What a whirlwind nine months it’s been for the Arab world. As I wrote at a much earlier point in this phenomenon called the ‘Arab Spring’, it is as if some tremor in the long-frozen tectonic plates of the region’s political geography had suddenly burst through all those plates, freeing up waves of long-frozen political energy that have ricocheted– and continue to ricochet– through all the region’s countries.
This is a phenomenon of an almost Biblical 40-year periodicity: After all, it was back in around 1970 that the Arab world’s political shape settled into broadly the same pattern that it then retained until January of this year.
(As it happens, I made my first visit to the region– to Beirut– in 1970. This is, I realize, neither here nor there… Mainly, it makes me feel old.)
It was in 1969 that a young colonel called Muammar Qadhafi had toppled “King” Idris in Libya… The political shifts that occurred in the Arab world the following year were more closely related to Palestine since they stemmed in good part from the tragic battles of 1970’s ‘Black September’. In those battles, Jordan’s U.S.-backed (and discreetly Israeli-backed) King Hussein reimposed an oppressive system of total control on his kingdom (and on its national population which then as now included a numerical majority of ‘West Bank’ Palestinians) by chasing out the Palestinian guerrillas who had become well established there over the preceding three years… Provocatively well established, one could say. The king’s Black September campaign was, indeed, directly precipitated by an action in which the PLO-affiliated Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four international aircraft and landed them at an airstrip in northern Jordan…
During Black September, the Cairo-based Arab League worked hard to try to negotiate a settlement between Hussein and the Palestinians. On September 27, Egypt’s iconic, strongly Arab-nationalist president Gamal Abdel-Nasser convened an emergency summit meeting of Arab leaders in Cairo in an attempt to hammer out an agreement. The next day, he suffered a heart attack and died. (Five million Egyptians flocked to the streets to witness the passing of his cortege.)
Nasser was succeeded in the presidency by his vice-president, Anwar Sadat, a man who shared Nasser’s military background but not his commitment to a broadly ‘non-aligned’ form of Arab nationalism. Throughout Sadat’s eleven years in office, his main goal was to steer Egypt into a close alliance with Washington; and he seemed more than willing to enter into the bilateral peace agreement with Israel that was the entry-fee for that alliance. The Egyptian-Israeli peace of 1979 decoupled mighty Egypt from the Palestinians’ long-running quest for national liberation. After Sadat was assassinated in 1981, his vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, succeeded him. Mubarak hewed just as closely to the pro-American path as his predecessor. His longevity and the hyper-alertness of his ever-repressive mukhabarat gave him the time in office that neither Nasser nor Sadat had, in which to build the basis of dynastic rule..
Notably, in all the time Mubarak was president, he never named a vice-president… He also increasingly evidently started to groom his son Gamal to succeed him.
Meantime, back in the Black September of 1970, the conflict in Jordan soon enough made its effects felt on Syria, as well. The ‘leftist’ wing of the Baath Party, which until then was in power in Syria, had sent tanks into northern Jordan to help the Palestinians. But when those tanks came under threat of serious attack from Hussein’s tanks, the ground forces commanders in Damascus begged for air support from Syria’s air force. The air force commander, Hafez al-Asad, turned down their request. Without any air support, the Syrian tanks retreated speedily back to Syria; and amidst the political chaos and bouts of recriminations that ensued he undertook a swift coup in Damascus that brought his much more cautious, centrist wing of the Baath Party into power…
Where it has stayed until today.
Asadist Syria pursued, by and large, a much more ‘statist’ and less ideological set of policies than its predecessor. On many occasions that involved taking very harsh actions– against Syrians, against Lebanese, and against the Palestinians in both Syria and Lebanon.
… In Syria, Hafez al-Asad was almost seamlessly followed into power by his son, Bashar. In Jordan, Hussein was almost seamlessly followed by his son, Abdullah II. In Egypt and Libya, over the decade of the 2000s, it became increasingly clear that the rulers, despite claims of allegiance to republican idealism, were preparing an ‘Asadist’ type of familial succession…
In the PLO, Yasser Arafat was followed into power by his decades-long Fateh colleague Abu Mazen. No generation change there. And over the years Fateh, too long in power with too little to show for it except the continuous expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, suffered increasing internal rot.
