Taking Stock of the Arab Revolutions

March 17 marked ninety days since Mohammad Bouazizi set himself ablaze in the southern city of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia.  Protesting against the authorities, who insulted him and seized his sole means of sustenance, Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-immolation sparked demonstrations all over the country that ended with Tunisia’s despotic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing the country on January 14.

The downfall of Ben Ali’s regime was itself the spark for the Egyptian revolution, which erupted eleven days later. By February 11, the Egyptian regime had also collapsed when its head, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to resign in disgrace after much obstinate and arrogant behavior.

Within days, Mubarak’s fall set off or accelerated several uprisings across the Arab world, with people demanding the downfall of several regimes, especially in Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya.

It is remarkable how in a relatively short period of time- three months- the entire Arab World has been transformed from a static and bleak political status quo to a dynamic and lively force for far-reaching change. Hence, it is prudent to take the time to assess the political sea change across the Arab world in the past few months.

Since the victory of the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, many of the demands pressed by the pro-democracy forces have been met. In Egypt, a new government has been formed and led by Dr. Esam Sharaf. As a former Transportation Minister years ago he broke ranks with the Mubarak regime over corruption and cover-ups. He was also one of the early supporters of the revolution, joining the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and has since been widely supported by the people.

Dozens of former ministers, corrupt businessmen, and highly ranked security officers have been arrested and indicted on corruption and other serious charges, including human rights abuses and torture. Many billions of dollars have been frozen, including accounts controlled by the Mubarak family and many of his cronies, as they are investigated for political and financial corruption. Many have also been placed under house arrest, or prevented from leaving the country including the Mubarak family.

The notorious state security apparatus responsible for turning the country into a vicious police state has been totally dismantled and many of its officers have been arrested or investigated. In addition, many other constitutional and political reforms have been enacted, including plans for new parliamentary and presidential elections and the drafting of a new constitution.

Similarly, the Tunisian revolution forced the appointment of a new cabinet led by the popularly admired Beji Caid-Essebsi, who is known for his integrity and commitment to democracy. Not only were the brutal state security services totally abolished but the former ruling party was also outlawed and many of its officials indicted on serious corruption charges. Moreover, a new democratic constitution and new elections will take place later this summer.

Many other civil and political rights such as freedom of the press, assembly, and formation of parties, unions and civic organizations have also been restored and widely enjoyed by the peoples of Egypt and Tunisia. Although they take pride in their newly attained democratic freedoms, they understand full well that there are many challenges facing them, especially from the remnants of the former regimes. (See my article How Democracy Could Be Hijacked.)

The February 17 Libyan revolution against the vicious forty-one year rule of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi was as popular as the other Arab uprisings. Although it started as massive peaceful protests, it quickly turned to an armed struggle because of the nature of the regime. Gaddafi built his power base around the establishment of several armed battalions controlled by (and even named after) his sons and close relatives. In addition, he also imported thousands of mercenaries to fight his people and spread terror to crush the revolution.

Many former supporters of the regime broke ranks with Gaddafi once he started bombing and killing his people. Hundreds of ministers, ambassadors, judges, military officers, and other state officials have joined ranks with the revolution. The National Transitional Council (NTC), led by former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, was established to lead the revolution and organize the resistance against the regime. In addition, the major Libyan tribes have since supported the effort to overthrow the government.

But despite Gaddafi’s military superiority and willingness to use all the means at his disposal, the revolutionaries are still able to fight back.

As the NTC was able to receive Arab and international recognition, the U.N. Security Council passed several resolutions that imposed a no-fly zone, froze much of the regime’s assets overseas, and imposed a travel ban on Gaddafi, his sons and cronies, while an investigation by the International Criminal Court has opened into allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity.

But the primary challenge for the opposition is in maintaining the real goals of the revolution, namely the establishment and insistence of an independent, free and democratic Libya, despite all foreign interference and regional pressures.

Since February 3, huge, peaceful demonstrations have been engulfing Yemen against the thirty-three year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The protests in Yemen are very similar to the huge protests of the Egyptian revolution.

