transition to Egyptian democracy it somehow exempts wider controversial regional issues from review and change that would reflect the values that animated the revolutionary risings in Tunisia and Egypt. These values would suggest solidarity with movements throughout the Middle East to end autocratic governance, oppose interventions and the military presence of the United States, solve the Israel/Palestine conflict in accordance with international law rather than ‘facts on the ground,’ and seek to make the region a nuclear free zone (including Israel) reinforced by a treaty framework establishing peaceful relations and procedures of mutual security.  It does not require an expert to realize that such changes consistent with the revolutionary perspectives that prevailed in Egypt and Tunisia would send shivers down the collective spines of autocratic leaderships throughout the region, as well as being deeply threatening to Israel and to the grand strategy of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union, that has been determined to safeguard vital economic and political interests in the region by reliance on the military and paramilitary instruments of hard power.

At stake if the revolutionary process continues, is Western access to Gulf oil reserves at prices and amounts that will not roil global markets, as well as the loss of lucrative markets for arms sales. Also at risk is the security of Israel so long as its government refuses to allow the Palestinians to have an independent and viable state within 1967 borders that accords with the two state solution long favored by the international community, and long opposed by Israel. Such a Palestinian state existing with full sovereign rights on all territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 War would mean an immediate lifting of the Gaza blockade, withdrawal of occupying Israeli forces from the West Bank, dismantling of the settlements (including in East Jerusalem), allowing Palestinian refugees to exercise some right of return, and agreeing to either the joint administration of Jerusalem or a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. It should be understood that such a peace was already implicit in Security Council Resolution 242 that was unanimously adopted in 1967, proposed again by Arab governments in 2002 with a side offer to normalize relations with Israel, and already accepted by the Palestinian National Council back in 1988 and reaffirmed a few years ago by Hamas as the basis for long-term peaceful coexistence. It should be understood that this Palestinian state claims only 22% of historic Palestine, and is a minimal redress of justice for an occupation that has lasted almost 44 years (recall that the UN partition plan gave the Palestinians 45% in 1947, and that seemed unfair at the time), and an expulsion that has resulted in an outrageously prolonged refugee status for millions of Palestinians that derives from the nakba of 1948. But until now, even this minimal recognition of the Palestinian right of self-determination has been unacceptable to Israel as most recently evidenced in the Palestine Papers that provide evidence that even when the Palestine Authority agreed to extravagant Israeli demands for retention of most settlements, including in East Jerusalem, and abandonment of any provision for the return of Palestinian refugees, the Israelis were not interested, and walked away. The question now is whether the revolutionary challenges posed by the outcome in Egypt will lead to a new realism in Tel Aviv, or more of the same, which would mean a maximal effort to rollback the revolutionary gains of the Egyptian people, or if that proves impossible, then at least do whatever possible to contain the regional enactment of revolutionary values.

Does this seemingly amateur (in the best sense of the word) movement in Egypt have the sustaining energy, historical knowledge, and political sophistication to ensure that the transition process fulfills revolutionary expectations? So many past revolutions, fulsome with promise, have faltered precisely at this moment of apparent victory. Will the political and moral imagination of Egyptian militancy retain enough energy, perseverance, and vision to fulfill these requirements of exceptional vigilance to keep the circling vultures at bay? In one sense, these revolutions must spread beyond Tunisia and Egypt or these countries will be surrounded and existing in a hostile political neighborhood. Some have spoken of the Turkish domestic model as helpfully providing an image of a democratizing Egypt and Tunisia, but its foreign policy under AKP leadership is equally, if not more so, suggestive of a foreign policy worthy of these revolutions and their aftermath, and essential for a post-colonial Middle East that finally achieves its ‘second liberation.’  The first liberation was to end colonial rule. The second liberation, initiated by the Iranian Revolution in its first phase, seeks the end of geopolitical hegemony, and this struggle has barely begun.

How dangerous is the prospect of intervention by the United States, Gulf countries, and Israel, probably not in visible forms, but in all likelihood in the form of maneuvers carried out from beneath the surface? The foreign policy interests of these governments and allied corporate and financial forces are definitely at serious risk. If the Egyptian revolutionary process unfolds successfully in Egypt during the months ahead it will have profound regional effects that will certainly shake the foundations of the old post-colonial regional setup, not necessarily producing revolutions elsewhere but changing the balance in ways that enhance the wellbeing of the peoples and diminish the role of outsiders. These effects are foreseeable by the adversely affected old elites, creating a strong, if not desperate, array of external incentives to derail the Egyptian Revolution by relying on many varieties of counterrevolutionary obstructionism. It is already evident that these elites with help from their many friends in the mainstream media are already spreading falsehoods about the supposed extremism and ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood that seem intended to distract public attention, discredit the revolution, and build the basis for future interventionary moves, undertaken in the name of combating extremism, if not  justified as counter-terrorism.

It is correct that historically revolutions have swerved off course by succumbing to extremist takeovers. In different ways this happened to both the French and Russian Revolutions, and more recently to the Iranian Revolution. Extremism won out, disappointing the democratic hopes of the people, leading to either the restoration of the old elites or to new forms of violence, oppression, and exploitation. Why? Each situation is unique and original, but there are recurrent patterns. During the revolutionary struggle opposition to the old regime is deceptively unifying, obscuring real and hidden tensions that emerge later to fracture the spirit and substance of solidarity. Soon after the old order collapses, or as here partially collapses, the spirit of unity is increasingly difficult to maintain. Some fear a betrayal of revolutionary goals by the untrustworthy managers of transition. Others fear that reactionary and unscrupulous elements from within the ranks of the revolution will come to dominate the democratizing process. Still others fear that all will be lost unless an all out struggle against internal and external counterrevolutionary plots, real and imagined, is launched immediately. And often in the confusing and contradictory aftermath of revolution, some or all of these concerns have a foundation in fact.

The revolution does need to be defended against its real enemies, which as here, definitely exist, as well to avoid imagined enemies that produce tragic implosions of revolutionary processes. It is in this atmosphere of seeking to consolidate revolutionary gains that the purity of the movement is at risk, and is tested in a different manner than when masses of people were in the streets defying a violent crackdown. The danger in Egypt is that the inspirational nonviolence that mobilized the opposition can in the months ahead either be superseded by a violent mentality or succumb to outside and inside pressures by being too passive or overly trusting in misleading reassurances. Perhaps, this post-revolutionary interval between collapse of the old and consolidation of the new poses the greatest challenge that has yet faced this exciting movement led by young leaders who are just now beginning to emerge from the shadows of anonymity. All persons of good will should bless their efforts to safeguard all that has been so far gained, and to move forward in solidarity toward a sustainably humane and just future for their society, their region, and their world.