September 5, 2011 | Longitude - The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Arab Winter of Discontent

Ten months on, the Arab explosion has shown its truer – more nuanced and complicated – colors.
September 5, 2011 | Longitude - The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Arab Winter of Discontent

Ten months on, the Arab explosion has shown its truer – more nuanced and complicated – colors.

When a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in a remote corner of Tunisia, on December 17, 2010, his unprecedented gesture triggered a stormthat, nearly ten months later, is now commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring.”

In a region used to seeing angry young men strapping themselves with explosives and killing others to denounce the existing social and political order, Mohammad Bouaziz represented something new. The man earned a meager living by selling fruit and vegetables in the street – hardly the stuff of history. But in a society where governments rule by the whim of a despot, random acts of abuse by the law enforcement agencies are not just common– they are theway to perpetuate the existing order by keeping citizens in fear of their rulers. His earnings should hardly have awakened the avid interest of the local police, but Bouaziz was a target of their attention precisely because humiliating the weak fulfilled the purpose of affirming the existing order.

The police stripped him of his modest means of survival and humiliated him publicly in doing so. But instead of following other impoverished Arabs seeking fortune through immigration to Europe, or joining the ranks of an angry opposition enraged by injustice and inspired by amythical vision of a glorious Islamic past, Bouaziz took a page out of the Buddhist book of 1960s protests in South East Asia and set himself on fire very publicly, in front of the local governor’s palace.

Another youth had done the same 32 years before – Jan Palach had also imitated those Buddhist monks who were dying in a ball of fire they themselves lit to protest injustice and bear witness to the world. Palach had hoped to trigger rage among freedom lovers in the West as Soviet tanks were busy crushing the Prague Spring. Bouaziz probably emulated Palach to denounce the explosive mix of social, political and economic injustice that governed his society and that had sealed his fate. Having lost everything that mattered to him and his world – bothmeans of subsistence and his honor – Bouaziz set himself on fire.

Though few have noticed the parallel, it is perhaps because Bouaziz did what Palach had done in his day in the heart of Prague that the wave of popular protests his fate unleashed was called the Arab Spring.

Like Palach, Bouaziz died of his wounds and did not live to see the day when his desperate gesture bore fruit. But Tunisia’s authoritarian rule crumbled much more quickly than that of Communist Czechoslovakia. By mid-January 2011, the hated family rule of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali was over. The dictator and his close relations precipitously fled to a golden exile. The country, meanwhile, was in ferment as people’s power had ushered in a dramatic transition into the uncharted waters of democracy.

Tunisia is at the periphery of the Arab world. Despite the similar nature of despotic rule – a republic by name, but in fact a family dictatorship –Tunisia differed from other Arab nations in that it has a strong middle class, which is both educated and more Westernized than most of its counterparts; its female population is possibly the most emancipated in the Arab world; and it has nurtured a moderate form of Islam through its school system for years. Its cultural impact, on the other hand, was minimal and its political relevance was correspondingly marginal in the greater scheme of Arab things. In short, the rapid collapse of the Ben-Ali regime could have remained an isolated phenomenon. But it did not.

Within days of Ben-Ali’s precipitous departure from Tunis, thousands converged on Tahrir Square, in the heart of Cairo, and began to demonstrate against the regime. And again, within days, the tyrant stepped down and was gone. Bahrain was next, with peaceful protesters taking over Pearl Square in central Manama. Then came Libya, with protests engulfing Benghazi, and Yemen, with demonstrators clashing with security forces in Sana’a. Then by late March Syria exploded after the regime tortured a group of teenagers for the crime of drawing some graffiti in the dusty border town of al-Dara.

Tunisia could have been an exception – a freak weather occurrence in an otherwise tranquil climate. Egypt on the other hand is the center of the Arab world. Egypt is ten times more populous than Tunisia – the most populous country in the Arab world. Its cultural production – television, movies, literature just to name a few of its important exports – is unparalleled. Its intellectual influence is equally central to the unfolding Arab drama, as it has always been. Egypt is the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1950s, Egypt led the charge of Arab Nationalism under the charismatic leadership of Gamal Abd-elNasser, possibly still the most worshipped hero in the Arab pantheon of leaders alongside Salah Addin. The Brotherhood and Arab Nationalism remain, in Egypt and elsewhere, the most compelling narratives for political mobilization in the region.

There are other reasons for Egypt’s leadership. Thanks to its strategic alliance with the United States, Egypt has the strongest army among the Arab states. It is the only country that can match Turkey and Iran – both Middle Eastern powers with hegemonic ambitions and a tradition of rivalry with the Arab powers. In short, Egypt is a power to be reckoned with and the rest of the Arab world recognizes this. The Arab League’s headquarters have always been in Cairo, except for a short interlude in the 1980s, when the Arab world boycotted Egypt on account of its peace with Israel. But by 1989, the Arab League was back in Cairo, to signal the importance, in political terms, of Egypt.