Millions of people have been demanding the departure of Saleh. All opposition parties, major tribes, civil society organizations, unions, universities, and major religious figures such as Abdulmajid Al-Zandani have joined the protests. Even dozens of ruling party members in the parliament, military officers, and other officials have resigned in protest of the brutality of the security forces.

Similar to Libya’s Gaddafi, the Saleh regime has been sustained by two major power bases, the security and army units led by his son, nephews, and other close relatives, as well as by the fierce loyalty of major leaders of his tribe. But despite hundreds of casualties, the protesters are determined to continue their peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins until the regime collapses.

Saleh has made overtures similar to Mubarak in Egypt which proved unsuccessful, including pledging to step down at the end of his term in 2013, holding new elections, and forming a national unity government (see my article When Egypt’s Revolution was at the Crossroads.) As Yemen increasingly follows the Egyptian course, it is only a matter of time before the regime’s downfall is realized.

Bahrain, the tiny island in the Persian Gulf, has been in turmoil since February 14. The popular protests against King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifah have been led by the major opposition groups of the repressed Shi’ite majority. If the Egyptians were tired of Mubarak’s thirty-year rule, the Bahraini majority has been suffocated by the Al-Khalifa family’s 230-year tenure.

The peaceful protests by tens of thousands were met initially by security, then army, crackdowns. As casualties mounted, the demands of the protesters escalated from calling for a change of government, to a constitutional monarchy, and then to demanding total regime change (from a monarchy to a republic). As a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the threat against the Bahraini regime was considered a threat against all the other regional monarchies. Despite a promise by the other GCC countries (led by Saudi Arabia) of ten billion dollars in economic aid, the protesters declared that their main demand was centered on attaining their political rights not easing economic difficulties.

By the week of March 14 over two thousand soldiers from Saudi Arabia, U.A.E, and Kuwait crossed the border and joined the Bahraini security forces in attacking thousands of protesters in Pearl Square. The onslaught resulted in numerous casualties and widespread arrests, which promised to worsen the showdown between the people and the regime.

Other GCC countries, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia, also faced several protests and demands for political reforms. They, too, were met with security crackdowns and economic promises. The Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, promised his people economic relief close to $37 Billion, while the GCC countries promised the Sultan of Oman $10 Billion in economic aid.

Despite the transparent attempt to bribe their populations, hundreds of notable individuals in the GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.A.E, have petitioned their rulers to enact real political and democratic reforms before it is too late.

Meanwhile, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Morocco’s King Muhammad VI moved quickly to abort the protest movements in their countries. In Jordan, the King dismissed the government and held talks with major opposition leaders and tribes in an attempt to appease them. But large protests in the streets have been taking place on a weekly basis, demanding political reforms based on transforming Jordan into a constitutional monarchy. In Morocco, the King promised major constitutional and democratic reforms by early summer.

Meanwhile, major popular protests taking place in Algeria since early February have faced harsh repression, including beatings and arrests by the security forces. In an attempt to stem the tide, the regime promised future political reforms, but more importantly, it lifted the state of emergency that has been imposed in the country since 1991. This infamous law was used as a pretext to commit immense human rights abuses and stifle political activity by the opposition in the country. Similarly, upon major demonstrations across the country, the president of Mauritania promised to offer his people major political and economic reforms.

Several nascent protests by few hundred people in Syria were swiftly met with crackdown and arrests by the security apparatus. The country has been ruled by the minority Alawite sect since 1970, and placed under a state of emergency since 1963. But the extent of the vioence of the regime, when it killed over 20,000 during the 1982 popular uprising in the city of Hamah, is still fresh in the minds of the Syrian people. Meanwhile, the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad offered limited economic relief to the poor, pardoned a small number of political prisoners, and pledged to pursue political reforms.

In Sudan, the opposition has been mobilizing for a major showdown with the government of Omar Al-Bashir in light of its monopoly on power, the break-up of the country in the south, and the potential split of Darfur in the West. They warned that unless a national unity government is established soon, a major uprising could sweep the country.

In Lebanon after the collapse of the pro-Western government of Saad Hariri, the new political majority led by Hezbollah has been trying to form a government that would address the economic, security, and political challenges facing the country. Meanwhile, a new movement led by the youth has been created. Its slogan is, “the people want the fall of sectarianism.” How successful this movement will be in the face of a sectarian system that has been entrenched in society since 1943 is open to question.