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Of course, many other huge things were happening in the Arab world in the 40 years that followed 1970. There were numerous important wars. There was the landmark Madrid peace conference of almost exactly 20 years ago today. There was the whole inglorious ‘Oslo’ episode, whose endless rounds of useless negotiations ended up merely providing cover for Israel’s continued paving over of the West Bank… There was the bloody and horrendously traumatic American invasion of Iraq… an action that– as soon as it became abundantly clear that the original casus belli of forestalling a ready-to-go Iraqi WMDs program was a figment only of the U.S. neocons’ over-active imaginations– was retroactively redefined as having had the purpose of “bringing democracy to the Arab world.”
That ideological repositioning of what, as everyone in the region quickly saw, turned out to be a bloody and longlasting disaster, wrought havoc on the dreams and projects of the many democrats throughout the Arab world. Along with all their other compatriots, those democrats looked at the fitna (social breakdown) and grand-scale human suffering that followed the conducting of no less than three popular votes in Iraq, under the auspices of the US military occupation, in the period 2005-06… And they concluded, quite reasonably, that U.S.-imposed democracy was certainly not the way to go.
Indeed, it’s quite possible to surmise that the ‘Arab Spring’ might have happened several years earlier, if the dead weight of the Iraqi experience had not been hung around the neck of Arab democrats over the past few years.
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A full history of the ‘Arab Spring’ needs to take into account the many more proximate influences that led up to it… The inspiration of the Palestinians’ First Intifada of 1987-93… and of the early months of the Second Intifada of late 2000. (Westerners forget too often that the first 6-8 weeks of the Second Intifada were almost wholly nonviolent on the Palestinian side. It was only after the Israeli forces had killed more than 200 unarmed Palestinians that the Palestinian factions decided to take up arms.) … The disturbing sight of Pres. Mubarak (and Jordan’s King Abdullah) lining up time after time after time to support Israel’s extremely destructive and lethal attacks against its neighbors… The rampant takeover of so many economies in the Arab Mashreq by self-interested crony capitalists, and all the disruption, privation, and human misery that resulted from that (See this recent strong reporting on the role that US aid programs played in this regard, in Egypt. Also, go and buy Rami Zurayk’s fabulous book, Food, Farming, and Freedom, to see the account he gives of the role that US-imposed trade and aid policies played in bringing about the destruction of rural livelihoods and rural communities all around the Arab world.)… The intensification of campaigns of repression by so many Arab governments, that in the cases of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority– okay, not strictly a ‘government’, but still– were all actively supported by Washington… The repeated, glaring instances of the double standards Washington applied to any matter concerning the region, running the gamut from accusations of nuclear weapons programs (Iran’s, vs. Israel’s), to support for democratization and freedom of expression (Iran, vs. Egypt, the PA, Jordan)… The humiliating knowledge that all the important decisions in so many Arab countries were being taken with Washington and Israel’s interests in mind, way above any interest in the citizens’ own wellbeing…
Yes, no wonder that under the tectonic plates of the long-ossified Arab political system, huge forces of dissent were simmering.
Starting last December 17, within short order, the following things happened:
- Vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in a provincial town in Tunisia, sparking a mass protest movement nationwide;
- Tunisian president Ben Ali fled the country (January 14);
- mass demonstrations convened in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (January 25 and 28);
- the Egyptian military stepped in and removed Mubarak from power (February 11);
- the Security Council issued a first stern demarche to Libyan ruler Qadhafi warning him to stop armed attacks against unarmed civilian demonstrators (February 26– in resolution 1970);
- and followed up (March 17, resolution 1973) with a resolution authorizing members states, “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”…and two days later, French jets roared over Benghazi to start the NATO-plus, stand-off operations against Libya that seven months later resulted in the rebels’ takeover of the whole country and the grisly killing in captivity (October 20) of Muammar Qadhafi.
