The West’s political culture, composed of its media outlets, television pundits and public intellectuals is usually a cacophony of different voices and viewpoints. But occasionally the opinions coalesce into a single viewpoint that is enthusiastically taken up and never questioned. This has happened in the perception of the Arab Spring, when a single line of interpretation became axiomatic: this was the “Arab awakening,” an emergent awareness that democracy could and should happen across the Middle East and that the tyrant’s age was over. Here is the comment of one particular enthusiast, Dr. Mahdavi, a Canadian academic in Middle Eastern Studies:
From Tunisia, to Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and other countries of Middle East and North Africa, the region this year -to use journalist Rami Khouri’s words -is like a “bride emerging on her wedding day and many people are commenting on whether her shoes match her gloves, when the real issue is how happy and proud she is.”
Now, months have passed and this bride nowhere to be seen. The enthusiasm over a new epoch in Arab history has vanished. What happened? History Happened. Western political culture’s turn from optimism to pessimism over the events across the Arab world in the early months of 2011 are a belated awakening to the historical reality. By and large, revolutionary movements are much more likely to fail than succeed. This realism ought to have been tempered the talk of “spring”, but the West’s intellectual culture misread the uprisings in two vital ways. They overestimated the importance of popular movements as a force for regime-change and ignored the domestic power structure within the Arab states facing uprisings.
The first error Western intellectual culture made was that in viewing the events, they prophesized the imminent end of Arab regimes, and so overestimated the force popular movements have for effecting regime change. From watching news reports, it was very easy for observers to see the developing protests as the mark of an emergent movement across the Middle East. The list of protests and their results seem impressive. Revolutions have occurred in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. There have been civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. There have been major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Oman. Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Western Sahara have all seen minor protests. The sheer volume of people taking to the streets led to talk not simply about crowds, but about a “movement,” an entire people with a common goal organizing itself in an unprecedented fashion against the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world. It seemed like a call for popular democracy not seen since 1989.Through social media, civil disobedience and mass protests, the spring of 2011 gave sight to the impression that in the duel between dictators and democracy, the dictators were down and out, and all the west had to do was wait for the footage equivalent to the tearing down of the wall.
But this prediction hinged upon a single comparison: that of 1989. History has given us a tremendous list of failed popular uprisings; anyone desiring to see such a list can simply examine the Wikipedia entry for “List of Revolutions” and see how many were actually successful. More revolutions have had the result of Europe’s 1848—a collapse and return to uncertainty—than the overthrow of their government. To think that a popular uprising alone can overthrow the government, no matter how much it is hated, is to grossly misunderstand how revolutions succeed. History already tells us that popular uprisings are not even a necessary condition for a revolution—think of every coup d’état in history—so one should have been sceptical of those who claimed it was a sufficient condition. That is why those who predicted the imminent collapse of Bashar al Assad’s Syria through protests were misguided. An Alawite minority makes up 15% of the population and controls the army officer corps and the government, and remains stable. The opposition is split into dissident Sunni and Kurdish groups, but each of these is suspicious of the other since their post-Assad interests diverge. Syrians may have the sympathy of foreigners, but sympathy does not defeat soldiers.
My dialectical opponent, who has made his name in the past few months in articles writing how a universal call for democracy is marking a new dawn for the Middle East, now objects. Even if most of the spring uprisings have yielded no change of government, there are three successes that surely point to the voice of the people being heard—Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, three places where the governments have toppled. Surely these confirm the old epigram of protesters: “the people, united, will never be defeated!”
Yet this is where I interject with the second error. The Western applause to the people of these areas for taking down their governments failed to notice both that the apparent change was not accomplished by the people, and that when the dust settled the form of government lay unaltered. Consider Tunisia. This was considered the first catalyst when in December 2010 Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the lack of economic opportunity in his country. The ensuing protests led to the toppling of President Ben Ali’s government. Yet these protests did not bring about regime change. The military was the instrument behind the toppling; they abandoned Ben Ali and may possibly have helped orchestrate his removal. Since then they and other members of the former government have quietly worked behind the scenes. That a free election took place a few days ago means very little, as no one has yet to challenge this arrangement.
In Egypt the West’s political culture was even more negligent. The aging Muburak had been coping with a succession problem, and the suggestion that his son ought to take control was not taken well by the Egyptian military, who began to plot how to remove him. Popular unrest was the perfect excuse. The crowds that gathered in Cairo were large—300,000 at its peak—but this was nowhere near the numbers that gathered in 1989, nor in 1979 in Iran. More importantly, they were only in a single city in Egypt. But they did allow the perception of a massive uprising against Mubarak, which allowed the military to put the pressure on Mubarak to step down. The popular riots were ultimately a sideshow to a palace coup. This secured the army as the authority in Egypt, leaving them in charge of drafting the new constitution and organizing the format for elections. All in all, they are left in an even stronger position than before. This is incredulous to call this a revolution.
Finally, we are left with Libya, the only place in the Middle East where there has been regime-change, as the old form of government, built around Gadhafi and his family, has completely vanished. The Economist reports:
In the evening cool at a fairground on the Tripoli waterfront, giggling children chant as they spin on a merry-go-round. But theirs is no childish rhyme. Their joyful cry is the revolutionary mantra that has been echoing across the Arab world: “The people demand the fall of the regime!” (So far, so pretty good! Sep 10th 2011)
The will of the people realized, with the help of a NATO air campaign, and the idyllic present yields to a hopeful future. The critics of the war are silenced and left to grumble about the uncertain days to come. It is indeed premature to comment on that future, but one fact should temper optimism. The NATO campaign involved was more than an airstrikes. It involved special operations forces on the ground, training operations, logistics, managing communications and planning and organizing and leading the Libyan insurgents in battle. In spite of all this, that it took seven months to achieve the end of the regime should not reflect well on the unity of the “people”. The National Transitional Council found it easy enough to unify for toppling a dictator, but they have neither ideological unity nor any experience of government. The only ones who do were part of Gadhafi’s regime, and it is difficult at this stage to believe they all agree on the same vision of constitutional democracy. The hard part with regime-change has always been creating the new regime. Leaving it to the “will of the people” leaves it to each individual faction to sort it out, and this is precisely where revolutions have been most violent historically.
Yet this is exactly what the optimists ignored all along. The Middle East is a huge area with thousands of years standing beneath the cultures, societies, sects, tribes and institutions present today, each of which approach the question of political arrangements in different ways. To think that the Arab world awoke one morning to conceive collectively of the idea of democracy defies logic and the complexities of interests, not all of them democratic, which make people take to the streets. Popular factions may be able to stay together to tip the balance of power in their favour, if they remain united and if they receive enough assistance in this task and if they have enough force at hand. But if they win, they have to agree on what a democracy is, if they decide to have a discussion and not simply resort to defining democracy as the interests of the stronger. The chance for all these conditionals to come together is short, which is why where revolutions are concerned, spring passes all too quickly to autumn.
Nathan Pinkoski, 2011