Arab Spring – what does the West expect after two years?

The Arab Spring could not be avoided; the old geopolitics of the region is permanently changed. Hence we must begin re-imagining the moral map of the Middle East, considering that we are at the beginning of a new era; one in which the problems that the new political institutions have to deal with are enormous.

Endorse the principles of conflict transformation!

By Nicolamaria Coppola

The world we have known until now as ‘the Middle East’, ‘North Africa’ or as ‘the Arab and the Muslim world’ is changing, and is changing fast. That world is now transcending itself, “overcoming the mystified consciousness into which it was colonially cast and postcolonially fixated”, as Hamid Dabashi states in his book, “The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism”. The Arab revolutions, each with a different momentum, are creating a new geography of liberation. That they are changing our imaginative geography is already evident in the interaction between the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean in terms of modes of protest, with the spread of Tahrir Square-style uprisings evident in Greece and Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland, in East Europe (Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary and Dagestan) and indeed in the USA with the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. “These revolutions are collective acts of overcoming; they are crafting new identities, forging new solidarities, both within and without “the Islam and the West” binary”.

Between January and June 2011, a period of only six months, the maps of the Middle East and North Africa changed radically: from Marocco to Egypt, from Syria to Yemen, demonstrations spread in a relentless wave. Officially, the Arab Spring began on 17th December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-years-old vendor from Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, set himself on fire in protest against the confiscation of his produce cart. Protests began the same day, spreading across the entire country. President Zine El Abidin Ben Ali, in charge since 1987, was forced to leave the country, while the Arab and Muslim world, thanks to Al Jazeera media coverage, was watching with incredulity, wondering: “Was this really possibile?”.

On 25 January 2011, in Egypt, thousands of Egyptians, pouring into the streets of Cairo, started to denounce the Mubarak regime and swarmed into Tahir Square. They demanded the president step down, but Mubarak instead promised democratic reforms. The protesters became more determined and remain in Tahir Square, while the prime minister, Omar Suleiman, said he would talk with opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood. On 11 February, Suleiman, appointed vice-president, announced that Mubarak had stepped down, and that the army was now in charge. In just over two weeks, following the fall of Ben Ali, the regime of Mubarak had fallen: the Arab world was watching and learning.

On 16 February, protests burst-out in Benghazi, Libya: the immediate cause being the arrest of a human rights activist, Fethi Tarbel. US president, Barack Obama, asked for Gaddafi, in power since 1969, to leave; the International Criminal Court announced that it would be investigating the Colonel – who had delivered a belligerent speech threatening protesters with a swift crackdown – for crimes against humanity. By 9 March, the British prime minister, David Cameron, and Obama announced they were preparing military options should Gaddafi not step down. After the first air strikes were launched by the US and European allies against Libyan targets, Gaddafi was forced to leave and he was then captured and killed by Libyan rebels.

In Yemen protests began as early as 23 January. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1990, held an emergency meeting; in response to requests to leave, he announced he would draw up a new constitution. Demonstrators refused, and dozens died in clashes between troops and tribal fighters in Sana’a. In June, Saleh was injured in a rocket attack on his presidential palace and was flown to Saudi Arabia, leaving Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in power. According to most Yemenis, Hadi has neither the ambition or the ability to go after the top post for any extended period of time; but power has been known to dazzle most who draw near. For the moment, with rumors of Saleh’s return floating around and the fighting still continuing, most things in Yemen remain murky.

In Marocco, major oppositional rallies forced King Hassan II to promise constitutional reforms; in Algeria demonstrations broke out over food prices and unemployement, and the government of Abdelaziz Bouteflika ordered cuts to the price of basic foodstuffs. In Oman, Sultan Qaboos, after protesters had demanded jobs and political reforms, immediately reacted by promising more jobs and benefits; in Saudia Arabia, King Abdullah announced increased welfare spending.

On 5 February 2011, Syrians declared a “Day of Rage” using Facebook and Twitter. By March, massive protests were being held in Damascus demanding the release of political prisoners. The government of Bashar al-Assad announced a few conciliatory measures and released some prisoners, but to not avail. The crackdown intensified. In May, Syrian army tanks entered Deraa, Banyas, Homs and suburbs of Damascus to try to crush anti-regime protests. President Assad is still in charge; lots of Syrians have died in thirteen months of war and the situation remains critical.

In Syria, like in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, millions of people have revolted against domestic tyranny. The effects are more visible now than at the beginning of the revolts, and the march to the stabilisation and the strengthening of each state is progressing everywhere, but not always peacefully.