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Meanwhile, extremely large-scale and well-organized pro-democracy movements in two key countries in the Arabian Peninsula– Bahrain and Yemen– were being very violently repulsed by national governments that have long been key allies of the United States.
In the tiny island monarchy of Bahrain (home to the U.S. Navy’s ‘Fifth’ Fleet), an amazingly well disciplined pro-democracy movement had grown up over the years and, as the Tunisian and Egyptian mass movements came out onto the streets, Bahrain’s democrats decided to do the same, as well. Their main occupation/claiming of public space occurred at the Pearl Roundabout, a hub graced by a towering sculpture of a pearl… (Pearl diving had been the traditional occupation of the Bahraini indigenes, most of them Shiite, long before Sunni travelers from across the water in the Arabian mainland had come across and established trading-posts, followed by an ’emirate’, and even more recently, a ‘monarchy’.)
On March 16– just one day before Washington so hypocritically supported resolution 1973 against Qadhafi– the Bahraini forces, aided by Saudi forces sent in along the causeway Saudi Arabia had built to Bahrain some years ago– moved in to crush the democracy movement. Two days later, they even demolished the whole of the ‘Pearl’ monument. Read Amnesty International’s reports of continuing gross rights violations in Bahrain since then.
The situation in Yemen is at this point far less clear-cut. Indeed, it has always been so, Yemen is a massive country. Its population of 23.5 million citizens is easily the largest citizen body on the whole Arabian Peninsula. But it doesn’t have oil; and it is far and away the poorest country on the Peninsula.
Look, I don’t know a lot of detail about Yemen’s internal politics. It is a mountainous country, and as a result home to many different kinds of social groups, nearly all of them Arabic-speaking. There are reportedly some strongly matrilineal tribes there, where the men sit around and braid their hair all day. There are very dark-complected African communities that retain many of their African folkways. There are some expanses of flat cultivated land where farmers wear conical straw hats. There are northerners and southerners, easterners and westerners, Zaidis and Houthis and Hadhramautis and more… (Probably one of the best sources for good information about Yemen– as for so much else– is the Jadaliyya website, where you can find the work of Sheila Carapico, Stephen Day, Fawwaz Trabulsi, and more… Or, these two very informative recent pieces in Middle East Report: by Sheila Carapico, in May, and Stacey Philbrick Yadav, last week.)
One snapshot picture I have of Yemen is that it is “Saudi Arabia’s Gaza.” That is, it’s the place from which Saudi Arabia took some of the best land– and then, to which, in 1991, it relegated huge numbers of people who had previously labored hard in the Saudi economy… in this case, more than a million… while it replaced them with short-term contract laborers imported on very short-term and repressive contracts from Asia.
Just like Israel, with the Palestinians of Gaza…
Pertinent fact: GDP per capita in SA (2005):$14,979. GDP per capita in Yemen (2005): $923.
But I do recognize that the situation in Yemen is far more complicated, politically, than the situation in Gaza.
One of the complications is the U.S. hand in Yemen, which is exercised almost wholly by the U.S. military, in its pursuit-by-drone of alleged leaders and members of the group described as “Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula” (AQAP). Pres. Ali Abdullah Saleh evidently entered some years ago into a pact with Centcom whereby Centcom or the Special Operations Command had considerable freedom to “hunt down” alleged AQAP people in broad areas of Yemen on the basis of “plausible deniability” by Saleh himself– and in return for significant, broader security and political support by the U.S. (and Saudi Arabia) for Saleh, against any domestic opponents.
(Okay, in this respect, much like Washington’s relationship with the Pakistani military.)