But the sectarian system created in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in Iraq is less than eight years old. People in Iraq of all ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations have taken to the streets to challenge the government’s sectarian-based composition and protest the widespread corruption of the political parties. They have been met with deadly force by the security apparatus of the American-backed government without a whiff from their patrons in Washington, London, or other Western capitals. Perhaps a new, non-sectarian and inclusive movement out of the mess in Iraq could be established as a result of the new revolutionary spirit in the Arab world.

In the occupied Palestinian territories, the people’s main demand has been “the people want the end of the division,” in a direct reference to the split between Fatah and Hamas, or the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank led by Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas government in Gaza led by Ismail Hanniyeh.

In an attempt to corner Hamas, Abbas offered to travel to Gaza and meet with Hanniyyeh to form a new national unity government comprised of technocrats, if Hamas would be willing to schedule parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. While Hamas welcomed the initiative, the basis of the dispute, which is the Oslo process, the collaboration of the PA with the Israeli occupation, and the marginalization of the Palestinian Diaspora were totally ignored.

Soon the slogan sweeping the occupied Palestinian territories will be “the people demand the end of occupation.” In this instance, the world would be put to the test to see whether it would again ignore or seriously deal with the expected Israeli violence and repressive measures against the upcoming Palestinian uprising against the occupation. But in light of the enormous regional strategic shifts in favor of democratic forces across Arab societies, Western countries would have to take definitive stands in favor of justice for the Palestinians if they want to maintain their credibility and protect their interests.

How far reaching such reforms the GCC countries, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Syria, Sudan, Iraq and other countries are willing to put forward will most certainly depend on how much the people are willing to sacrifice and persevere. But an important indicator in the triumph of any revolution is the depth and development of the national character in society above all else.

In Tunisia, Egypt and the Palestinian territories such national character is well established. In these societies the sense of belonging to the country -with its developed civil society institutions- is deeply engraved in the psyche of its people. On the other hand, in societies where the development of a national character is overshadowed by stronger affiliation to the tribe, ethnicity, or sectarian divide, such powerful attachments might slow down or even trump revolutionary zeal for real change. The interaction between these forces will determine the success or failure of each uprising.

But clearly there is a domino effect in the background. The victory in Tunisia sparked the Egyptian revolution. Change
in Libya would surely accelerate any drastic changes in Algeria, which would in turn influence Morocco and Mauritania. Likewise, if any of the GCC countries become a constitutional monarchy, then other neighboring countries and Jordan might be forced to follow suit for the royal families to survive.

But throughout these spectacular revolutions and popular protests the only consistent policy of the West has been its inconsistency. From France’s subtle support (and American stillness) of Ben Ali’s regime, to the flip-flop of the American administration and the European Union in the case of Mubarak’s, the rhetoric was too confused, too late, or did not match the required actions. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited Egypt, the youth leaders of the revolution refused to meet with her citing her early remarks of support to the Mubarak regime.

Likewise, the different policies of each Western government toward Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain are quite telling. On the one hand stern and tough messages are given to Gaddafi, while looking the other way in the other cases even though harsh military crackdown was the order of the day in most instances. Unfortunately, for most countries economic and strategic interests trump declared values and ideals.

But who would have thought that all these colossal changes across the Arab World would have taken place in less than three months!

The speedy downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes have raised the hopes of millions across the region (and even worldwide) that the demise of the remaining autocratic regimes across the Arab world was imminent. But the slowdown in the progress or frustrations in tangible achievements of the various protests, uprisings, and revolutions should be put into perspective.

Great revolutions that bring genuine political change are historical episodes that demand enormous efforts and sacrifices, but above all necessitate patience and perseverance, and take months, and sometimes even years, to achieve their goals.

One of the ultimate lessons of history is that when faced with the determination of their people, tyrants and dictators end up in its dustbin. Which is exactly what the Mahatma meant when he consoled his people during the darkest days of their struggle against British imperialism, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall –think of it, always.”

ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at alamin1919@gmail.com


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