“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”
Kafka’s belief has only been reinforced by the West-influenced Arab Spring. As the Arab spring enters its second winter, questions have been raised about the validity of the Arab Spring – did it even exist?
The fog surrounding the revolution has been supplemented by a tendency to fit every event into a framework. Over the last two years, analysts and academics have perceived the Arab revolution through concepts like neo-imperialism or colonialism or globalisation and have viewed it within these frameworks to add dimensions. Bessma Momani, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation says in an article in The National, “People were not living in isms.”
A common framework of the Arab spring is that of imperialism. On March 19th last year, a multi-state coalition began military intervention in Libya on the pretext of protecting civilians and establishing a democracy, which has been pointed out by neo-imperialist experts as largely motivated by Libya’s oil reserves. Soon, the coalition of Belgium, France, UK, US, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Qatar and Spain grew to 19 countries. That oil reserves motivate the intervention seems obvious.
The National Transitional Council (NTC), formed from among those who rebelled against the Gaddafi regime in Libya only helped foster these imperial interests. The forces of rebel commander Abdelhakim Belhadj were given air-support by NATO troops to free Tripoli – the same Belhadj who in the 1980s was active in Afghanistan with the mujahideen, in the 1990s, plotted Gaddafi’s assassination and even worked with the al-Qaeda in acquiring funds for arms and in 2004 was arrested by the CIA and handed over to Gaddafi.
The West’s noble ‘transition to democracy’ intervention was completely absent in Egypt or Tunisia. An editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly asks if the lack of intervention in these countries can be attributed to their anti-imperialist, welfare-state anti-Saudi regime and pro-Palestine stance.
A second frame is that of the idea of a democracy, according to which the Arab spring is a movement to democratize the Arab nations. It started in January 2011 when Mohammed Bouazizi, a graduate in Tunisia set himself ablaze protesting against unemployment and corruption. The graduate, who was unable to find a job, tried setting up a fruit shop when police officers forced him to pay a bribe. It was the Arab spring when the Tunisian president fled to Saudi Arabia, giving up his stake to rule. It was the Arab spring when Cairo erupted in protest against Hosni Mubarak, and when, 18 days later, Mubarak stepped down after 30 years of autocratic rule.
Is it, however, the Arab spring when the people’s power has only yielded another form of dictatorship? As Alia Allana, author of ‘Arab Spring’ puts it, “The Egyptian, Yemeni and Libyan cases have brought the sweetness of the Arab Spring into question. There has been no fundamental shift in power; people’s power has failed to replace the old system where powerful generals continue to preside over power in Egypt and thugs run Libya into the ground.”
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has since disempowered the Egyptian military which took away most of his presidential powers soon after he was voted president. As the Spiegel International described it, Morsi’s ordering of seven top-level officers to retire and replacing them with younger ones was a “well-timed, politically clever move.” The military did not rebel against the President’s orders, which gives rise to the question of whether Morsi’s new power, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood is a step towards an Islamist state in Egypt.
The Arab revolution can also be viewed through the crisis in Syria where Assad hopes to restore a pre-revolution situation. As Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN peace envoy to Syria revealed to the United Nations Security Council, “The situation in Syria is dire and getting worse by the day… There is a stalemate; there is no prospect today or tomorrow to move forward… I refuse to believe that reasonable people do not see that you cannot go backward, that you cannot go back to the Syria of the past.”
In a population of 22 million, out of which the youth (under 30 years) constitute 66 per cent, 16.5 per cent are unemployed. The prolonged civil war in the country has also led to severe food shortage, along with several human rights violations. A Human Rights Watch Report earlier this month revealed rampant ill-treatment of detainees by the opposition, including a dozen extra-judicial killings in Aleppo, Latakia and Idlib. Worse, there seems to be no way forward.
Finally, the fourth frame is that of the Free State. Ed Hussain, author of ‘The Islamist’ and senior fellow for Middle-eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations draws an interesting correlation between establishing a democracy and being one. “The fall of dictatorships does not guarantee the creation of free societies. The Arab uprisings have overthrown tyrants in Egypt and Libya, but the populations and lawmakers have yet to grasp that democracy is not only about free elections but creating free societies”, he says.
In light of recent events across the Arab nations, Hussain’s point is a strong one. An American embassy was bombed in Libya on September 11, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others; women were sexually assaulted on the streets of Egypt in June this year, when they marched in protest of sexual assault of women in their ‘new Egypt”; and national heritage sites have been looted and destroyed in Syria, some of which are now used to store weapons.
A Tunis court fined a TV channel in October 2011 for airing Persepolis, an animated French film on an outspoken Iranian girl. The court fined the channel head Nabil Karoui for “spreading information which can disturb public order”. An Amnesty International describes the ruling as “a sign of the continuing erosion of free speech in Tunisia”
Earlier this month, a satirical French cartoon of the Prophet in the weekly Charlie Hebdo led to an outburst of rage among many groups in the Middle-East. Further, this chaos of rage has been effectively exploited by radical Islamists and governments for political ends.
Despite successful democratic elections in both Egypt and Tunisia following the revolution, there seems to be a resistance to the basic values of a democracy like equality in the case of Egypt’s women and free speech in the case of Tunisia. As Ed Hussain writes, “It is hard for younger Arabs not born into freedom to understand how individual liberty works in real life.”
There has, however, been significant opposition to the presented view, most of which arise from observing the revolution without a frame. In a seething article in The National, Bessma Momani, states that the “Arab Spring was about people who said enough is enough.” According to him, these frames and structures were non-existent in the minds of the protestors. They simply wanted freedom from oppression.
Simply put, the counter argument suggests that the Arab spring is a movement that demanded basic necessities – employment, increased standard of living, efficient utilization of the people’s education and qualification and a sense of ownership of national wealth from their oil reserves. As Momani puts it, the structures were only assigned later.
The Arab uprisings resounded with the concepts of freedom and liberty – both of society and State. The struggle of the people over two years seems to have been corrupted by seemingly trivial conflicts. Whether viewed within a frame or outside it, does the real Arab spring lie in the construction of a free, stable State that the Arab people envisioned?