Politically, the Obama administration has apparently reached the (not unreasonable) conclusion that it really does not know how to “intervene” effectively in Yemen; and it has subcontracted this job– as in Bahrain?– to the Saudis. Hence, Saleh has made a number of trips to Saudi Arabia over recent years– and remember, the intense internal unrest in Yemen antedates Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, by several years, going back (at least) to the outbreak of the Houthi rebellion in 2004-2005. Some of those trips by Saleh to Saudi Arabia were under the guise of “getting medical help”; some under other pretexts. Earlier this year, it seemed that the Saudis had “decided” to replace him in power in Sana’a during one of his absences from the city– but then, there he was again recently, back in Yemen with the apparent blessing of the Saudis.
We should not, of course, in this survey of “where we are the Arab Spring”, ignore the role that the Saudis– and to a lesser extent the Qataris– have played… At the regionwide level, the Saudis’ main contribution has been to bankroll the counter-revolutionary (anti-democratic) forces. But for the Saudi rulers, both Bahrain and Yemen are crucial components of their own back yard.
Of course, Saudi Arabia is now itself in the midst of an extremely long-drawn-out succession crisis. Saudi “diplomacy” has anyway always been a very episodic, personality-driven business, with very little institutional basis for sustained follow-through or monitoring of anything that’s happening in foreign affairs. But now, King Abdullah is stumbling ever closer to his 90th birthday. (Question of the day: How much longer can the most expensive advances in American medical science keep this man alive?) His designated ‘Crown Prince’, Prince Sultan, finally passed away last week. (As’ad AbouKhalil thinks he died a long time ago. But anyway, the death got announced last week.) And then, as I’ve noted here before… the crown is likely to pass along the long line of still-surviving sons of King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, all of them now aged between their late 60s and their late 80s, before a transition of some peaceable or non-peaceable form takes place to a member of the next generation.
So we should not necessarily expect any very intelligent or reasoned set of policies to be emanating from Riyadh, with regard to any of these ‘Arab Spring’ developments.
This is probably a very important place to note the importance of Sunni-Shia differences, or perceptions or fears of such, in what’s happening in many places during this ‘Arab Spring’– most especially in all the Gulf Countries (including inside Saudi Arabia), and also in Syria.
Yes, I’m getting to Syria here. Bear with me.
In regard to the Sunni-Shia ‘issue’, the experience of Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion of 2003 has had huge effects in the region. Prior to March 2003, Saddam’s regime was seen by all the Sunni-dominated regimes of the Gulf as a very valuable “bulwark” against any encroachment of Shiite power from Iran. In the view of the GCC monarchs, the U.S. invasion ended up simply “giving” Iraq to the Shiites and also to Iran. They don’t tend to focus on the fact that the vast majority of the Shiites in Iraq– as in their own countries– are ethnically Arabs, not Persians; and they are not necessarily pre-disposed to prefer Tehran’s rule over self-rule. Shiaphobia, that is, an exaggerated fear of Shiites, is a huge driver of the foreign policies pursued by all the GCC governments; and as in the case of all such phobias, this one cannot easily be assuaged by reference to such mundane things as facts, or the existence of a long history of a shared life together, or even much basic human decency…
Bottom line on the Saudis: expect continued erratic flip-flops in the way they pursue their regional interests. Also, expect that the succession issue will dominate the attention of all senior princes; and it may well interact in interesting and surprising ways with Riyadh’s pursuit of its regional diplomacy.
Bottom line on Yemen: expect a lot more tragedy, conflict, and suffering ahead– unless the forces of the country’s impressively resilient and focused opposition movement can succeed in slowly expanding their power until Saleh decides to do the decent thing and follow Ben Ali into exile.
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So now, Syria.
Back in May, I was articulating my judgment that the country has both a resilient government and a resilient opposition movement… And therefore, sadly, that the stand-off between them would most likely continue for a further long while. And that has been the case.
Back in May, I was arguing that the best way to break this stalemate, and thereby to save the Syrian people from the huge amount of suffering that it would necessarily involve, would be to have some kind of authoritative, externally mediated negotiation between the regime and the opposition, over the modalities of how real democratic reform could speedily be instituted in the country.
