From Arab Spring to Sunni Spring?

A year ago the popular anger that grew into the Arab Spring was first ignited by an impoverished Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself after his cart, his sole means of feeding his family, was confiscated by police. Within days, pictures of protests in his home town sparked by his death were being watched by millions of Tunisians on the internet and satellite TV, and the police state that had ruled their country for so long had begun to crumble.

Twelve months later, the forward march of the Arab Spring movements remains unpredictable. Three autocratic regimes in North Africa have fallen – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – but it is unclear what will replace them. Three regimes east of Egypt remain embattled – Syria, Yemen and Bahrain – and are likely to be unstable for a long time to come.

It is becoming clear that the Arab world and the wider Middle East are facing a period of prolonged struggles for power that have not been witnessed since the 1960s. Some factors in the uprisings are common to all these insurrections – such as the decrepitude and corruption of the police states – but in other ways each country is distinct. In Libya, for instance, Gaddafi was defeated primarily by massive Nato intervention, so the anti-Gaddafi militias may not be strong enough to replace him. The conflict in Yemen has become a peculiar three-cornered fight between an authoritarian government, pro-democracy protesters and dissident, unsavoury political barons from within the elite.

The indeterminate outcomes reflect the fact that the protest movements in all countries have been coalitions of disparate elements. Islamists rubbed shoulders with secularists. Human rights lawyers made common cause with jihadis who had fought in Afghanistan. Such coalitions could scarcely have come together in the 1990s, when Islamists believed they could seize power on their own, and liberals and secularists were more frightened of fanatical Islam than they were of their dictatorial rulers.

Other fissures are opening within the dissident movement. “The Arab Spring is turning into the Islamic Spring,” a politician in Baghdad told me. He might have added that, for many Shia, it is looking ominously like a “Sunni Spring”, in which the Sunni take over in Damascus and the Shia are crushed in Bahrain.

In this sea of uncertainties some trends are becoming visible. The Arab world as a whole is for the moment weaker than it has been for a long time. But the Americans are not in a position to secure their position as the hegemonic power in the region because of their military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, their economic crisis and their support for Israel. Israel nervously looks forward to the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, but knows it will swap a known opponent for an unknown and possibly more dangerous successor. Worse, from the Israeli point of view, the past three years have seen Turkey and Egypt, the two most powerful states aside from itself in the region, cease to be its allies and become increasingly hostile. This is far more menacing for Israel than any overblown threat from Iran.

Will Turkey fill the power vacuum? Other powers, Western and Middle Eastern, are eager for the Turks to play a leading role in displacing Assad or balancing Iranian influence in Iraq because, in the words of the old saying, “it is a great job for somebody – somebody else”.

Looking back over the past year, the demise of so many of these police states has a spurious inevitability about it. Many had come to power in the 1960s or early 1970s in military coups with nationalist credentials. In Egypt, of course, the coup came much earlier, in 1952, in reaction to residual British imperial control and defeat by Israel. It is often forgotten today that these regimes were once able to justify their rule by creating powerful state machines, establishing national unity, or, as in the case of Libya and Iraq, nationalizing the oil industry and forcing up the price of oil.

But by about 1975 these military regimes had transmuted into police states, their ruling families monopolizing political and economic power. By the 1990s such rulers as the Mubaraks, Gaddafis and Ben Alis had become purely parasitic, their shift to neoliberal free market economics opening the door for crony capitalism exploiting local monopolies, whether it was luxury car imports in Tunisia or cigarettes in Iraq.

Much guff has been written about how the age of the internet and Facebook made the fall of these regimes just a matter of time. Like most influential misconceptions, there is a nugget of truth in this. Twenty years ago, Bouazizi’s defiant gesture and the protests that followed might not have been known to the rest of Tunisia because the government controlled the media. These days, state monopoly of information no longer exists.

Authoritarian governments in the Middle East relied on fear to hold power. But they were caught unaware when the beatings and killings they used to create this terror were made public on the internet and YouTube and provoked, rather than deterred, dissent. Thus, when the Syrian army crushed the Sunni uprising in Hama in 1982, killing an estimated 20,000 people, I saw no pictures of a single body or execution. Contrast this with Syria today, when almost every act of state violence is placed on YouTube within hours of it happening.

What changed in 2011 was not that beatings, torture and killings no longer instilled fear, but that governments now have to pay a much higher political price for using such methods. The internet was important in this, but what really transformed the rules of the game were the Arabic satellite channels, notably al-Jazeera. Only 7 per cent of the Libyan population had access to the internet, but availability of satellite TV was general. It was this breaking of the state monopoly of information that has been so crucial in weakening despotism in the Middle East. It is permanently shifting the balance of power from the palaces of the rulers to the people in the streets.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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