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Many faces of Arab Spring

February 13, 2012

“A THING long expected,” Mark Twain noted, “takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes.” The yearning of the Arab masses for self-determination, democracy and human rights has a long history stretching back to the Ottomans, the European colonial rule in North Africa and the British and French mandates following the First World War.

The anti-colonial struggle often led to Arab socialist regimes and not multiparty democracy. The Arab people that resisted republicanism witnessed consolidation of strong dynastic rule.

The protests that began in Tunisia in January 2011 and quickly spread to several Arab states were hailed in highly romantic terms. The original clichés still figure in the international discourse on the changing political landscape in the Arab world but its glowing vistas stand darkened by the post-Qadhafi chaos in Libya, the conflict in Syria, the collapse of the state in Yemen, the uncertainties of Bahrain and the unresolved political and economic issues in Egypt.

The Arab Spring has been no exception to the fact that revolutions are prone to unintended deflections of course. Arab struggles have historically suffered from a deterministic mix of internal contradictions and foreign interventions. First, the affluent Arab states built counter-revolutionary dykes against the rising tide with limited reforms and generous spending of oil revenues on instant welfare schemes. Secondly, external interference came in a concerted western effort to control and redirect the processes of change by diplomatic and military means.

The indigenous dynamics of the Arab Awakening were unmistakable. The UNDP report on Human Development and Poverty in the Arab states (March 2000) documented how the Arab region had lagged behind other regions in moving towards participatory governance by missing out on waves of democratisation that swept across Latin America, East Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the 1980s and early 1990s. There was also a conspicuous failure to translate economic development into social development with most indices being disappointing.

A decade later, the scene was even more ominous. Leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had been in power for 25 to 40 years; their authoritarian rule more intolerant of dissent and their political institutions more stagnant than ever before. In Syria, the long rule of Hafez al-Assad had been followed by his son Bashar al-Assad assuming power. Unexpectedly, Bashar al-Assad failed to reform the state, partly because of the reluctance of senior members of the ruling Alawite clan to take risks when the West held a sword of Damocles over Syria, the closest regional ally of Iran.

None of the Arab leaders seriously addressed the deleterious effects of the neo-liberal economics adopted under western advice. As Soumaya Ghannoushi pointed out in the Guardian in March 2011, millions had suffered as state-owned firms (67 per cent of firms in Tunisia; more than 50 per cent in Egypt) were privatised and sold to foreign investors and their local partners.

Ghannoushi identified the upsurge as a rebellion as much against political authoritarianism as against the economic model imposed by the IMF, the World Bank and the European Union. The aging rulers, in particular Hosni Mubarak, also faced simmering discontent because of the failure of their conciliatory Israel policy.

Against this backdrop, western powers can achieve only limited success in redirecting the Arab upsurge to their advantage. President Sarkozy began by offering French assistance to the then Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to put down the protests. Washington made pro-Mubarak noises. Once the West comprehended the scale of the uprising, it switched to the lexicon of freedom and liberation.

The climax of this role change was Libya where France and Britain, with Barack Obama leading from behind, deftly converted the UN Security Council resolution 1973, passed in the name of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), into a mandate for a massive and sustained assault on Muammar Qadhafi. Not much is heard of this doctrine now that Libya is ravaged by disparate militias fighting for turf and profit.

Tunisia was a relative success but the Egyptian revolution continues to be characterised by surprises, especially for the West. There was no chaos as the armed forces led by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi stepped in to ensure stability and the military’s pre-eminence in Egypt’s polity. Since then, radical activists have continued to agitate against the military’s interim rule as they are fearful of it influencing the presidential election and the new constitution.

The other unforeseen development in Egypt is the phenomenal success of Islamist parties in parliamentary elections: the Muslim Brotherhood participating as the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) bagged 47 per cent of seats; the new rightist Salafist Nour Party took another 25 per cent seats. The traditional liberal parties fared badly.

Till the other day, the moderate Muslim Brotherhood seemed ready, much to the chagrin of the secular protesters, to accept the army’s dominance till June. In a remarkable shift, it has risked tension with it by demanding that parliament form a new coalition government to replace the prime minister and the cabinet.

Egypt’s politics is complicated by a notable economic downturn: sharp fall in foreign investment; shrinking of foreign exchange reserves from $36bn in January 2011 to the current $10bn; rising unemployment; double-digit inflation; and a steep drop in tourism revenue. Ironically, the military has run into difficulties with the US that is unabashedly leveraging economic assistance to gain political influence.

Nothing defines the complexity of the Arab Awakening better than Syria where all the sub-texts are heading for a bloody denouement. The regime used gratuitous force against demonstrators in Latakia and Deraa more than a year ago triggering off a spiral of ever-increasing violence by government and armed protesters. An emerging ‘Free Syrian Army’ may well become a conduit of external military interference.

Bashar al-Assad has lost support of Arab states and, no less significantly, of neighbouring Turkey. He now depends heavily on Russia and China that vetoed a Security Council resolution which might have conceivably created space for foreign intervention. Obviously, Syria needs a separate article that should also encompass the politics of influential oil-rich Arab states. This would be my next contribution to this newspaper.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and ambassador of Pakistan.