Neither side was willing to enter such a reform process voluntarily. For the regime, any hint of entering serious negotiations with the opposition would seem to give the opposition some legitimacy. For the opposition, the only thing that most of its supporters were willing to negotiate about back then– and probably, still today– was the exit of the regime. Many of these oppositionists felt, too, that even letting the regime’s leaders leave the country safely, in the manner of Ben Ali, would not be enough: They wanted to see Asad and his cronies “brought to justice”, “held fully accountable”, humiliated, punished, and brought low.
There was also (and remains) the question of the ability of leaders on each side to enter into a negotiation, as well. On the regime side, how much freedom of action does Pres. Bashar al-Asad actually have, in such matters? And on the opposition side, it is not as if you have one single, dominating and disciplined pro-democracy movement along the lines of, say, the ANC in late-apartheid South Africa. The Syrian opposition has been marked by a cacophony of voices (despite the best efforts of the U.S. government, Turkey, and others, to persuade its figures and personalities to try to unify and get their act together.)
Back in May, I was arguing that of the available outside negotiators, the government of Turkey seemed to be the one best placed– and also, most highly motivated– to try to lead the mediation mission. The good positioning came, I thought, from the good relations that Ankara had built with both the regime and some parts of the Syrian opposition– as well as from the general attitudes of Syria’s people toward Turkey, which shifted to being extremely favorable over the past few years, especially in light of the “no visa” policy between them and the attractiveness of the “Turkish model” for economic affairs and governance, which a vast majority of Syrians have seen as distinctly preferable to that offered by their other major partner in the region, Iran.
Turkey’s motivation, I argued, would come from the facts that its border with Syria is by far the longest of any of its land borders; and that Syria is an important transit country for Turkish companies doing business with Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and several other Arab countries.
But I guess that Turkey’s AK Party leaders saw things differently. In the weeks after I was writing and speaking about this topic back in May, Ankara (and perhaps a large part of Turkish public opinion, as well?) started shifting noticeably toward giving ever stronger support to the Syrian opposition. I have wondered what motivated this shift, which seemed to fly in the face of the AK Party’s longstanding policy of seeking “zero problems with the neighbors”. Was it merely a desire to try to be “on the right side of history”, that was arrived at after conducting some form of analysis that the Asad regime’s days were numbered? Earlier in the spring, Ankara had undertaken just that kind of a recalibration with respect to Libya: There, Turkey had previously had extensive business links with the Qadhafi regime. But on March 19 (or shortly thereafter), Ankara was lining itself up with those of the NATO forces who were participating in the sea blockade of Libya– that, after it had successfully extracted the thousands of Turkish workers who had previously been working on huge construction contracts in Libya (along with, as I recall, some number of wounded Libyans who needed to be evacuated from encircled cities.)
Or was Ankara’s shift motivated by more ideological, Sunni-ist concerns? Who knows?
Anyway, suffice it to say that Ankara’s increasing identification with the Syrian opposition played a role in hardening the political positions espoused by many oppositionists. In addition, various outside forces proved themselves able to push significant amounts of arms into Central Syria (to Homs, from the north Lebanese city of Tripoli and elsewhere in Lebanon), and into northeastern Syria, from Iraq. The fact that the Israeli secret services have strong networks in both some areas of Lebanon and some areas of northern Iraq should not be ignored– but there are plenty of other actors who could also be suspected of having a hand in this.
It has been really hard to get solid news out of Syria. Nir Rosen has done some good work for the Al-Jazeera website. But much of Al-Jazeera’s reporting has been hyperbolic and based on the thinnest of sourcing. Since Qatar started working openly with NATO in Libya, the Qatari government seems to have exercised a lot more control over Al-Jazeera’s reporting; and in Syria, Qatar’s deeply Wahhabist government seems to have decided at some point– along with the Saudis– to throw its weight behind the Sunni-ist portions of the Syrian opposition.
