The New Arab Revolutions
Almost nine months have now passed since the inaugural chapter in Tunisia in December 2010 of the "new Arab revolts," which came to be called "the Arab Spring." Spring has now passed, and summer is nearly over. Where is the phenomenon of transnational Muslim protest headed? The time has come to draw up a balance sheet (with casualty figures derived from Wikipedia.)
Throughout the process, I have chosen to refer in my comments to the series of upheavals as a "Muslim" rather than an "Arab" movement, since in my judgment, and that of numerous other observers, the ultimate decision about political reform in the Arab and Muslim countries will be made in Iran, which is not an Arab land, but which has been the stage, since 2009, for the most articulate democratic alternatives to Islamist rule.
Most importantly, the Iranian Green Movement in 2009 and the "new Arab revolts" share an important and apparently enduring aspect that is external to them. From the beginning of the street marches in Iran after the stolen election that "reaffirmed" the dictatorship of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the most recent, bloody conflicts in Syria, Western media and expert strata have groped their way from incident to incident. They offer accurate reporting, in most cases, but seemingly lack the capacity to forecast developments or even to analyze each phase in the progress of events.
The problem in understanding the "new Arab revolts" has to do with revolutions in general, not with local history, Arab culture or Islam. To comprehend what has happened or continues to occur in each of these countries, knowledge of the Middle East, Arabic language and culture, or Islamic history is insufficient. To understand revolutionary crises, one must know the history of past revolutions, included those that were victorious, those that were defeated, and those that produced distorted social phenomena – typically militaristic and nationalistic dictatorships – which failed to embody or fulfill the original aspirations of the insurrectionary people.
Let us therefore review the history, so far, of the "new Arab revolts."
Tunisia. Population: 10.6 million. The first of the "new Arab revolts" now appears to have definitively ended. The abuse of power by ex-president Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country, backed by a state party, the so-called Constitutional Democratic Rally, since 1987, had been largely ignored in the rest of the world, but was deeply felt by ordinary Tunisians. In this regard, the "trigger" of the revolution, a self-immolation by Muhammad Bouazizi, a 26-year old street vendor of fruit and vegetables who had been harassed by a (female) government official for lacking a seller's permit, expressed Tunisian reality vividly. That is, the impulse to resist, and the solidarity it evoked, emerged from the most down-trodden stratum of Tunisian society, a social sector invisible to the foreign banks, corporations, diplomats, and numerous tourists who "saw" a stable, pro-Western, Tunisian façade.
Ben Ali resigned in January 2011 and fled to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia was promised elections for a constituent assembly, with balloting to take place in October of this year. Strikes and demonstrations have sustained a general sense of confusion and drift in the country's course. Tunisia appears to be waiting for a new dictator rather than to be involved actively in the construction of a new political order. In this regard, it resembles Mexico and China after their revolutions in 1910-11, which resulted in competition among warlords and, finally, the reestablishment, in a differing idiom, of authoritarian rule. Some 224 people are said to have died in the Tunisian revolution.
Egypt. Population: 82 million. As the largest country demographically among the Arab societies, the ancient land of Egypt flatters itself into the belief that it leads the Arab world. I and many of my colleagues disagree; we view Saudi Arabia, with fewer than a third of Egypt's population but with the religious authority conferred by sovereignty over the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as the key state for the Arab future. Nevertheless, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, for a time, appeared as the epitome of the "new Arab revolts." The basically nonviolent character of the anti-Mubarak movement, the defection of the army to the side of the people, and the prominence assumed, if temporarily, by "bourgeois" entrepreneurial figures like Wael Ghonim, Middle East marketing director for Google, seemed to indicate that Egypt would follow in the path of past democratic revolutions in the West. That is, it would form political parties based on rational economic interests, hold clean elections, and install a permanent and stable civilian government.