Its place as the geographic, historical, political and cultural crossroads of the Arab world means that what happens in Egypt sets the tone for the rest of the region. Therefore, when Hosni Mubarak, the longest serving president of an Arab country,was forced to step down, it was clear that change was sweeping the entire Arab world and not just a remote and irrelevant province of its great expanse.

At first glance, there were important parallels between the two unfolding experiences of Egypt and Tunisia that suggested something was afoot. In both countries, the army refused to open fire on the crowds and quickly turned against the ruler, forcing him and his close associates out of power. Protesters adopted a non-violent approach and used internet-based social networks to coordinate their actions and their messages. In the early phases of both revolutions, those demonstrating appeared to be mostly young, middle class, urban dwellers who were at ease with the language of Western freedoms and adroit with the modern technology to spread it effectively.

It looked as if democracy’s third wave, which had missed the Arab world in the 1990’s,was finally hitting its shores. As events rapidly unfolded in Egypt, there was little time to determine the nature of this change aswell as the likely course of events. Protests spread like wildfire and by March, very few Arab countries had not seen street protests of some kind. It appeared as if the Arab world was indeed undergoing the same rapid, dramatic and to a large extent non-violent transition to democracy experienced across the former Communist Bloc in 1989. Like in Eastern Europe therewere and therefore would be differences – but the democratic demands and the collapse of the regimes, in the confused but exhilarating first weeks of the Arab Spring appeared as a foregone conclusion.

Yet it would be a mistake to characterize the current events shaking the Arab world as a unified phenomenon driven by strong popular demands for a transition to democracy in all 22 member states of the Arab League. Equally, it would be wrong to assume that the trajectories of the countries affected will be similar. Finally, there are important differences between 1989 and 2011, which tell us something about the Arab trajectory. These differences have momentous consequences for policy makers who will ignore themat their peril.

There are 22 members of the Arab League – which include such Arab countries as the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan.

The only six countries so far seriously affected by the unrest are: Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria, in chronological order. Change has occurred elsewhere, no doubt – Morocco has become a constitutional monarchy by referendum, and countries as diverse as Oman and Jordan have witnessed popular protests. Saudi Arabia too witnessed stirrings among its subjects but unlike Cairo or Damascus, most other capitals have remained remarkably quiet. The old order is still in place in most countries and it is increasingly doubtful that the toppling of Ben-Ali and Mubarak has paved the way for the removal of the House of Saud or the other Gulf principalities. And where a new order is taking shape, it is unclear whether it will adopt the ways of authentic democracy.

There is little doubt that Arab stirrings have to do with a demand, strongly felt across the region, to change the basic social contract between rulers and ruled – and the change must take the dignity of the ruled into account more than in the past. But dignity in the Arab world is not the same as individual freedoms in the Western world, and the coincidence of turmoil with steep increases of commodities’ prices should be awarning again drawing facile comparisons between Araby of 2011 and Eastern Europe in 1989. It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia rushed to nip any burgeoning protest in the bud by showering the Kingdom’s subjects with cash in order to cement the basic Saudi social contract – social tranquility and economic dignity in exchange for loyalty to the ruling family. Once the cash injection into Saudi social welfare (and a fair dose of repression) quickly quelled any revolutionary temptation, the Saudi coffers came to the rescue of other Arab regimes under pressure – Jordan to save the monarchy, Egypt to contain the looming collapse of its economy, and the social unrest that would inevitably follow.

If authoritarian regimes can buy domestic political tranquility by increasing welfare rather than by granting a greater degree of freedom, then clearly the demands of their angry subjects are of a different kind than the ones voiced by millions of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans in 1989.

This is then one fundamental difference between 1989 and 2011. In 1989, Eastern European nations sought to free themselves from the yoke of Soviet and Communist oppression and looked to democracy as the only viable political alternative to their predicament. The ideology behind the regimes they sought to topple was a spent force and had lost any of the appeal it may have had in the past. Transition to democracy was never in question and the switch from Warsaw Pact to NATO members, from communist dictatorships to liberal democracies, did not encounter robust domestic opposition, save maybe from the old communists, whose views were largely discredited.

But Arab protesters in 2011 bent on challenging the governing order of their societies do not necessarily envision the same trajectory of 1989 – a trajectory that led Eastern Europe to join theWest by embracing both its political traditions and its geopolitical alliances. Arab protesters wish to radically revise the existing order but it is not entirely clear that it is democracy they have in mind.