For a while, some opposition voices in Syria were openly calling for NATO to repeat, in their country, the same kind of operations they had mounted against Libya. But a number of things stopped that from happening. The most important was the veto that both China and Russia cast on October 4, against a resolution that seemed (though in slightly softer tones) to deliver the same kind of demarche to Syria that resolution 1970 had earlier delivered to Libya, and thus to prepare the way for a military intervention-enabling resolution like 1973 at some later point.
That draft resolution did receive the nine votes that, absent any vetoes, would have allowed it to pass. It was a notable moment in the dynamics of the world system when China and Russia delivered their vetoes. Brazil, India, South Africa, and Lebanon also abstained during that vote. It is entirely possible that the two veto-wielders– and possibly the other ‘BRICS’ members on the Security Council, where by chance all five were present– were worried about the ‘R2P’-derived precedent that the Libyan intervention had set, which might one day be used against any of them. It is possible that many of those BRICS countries found that the way the situation had unfolded in Libya (where the anti-Qadhafi rebels had already seized Tripoli and were exhibiting a notable lack of ability to govern fairly and effectively) was also of great concern to them. And it is possible that for some of them, the sovereignty of Asad’s Syria was seen as in some way more deserving of their support than that of Qadhafi’s Libya– especially given Qadhafi’s wholesale leap into the pro-western camp in recent years. We should note, however, that South Africa was already strongly opposed, for African-solidarity reasons, to the NATO intervention in Libya; so its failure to support the west’s resolution on Syria was really no surprise.
No matter what the motivations of individual BRICS countries, the fact of the Russian and Chinese vetoes changed the calculus of all involved in Syria, making it very clear that no Libya-style, overt western military intervention would be happening there any time soon.
Another development that almost has almost certainly affected the regional environment around Syria has been the resurgence of Kurdish (PKK) anti-regime violence in Turkey. Activating “the Kurdish issue” is something that all those four countries with significant Kurdish populations– Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey– know how to do against each other. And of those four countries, probably Turkey, with its in-my-opinion genuine aspirations to move toward greater democracy and its very significant Kurdish population, is more vulnerable to the re-emergence of a “Kurdish issue” than any. Regardless of the nature of any external sponsorship Turkey’s Kurdish militants may have received– and both Iran and Syria have their own separate reasons to have done this– the re-emergence of PKK violence was doubtless a huge headache for Ankara.
In the end, though, in the aftermath of the failure of the western move at the Security Council, it was the Arab League, not Turkey, that stepped in to explore the possibilities for brokering a negotiated end to Syria’s internal strife. An Arab League delegation arrived in Damascus yesterday. It was greeted by large pro-Asad demonstrations in the capital and some reported instances of anti-Asad strikes being observed in Homs and other cities.
(One word of warning to the Arab League negotiators: Remember the fate of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, 41 years ago.)
The commentary that the FT’s Roula Khalaf had on the Arab League mission yesterday is probably worth reading. She wrote:
- Qatar, the exceedingly wealthy autocracy which has emerged as the unlikely champion of the oppressed across the Arab world, is leading the delegation, despite initial grumbles from Damascus. But the six-member mission also includes Egypt, Oman, Algeria and Yemen…
Needless to say the presence of the foreign minister of Yemen on the delegation to Damascus should reassure Assad. In fact, Sana’a could give the Syrian strongmen some good advice – namely to take a page out of Saleh’s book and pretend to agree to Arab initiatives without implementing any of their stipulations…
The whole point of the Arab League mission is also puzzling. The foreign ministers are giving Assad and the Syrian opposition two weeks to hold a national dialogue. But, as many diplomats in the Arab world know, if such a meeting were ever to take place – and it is unlikely – it will be based on a reform plan that seems to be unworkable. Assad is not about to agree to share power with the opposition. And after nearly seven months of atrocities, the Syrian national council, the umbrella opposition group, is not about compromise with the regime or wait, as the plan suggests, until 2013 to have free presidential elections.
Diplomats tell me that the Arab League has no choice but to tread carefully when it comes to Syria, which is far too important strategically and still has a few good friends in the region…
And from Washington, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, seemed to confirm the need for the Arab states to tread carefully when it comes to Syria. He told journos at a press breakfast on Tuesday that “We do see a possible ouster of Mr. Assad as affording an opportunity to us.”