So far, however, few of these promises appear close to realization. With the resignation of Mubarak in February, the military, which has been the de facto ruler of Egypt since 1952, assumed control. The trial of Mubarak, his sons Gamal and Alaa, and seven of their cohort, began last week (on August 3) and has, it seems, revived confidence in the army as a national arbiter. But mass protests continue in Tahrir Square, notwithstanding action by the army to suppress them, earlier last week, at the beginning of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. Elections have been scheduled for November but, as also in Tunisia, the picture has already darkened with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as a major contender for authority, with a more-radical Wahhabi trend, inspired by the ultra-fundamentalist, exclusivist, extremist form of Islam originating in Saudi Arabia, already appearing alongside the MB as a competitor accusing the MB of excessive compromise.
In Tunisia, the expansive MB branch is known as the An-Nahda or Renaissance party, and has been legalized; in Egypt it has launched a Freedom and Justice Party. Both appear strongly influenced by the three-time electoral success of the neo-fundamentalist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. Like Tunisia, Egypt may simply be waiting for the army to bring forth a military dictator as a successor to Mubarak, Sadat, and Gamal Abd Al-Nasser before him. The Egyptian Revolution claimed the lives of around 850 people.
Libya. Population: 6.6 million. In both Tunisia and Egypt, revolution caused the quick removal of the dictators. Libya, with Tunisia to its west and Egypt on its eastern border, was not so favored. Its people were obviously inspired, almost from the beginning of the convulsions in the neighboring states, to rise up. Libya was rapidly divided along the lines seen in classic civil wars, with forces of the dictatorship concentrated in the capital, Tripoli, to the west, and an oppositional center in the eastern metropolis, Benghazi. NATO acted to quarantine Al-Qadhdhafi and has provided military and political support to the revolutionary movement, yet has dithered in the face of claims by Al-Qadhdhafi that his opponents are supporters of Al-Qaida's local arm, "Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb." But as reported on August 4, Al-Qadhdhafi's son Saif-ul-Islam Al-Qadhdhafi has declared that the regime will unite with Islamist extremists in the face of the NATO intervention.
Whatever the outcome in Libya, its civil war marked the end of the period of "social networking" and uplifting rhetoric in the "new Arab revolts." In Libya, the old – very old – model of revolution last visible in Spain during the civil war of 1936-39, with unavoidable polarization of the populace and confrontation between armed forces and improvised militias, reappeared.
Libya offers, however, a concrete solution absent in Tunisia and Egypt: further Western recognition and support for the revolutionaries. In the Libyan civil war, about 13,000 people had died by the middle of June, totaling combatant and civilian casualties on both sides, and including a very small number of NATO personnel.
Bahrain. Population: 1.2 million, including 235,000 "non-nationals." The civic uprising that began in Bahrain in February has been the least violent of the major chapters in the "new Arab revolts," perhaps because its main demands have focused on greater political rights for the overwhelming majority of Bahraini subjects who are Shia Muslims, adhering to the main Shia "Twelver" sect, named for its recognition of 12 imams. Sunni king Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa is supported by Saudi Arabia and a Gulf Cooperation Council intervention force. Aside from the repression of demonstrators and destruction of the "Pearl" monument, located at a traffic roundabout that had been a favored location for protests, the main action by the monarchy to end the movement has been the bulldozing of Shia mosques, which the government claims were unlicensed.
The political convulsion in Bahrain resembles similar outbursts in the Soviet-occupied countries of Poland, Hungary, and the former Czechoslovakia during the late Cold War. A large domestic majority feels itself victimized by imposition of a minority ruling caste that appears to be directed from outside the country. But, as in the mentioned former Soviet satellites, it is unlikely that Bahrain's politics will change through violent revolution. Even if occasional clashes end in bloodshed and similar tragedies, Bahrain will likely produce a negotiated solution. The Bahrain events had resulted in 26 deaths by mid-July.