Two years on from the defeat of Mubarak, the situation in Egypt is fragile after the approval of the new Islamic constitution that had inflamed the country for several weeks. Last December Tahrir Square, which has become the worldwide symbol of change, accused the elected technocrat president Morsi of turning into a Pharaoh-style dictator himself. Morsi had scrapped a decree giving him sweeping new powers and, as in the days of Mubarak, Cairo’s presidential palace was surrounded by tanks and other military measures to protect the fledgling government. Protesters were killed in Cairo, while the Muslim Brotherhood was losing support among Egyptians.

Meanwhile Libya is certainly almost as dangerous now as it was under Colonel Gaddafi: rivals gangs patrol the streets, settling scores with machine guns and rocket launchers, while democratically-minded groups, including feminists, are forced out the country.

Islamists – with Ennahda Party – have won elections in Tunisia, provoking further accusations that a corrupt, pro-West regime has merely been replaced by a religious dictatorship that does not reflect the views of ordinary people. Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian president, pointed the difficulties he has having in persuading the entire world of Islam’s compatibility with democracy, saying in some interviews: “Important efforts need to be made to convince our fellow citizens that the constitution, or event the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, does not contradict the values of Islam chosen as a State religion”.

Compared with instability in Egypt, carnage in Syria and sporadic violence in Libya, Tunisia had been performing fairly well since the overthrow of Ben Ali. But the assassination of a leading leftwing politician, Chokri Belaid, a fierce critic of the Ennahda-led government, on February 7, has again turned the spotlight on Tunisia’s serious problems. Belaid represented opposition groups who were unhappy with Ennahda, calling days before his death for a national dialogue to resolve the escalating crisis. Ennahda condemned his killing but suspicion immediately fell upon Salafi groups who are unhappy with the social liberalism of what has been the most secular of Arab countries since the days of Habib Bourguiba, its first president after independence from France in the fifties. Ennahda’s problems with radical Islamists are reminiscent of those experienced by Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Unlike in Egypt, however, Tunisia’s ruling party has not forged a strong relationship with the country’s army and security establishment, which is said to be ill-equipped to deal with violent extremists. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Tunisians have reportedly left in recent months to join jihadi groups in Syria, Yemen and Mali.

Countries such as Egypt and Tunisia are now Islamist States because million of Muslim voters wanted them to be: this does not mean that they should be perceived as undemocratic, failed states before their leaders have had a chance to establish institutions and indeed to govern.

According to Nabila Ramdani, a correspondent from the Middle East for the London Evening Standard, “The simplistic view of so many people in the West is that “good” Arabs were fighting against “bad” Arabs at the start of the revolutions in 2011, and that a victory for the forces of decency would instantly usher in peace, stability and economic success”, she wrote in an article from Cairo last December. The idea that replacing dictators, who has ruled for many years, would instantly sort out all of the problems of the Middle Eastern countries is absurd, added Mrs Ramdani.

As Hamid Dabashi has declared in an interview, the rise of each country has a significance of its own: the changes in Tunisia have challenged the European Union’s attempt to dominate the Mediterranean sea; events in Egypt have radically compromised the USA’s influence in the region; whilst violence in Libya is becoming a testing ground for Nato and the EU to flex their military and diplomatic muscles in the cause of complete control of the Mediterranean basin.

In Syria, everybody wants a quick replacement for the despicable regime of Bashar al-Assad, but change of any magnitude will affect the geopolitics of the region because of  its strategic alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. Another doomsday scenario is that Syria descends into anarchy, a situation that could make the 40,000-plus figure of people who have died in the civil war spiral upwards.

“The regional and global consequences of the Arab Spring are yet to be fathomed, let alone assayed”, Professor Dabashi states. “It would be therefore wrong to allow the notion of an ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ Spring to detract attention from larger frames of references. The sense of dissatisfaction extends well into the Mediterranean, from labour migrations to a variety of economic woes demanding ‘austerity measures'”.

The Arab Spring could not be avoided; the old geopolitics of the region is permanently changed. Hence we must begin re-imagining the moral map of the Middle East, considering that we are at the beginning of a new era; one in which the problems that the new political institutions have to deal with are enormous.

Nicolamaria Coppola is an analyst and columnist for EPOS International Mediating and Negotiating Operational Agency, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation.

This article was originally published on the EPOS website and is available by clicking here

What are the principles of conflict transformation?




10 Responses

  1. *Correction: Omar Suleiman was never Prime Minister of Egypt. He was Director of the General Intelligence Directorate. He was then appointed as Vice President on January, 29th, 4 days after the beginning of the protests.

  2. Pingback : It’s just the beginning… | Street art

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