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So, there is a massive amount of geopolitics swirling around– and often penetrating deeply inside– the politics of the Arab Spring. And there remains a lot of uncertainty about the outcomes– in all the Arab countries, and indeed in the region as a whole. Here, though, are some of my preliminary thoughts at this stage:
- 1. The overwhelmingly peaceable and overwhelmingly civilian mass movements that swept the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt from power were unalloyed good news. The outcomes in both those countries may not be as truly wonderful as we might hope. But the peoples of the two countries have provided themselves with a decent chance of being able to build robust and largely accountable and democratic political systems, in place for the repressive systems they have labored under for so many years. Read this account, from JWB’s upcoming, Cairo-based author Issandr El-Amrani, on how exhilarating he found Tunisia’s recent elections… (Okay, Issandr is less optimistic regarding Egypt. But still, I am sure he would agree with me that the prospects for serious positive political developments there are still far, far greater than any of us would have imagined just one year ago.)
2. The overwhelmingly civilian mass pro-democracy movements in Bahrain and Yemen also been deeply inspiring. Hey– I never gave a shout-out yet to Yemen’s fabulous, inspiring leader Tawakkol Karman for being a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Huge congratulations, Ms. Karman! despite the creativity and commitment of the members of the movements in those two countries, however, both have met serious resistance… And in both cases, that resistance has been supported by Washington. Shame, shame shame! (And something that all of us in the pro-justice movement here in the United States ought to be working hard to reverse.)
3. In Syria and elsewhere there have also been large-scale civilian mass movements taking real risks to fight for political reform. But it’s been harder to gauge the real reach and influence of those movements. And in Syria, as in Yemen, there have been serious armed elements involved alongside the unarmed mass movements.
4. Libya has been seen as a real test case for the whole western liberal notion of ‘R2P’– which far too many western liberals take to mean that “international community” (however fuzzily defined) has a prima facie duty to support the human rights of beleaguered peoples in all other countries. Actually, the UN’s R2P documents don’t say that. They say that governments everywhere have the first duty to protect the the lives and safety of their peoples; but that if they fail to do so, then the UN can step in to take such steps as are deemed necessary to save the peoples’ lives. Big difference.
So what we saw in Libya was a UN-allowed, NATO-led military intervention that was launched in the first instance under the rubric of enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect the civilians of Benghazi from what was described to us all as a completely certain humanitarian disaster. The western leaders never paid any heed to the facts that– as I blogged at the time– the humanitarian situation in Benghazi was actually getting better in the days immediately before their bombings started; or, that the African Union leaders were poised to undertake the kind of tension-deescalating negotiations that resolution 1973 had also specifically called for.
Since March 19, Libya has seen scores of thousands of conflict-related deaths and maimings, and the country’s political space has been largely taken over by a clutch of mutually competing armed gangs. It looks very like Iraq in 2006 or so. And in keeping with that “Iraqi” theme, we saw the disgusting scenes of Muammar Qadhafi being brutalized while in captivity and then turning up shortly afterwards having been executed by a gunshot to the head.
Is this what the building a strong democracy looks like? No, no, no! I am in great fear as to the suffering and continued conflicts that the Libyan people will see over the months and years ahead.
Like Iraq before it, what happened in Libya is surely not a “model” for any people– in the Arab world or elsewhere– who seek a life of human dignity, security for their families, and accountable governance.
So the “balance sheet” for the Arab Spring is at this point decidedly mixed, but still on balance positive. What is clear is that the social and political forces that were unfrozen by Mohamed Bouazizi (and before him, to be fair, by Khaled Said in Egypt) have set the whole Middle East on a political course whose dynamism still has a lot more unfolding to do.
In upcoming blog posts I plan to examine the effects of the Arab Spring so far on the Palestinian issue; and also (in more depth than previously), on the response of the western media to the Arab Spring. Stay tuned.