One area where the parallel may hold is foreign policy. The foreign policy of Arab countries is to a significant extent wedded to the geopolitical orientation of the regime – and therefore a change of regime that results from revolution may herald a change of direction in foreign policy. Protesters appear intent on calling for an end to the influence of outside powers sponsoring their dictators over their country’s destiny. But that is where the analogy ends. In Eastern Europe – a coherent bloc under the ideological and geopolitical stewardship of the Soviet Union – there was a unified desire to break the chains of communism and rid all countries of the hated Soviet influence. In the Middle East, there is no overarching foreign superpower coercing regimes into a unified foreign policy stance; there is no coherent ideology behind foreign influence; there similarly is no coherence in the ideology behind the rulers; and the superpowers backing the regimes are not suffering from the kind of ideological bankruptcy  that was short-circuiting the Soviet Union in 1989. In other words, Middle East injustice is not wedded to communism and its superpower sponsor. A pro-Western conservative monarchy like Bahrain has little in common with the Iranian backed Ba’athist regime ruling Syria; a pro-Western dictatorship like Egypt similarly shared little, in terms of its form of government and its foreign policy orientation, with Muammar Gaddafi’s ideological freak show in Libya. What they all had in common was something else: an unequal distribution ofwealth, an unjust social order, and the mounting discontent of the have-nots.

These differences, rather than the superficial similarities with 1989, offer a good reference point to interpret the uncertain trajectories that Arab countries will now follow in their march fromthe old to the new order.

If political discontent is primarily rooted in socioeconomic injustice, political freedom may not be the panacea for Arab discontent – and regimes that can deliver economically or new political orders that offer a new socio-economic deal to subjects could emerge that have little to do with democracy.

Similarly, when it comes to foreign policy, the foreign patron of dictators in the Arab world is rarely an ideological opponent of the West. More often than not, the main foreign backer of each ruling dynasty has been a Western power – America in Egypt and across the Gulf, France in Tunisia and Morocco. With the free world standing behind their authoritarian rulers, Arab demonstrators have not looked kindly upon the foreign policies that resulted from these alliances. In some cases, they are attracted by Western democracy – though this fascination is tempered by the hypocrisy of Western governments preaching democracy at home while supporting Arab dictators abroad. There- fore, their denunciation of authoritarianism does not automatically translate, as it did in Eastern Europe, in a readiness to join Western alliances and endorse Western foreign policy aspirations. At least initially then, a democratic Arab world may be much more inclined to warm up to Iran, sympathize with Venezuela and Bolivia, and generally speaking play an even more militant role in the Non-Aligned Movement than it ever did since the age of Nasser. If peace with Israel is viewed as an outcome of American influence and the objective of deposed rulers – as it is the case in Egypt – then peace with Israel may not become a shared objective of the new powers-that-be. In Tunisia, the transition has already imposed a rejection of normalization with Israel as part of the new constitutional order. In Egypt, even the more moderate candidates to the presidency from the liberal nationalist camps have voiced support for reviewing the peace treaty and putting it to a referendum. And across the Arab world, fallen dictators like Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi have been depicted as agents of Zionism (Gaddafi was even “accused” of being a Jew – hardly a compliment in the Arab world).

These trendsmay becomemore accentuated if the new order fails to achieve an entrenchment of liberal freedoms. Again, the parallel with 1989 here is useful more for the difference than the similarity between the two experiences. In 1989 democracy had no serious alternative in Eastern Europe. In 2011, democracy finds in Islamism– the ideology of the opposition in much of the Arab world – a fierce competitor. 2011 may thus turn out to be a big disappointment for democracy promoters in the Arab world and their Western supporters.

In Egypt, early warnings went unheeded about the possibility and Cairo 2011 may look more like Tehran 1979 than Prague 1989. Whether the new Egypt will be an Islamic Republic remains to be seen, but so far, there are few signs that democracy will be its trademark. A military junta hijacked the popular uprising and is toiling to hand the country over to a coalition of army and Islamists. It threw the old guard of former President Hosni Mubarak’s friends and allies under the bus, but kept the army in control. Moderate and liberal forces appear sidelined and marginalized. Elections will at best create a deadlock between a nationalist president with weak Islamic but strong anti-Western credentials and a Muslim parliamentary bloc strong on both.The economy, meanwhile, is in free fall – a development more favorable to toxic populismthan democratic consolidation.

In short, civil rights, Christians, women, economic development, and peace with Israel beware.

Tunisia still offers moderate chances of orderly transition, but Islamists are slated tomake significant electoral gains and tensions remain high in the country.