Yemen. Population: 24 million. This small, culturally distinctive, and strategically important state on the southwestern coast of the Arabian peninsula also has a significant Shia population, belonging to the Zaydi sect (who recognize five imams, rather than seven) and accounting for up to 40 percent of the population. It has also become the area to which the Saudi kingdom has "deported" its Al-Qaida activists, which treat Yemen as the headquarters of "Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula" (AQAP). In contrast with the confused situation in Libya, it is clear that AQAP is fighting against dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was badly injured in a bomb attack on June 3 and now remains in Saudi Arabia.
Again like Mexico and China a century ago, but more so, Yemen appears to have succumbed to chaos, in which no clear predictions about the future may be made. Certainly, the influence of AQAP in the country makes it a significant component in the overall panorama of the "new Arab revolts." Yemen may most probably collapse in an extended period of "Lebanonization" or, to borrow the recent phrase of a UN official, Jamal Bin Omar, "Somalization." Still, to emphasize, long before Lebanon or Somalia fell apart, similar circumstances afflicted non-Muslim countries. Numbers of dead in Yemen are unclear, but probably reached 1,200 by the end of June.
Syria. Population: 22.5 million. If Libya provided the first turning point in the "new Arab revolts," when "social networking" gave way to armed struggle, the battle for the future of Syria has seen the second critical juncture. The Ba'athist dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad has pursued, since the demonstrations that began in January were transformed into a full-fledged rebellion in March, an "ambiguous" rejection of dialogue and a brutal repression of his opponents. By contrast with Libya, however, Syria has failed to create a recognizable front for combat between the contending parties, and, most importantly, unlike Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, Syria has as yet experienced no major dissent within its army, from the line dictated by Al-Assad. This is understood easily: the officer corps of the Syrian Army is composed overwhelmingly of members of the Alawite sect of Islam, an extremely heterodox Shia trend that accounts for about 3.5 million people, or 15 percent of Syria's population.
But if there is one rule that applies in every successful overturn of an oppressive regime, it is that the top ranks of the armed forces must split before the old order can fall. Given the collective Alawite identification of the Syrian officer corps, the army leadership has more incentive to unite in its own defense than to side with the majority, who are Sunnis. In addition, the Ba'athist-Alawite political apparatus has protected other large ethnic and religious minorities in the country, including Christians (around 10 percent), and Kurds and Armenians (totaling about 10 percent, intersecting with the Christian group). In contrast with Libya, a real armed contest in Syria could quickly become a sectarian war, or true "Lebanonization;" Lebanon was, after all, once part of Syria, and shares its cultural paradigm. In addition, within the Sunni majority in Syria, as in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is strong – reflecting the "prestige of martyrdom" the MB gained in the massacre of Hama in 1982. The recent atrocities of the Al-Assad regime were responsible, by the beginning of August, for at least 2,000 dead among members of the state agencies of repression and the unarmed populace.
The conclusions that may be drawn from examining the rise and fall of "the new Arab revolts" are not encouraging. The "new Arab revolts" have entered their decline. On all sides, means to democracy have given way to a void, which, except in Libya, is likely to be filled by new dictators, radical Islamists, or long periods of unrelenting violence. There are many reasons for this, not least the absence of stable entrepreneurial and laboring classes that can form classic political parties of the kinds that led successful revolutionary movements in Europe. To some, this "leaderless" quality, best represented by the role of the "coordinating committees" in Syria, may promise a new revolutionary democracy. Yet such tendencies cannot but prove weak against the warlord trend that may attempt a new Nasserism, similar to the populism that swept the Arab world in the 1950s. Disintegrated party-states may also become "mafia states" similar to those found in Russia, Belarus, and Serbia since the end of Communism. After Libya, the chance for peaceful transitions to democracy in the "new Arab revolts" was doomed; with the Syrian example, the opportunity for any kind of real change in the Arab lands may turn out to be equally hopeless.
Related Topics: Iran, Kurdish Islam, Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim-Christian Relations, Saudi Arabia, Shiism, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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