Elsewhere, it is far from certain that turmoil will yield change for the better. In Bahrain, harsh repression, the imposition of a state of emergency, the invitation of a military presence led by the Saudis and show trials for opposition leaders so far shielded the regime fromhaving to adopt significant change. A fragile stability has returned to the country, with many ordinary Bahraini’s bruised and battered in prison. The short spring hasmorphed into a long winter that could lead to a significant radicalization of the opposition.

Libya, embroiled in a civil war for five months, is now confronting, at the time of this writing, the first convulsed hours of a new order, as rebels entered Tripoli on August 19 and the regime of Muammar Gaddafi collapsed. But there is no way of knowing, five months into the rebellion, whether the new order will be democratic; whether Islamic forces will emerge to shape the country’s new course; whether victors’ justice will be harsh or magnanimous; and whether the new political orientation of the new regime will be pro-Western or, like the emerging trends in Egypt, closer to Tehran than Washington. Rebel forces, after all, have a strong Islamist component; the recent murder of their senior military commander by an Islamist militia that is part of the anti-Gaddafi coalition is a harbinger of more fratricidal conflict; and the documented human rights abuses by rebel forces are an indication that the new may not be distinctly better than the old.

The fall of Gaddafi’s regime certainly represents an opportunity for freedomto be established on Tripoli’s shores. Regardless ofwhether this happens, it is unclear that change in Libya brings benefit to Western interests, since Western relations with Libya had largely improved since 2004, when Gaddafi renounced his support for international terrorism and turned over his clandestine nuclear weapons’ program and his other WMD programs toWestern hands. But there is no clarity as to what will follow – and thus there is a great urgency to intervene in a way that can positively influence transition.

But the kind of change both Libya and Syria may undergo will not be the one witnessed in Eastern Europe. It is no coincidence that these countries, characterized as they are by strong tribal or sectarian fault lines, havewitnessed brutal and prolonged violence as opposed to the quick collapse of ruling dynasties witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia. This violence, in the long run, may thwart any hope of an orderly transition and a new social compact among tribes and ethnicities that can keep the country together.

In Syria the regime of president Bashar al-Assad may be doomed, but there would appear to be a long and bloody road ahead before Assad and his clique relinquish power. What follows is equally uncertain – though at least, in Syria, there may be a distinct possibility that Iran, the main foreign backer of the regime could emerge as the biggest loser. Still, Syria is a mosaic of ethnicities and the turmoil in which the country is currently engulfed could lead to permanent fixtures emerging fromthe violence – a prospect that does not bode well for Syria’s neighbors, given that the collapse of the Alawite-led dictatorship could reopen the Kurdish question and spill over into Turkey in the process.

Yemen may be closer to democracy than before President Ali Abdullah Saleh left formedical treatment to Saudi Arabia. Still,Yemenwas never a country to begin with and there are real chances that the country will fall apart. The real question there will be what Yemen runs out of first – weapons, kat or water. It could become a democracy, for sure. It could also look increasingly like Somalia – or an Arabian haven for al-Qaeda. The odds do not favor the former.

There has not beenmuch earth-shattering change in the remaining 16 countries.

Neither Sudan nor Somalia is showing any prospects of democratic change.

The only good news in Sudan involves secession rather than transition: Southern Sudan has a real chance to develop into a democracy, provided the North leaves it alone and their border dispute, which has mostly to do with who controls the rich oil fields straddling both sides of the frontier, is settled amicably – again, an open question.

As for the rest – the heartland of the Arab world and its periphery alike – in Oman, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, protest fires were put out quickly and effectively.

In Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Mauritania, and the United Arab Emirates there were either no protests or not enough to cause a stir – and in places like Qatar or the UAE, the downtrodden who should be asking for democracy would not be the indigenous Arab population.

As the Arab Spring enters its tenth month, the scorecard does not offer good grades for democracy. Enthusiasts misjudged the resilience of regional powers – especially the local monarchies – and the aspirations of the protesters. They also forgot the history of boundaries and nations in the region. If 1989 offers any lesson for theMiddle East, it is the one of the descent into chaos of the Balkans or the many tribal wars and ethnic tensions that erupted as the Soviet empire collapsed. After all, most Middle East countries are largely colonial inventions held together by strongmen. Even if revolutions spread, democracy might have to wait for civil wars and ethnic cleansing to redraw regional boundaries – not a happy prospect, but a very real one.

Even in countries with a relatively homogeneous population and a stronger national identity rooted in history like Tunisia and Egypt, the prospect of liberal democracy prevailing over Islamist temptations is not a strong one.

Western policymakers should therefore shun facile enthusiasm and realize that the region may be considerably more intractable as a result.

The Arab Spring may yet blossom; but it has the distinct potential to turn into a long winter of discontent.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Corps.


Egypt Iran Libya Syria Tunisia Turkey