Arab Spring: A Mirage
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Courtesy: Aakrosh | Date : 14 Sep , 2012

The so-called Arab Spring is proving to be a strong litmus test for diplomacy and democracy at several levels, bilateral, regional, multinational, economic and that which bears features of neoimperialism. The alacrity with which signs of a political transformation affecting a few Arab nations were given the label “Arab Spring” by itself conveys a crucial message. Of course, “spring” refers to a change in season, the period marked by blooming of new flowers and leaves. While it is still not clear as to why and by whom was this label first given to the political transformation being witnessed in a few countries, the similarity in meaning with a few other terms used for this phase cannot be ignored, particularly “Arab Awakening.” This only implies that little time was wasted in creating the impression that the Arab world was heading towards new political transformation, spelling a new turn “for the better,” that is, democratic reforms in the region. It may be noted that perhaps deliberate attention was paid to avoid including the term “revolution” in the description given to this phrase, “Arab Spring.” The label “Arab Spring” was apparently selected to create hype about the brighter future that a political transformation spelt for the Arab nations. It is worth noting that even before the entire Arab world has been affected by this transformation, this label has been tagged on to them.

…overthrow of the then government in Tunisia is viewed as a sign of success of Arab Spring there. The incident of the burning man was followed within less than three months by the overthrow of the then Tunisian government on 14 January 2011.

Considering that all is not quiet, calm and even encouraging for the people in the few nations undergoing a political transformation, the label “Arab Spring” in reality is now inviting more criticism than was probably envisaged initially. It may be more appropriate to understand that appreciating, encouraging or even labelling any movement that displays frail signs of being strong, long lasting and totally people-oriented is equivalent to projecting a mirage before the affected participants, observers and the rest of the world.

A Diplomatic Mirage

Paradoxically, appreciating a diplomatic mirage is by itself a major diplomatic and sociopolitical lapse, the negative impact of which appears to have been virtually ignored by those interested in spreading the hype about the Arab world heading for a major political awakening. And this is not the case of any debate over whether a glass is half full or half empty but symbolically more equivalent to that of heading for a nonexistent glass of water. To begin with, it is imperative to briefly study the incident that is assumed to have triggered off Arab Spring in several nations. On 18 December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in protest against police corruption is believed to have incited a wave of protest in several countries in the region. Please note that Bouazizi indulged in this activity individually. It was not the case of him being one of the demonstrators who had been engaged in protests against their government for a fairly long period of time. Nor was it a case of Bouazizi having opted for self-immolation as a representative of these demonstrators in anger against the then Tunisian government. Nevertheless, it may be assumed that Bouazizi was one of the many Tunisians who were unhappy at the treatment they suffered at the hands of the Tunisian police. His self-immolation played the role of prompting other aggrieved Tunisians to raise their voice through protests, which also led interested politicians as well as diplomats to try and exploit the unrest to turn this political tide as they understood to be suitable for their interests. Herein, attention needs to be given to the hard reality that the role of aggrieved Tunisians remained largely confined to that of protestors. To this day, there is no proof of their having gained by the political transformation Tunisia is undergoing. Yes, it is as yet too early to assume that political transformation has actually undergone a complete process in Tunisia.

Nevertheless, overthrow of the then government in Tunisia is viewed as a sign of success of Arab Spring there. The incident of the burning man was followed within less than three months by the overthrow of the then Tunisian government on 14 January 2011. Considering that Arab Spring is assumed to spell major political transformation for the people, it is a little difficult to accept that its success can be gauged only by the dismissal of the respective governments it is directed against.

The situation would be different if similar protests continue over a long period of time leading to major sociopolitical changes in areas they are taking place in.

The preceding points demand analysis of the probable factors responsible for building hype about Arab Spring. Giving importance to what still has not taken strong roots, that is, creating a false impression about a movement called Arab Spring having swept across the entire region, is equivalent to prompting people to chase a mirage. It is well known that sociopolitical movements heading for major transformation in any part of the world are not expected to lead to immediate results. They can take decades as well as generations before their impact can be sensed substantially enough to be labelled as a part of some “Arab Spring” or “Awakening.” Protests, demonstrations and even rebel activities may occur recurrently or only for a little phase of time. Their aim may be similar, but when they are not backed by strong people-oriented groups or parties, there prevail differences among these groups, there is a lack of clarity in vision of what their actual aim is and they are marked by only sporadic incidents for a limited period of time, it would be incorrect to label these as indicators of any movement. The situation would be different if similar protests continue over a long period of time leading to major sociopolitical changes in areas they are taking place in. It would be appropriate then to consider labelling them as a movement—”Arab Spring” or “Awakening”—depending on transformations they have actually led to. In other words, change of government without spelling any significant transformation for the nation’s sociopolitical culture cannot be defined as a part of any movement.

Here, it would be worth paying a little attention to the manner in which the government is changed, through only internal pressure, with help from external powers or primarily through military intervention of external powers. When external pressure is limited to using means of communication, including diplomatic dialogue, role of media and other means, without engaging in use of armed weapons or military intervention, it would be appropriate to understand this as usage of various diplomatic tactics to exercise influence on developments taking place within a nation. At the same time, the fact that external pressure is exercised, even though only diplomatic, substantially erodes the credibility of these so-called sociopolitical changes as totally national. When external pressure extends to military intervention, it completely erodes the credibility of these being viewed as national movements. The latter, that is, military intervention by external powers, also indicates the limited importance given to using diplomatic means to influence changes in the targeted country. Using war or war-like means to pressurise, rather practically force, change in another country is a crucial pointer to either diplomatic measures having failed or diplomacy being abandoned to ensure the dismissal of a leader and his or her government. Change of this nature can only be considered as that which has been pursued by external powers in pursuit of policies that suit their interests and not as desired or achieved through any movement activated by citizens of that country. The latter point holds irrespective of whether “news” is deliberately spread or even manufactured about the citizens welcoming that particular change. The fact that change has been imposed upon them by external powers cannot be ignored.

Anti-Islam Stand

With respect to Arab Spring, the hard irony of the few nations being affected by it being Muslim countries stands out. This does demand deliberation on several points. From one angle, there is no denying that an anti-Islam stand is prevalent in certain Western nations. This has been further aggravated by their holding a negative, stereotyped image of Muslim nations and of Islam. In most Western countries, the religion is linked with terrorism, conservatism and backwardness. Undeniably, the anti-Islam attitude has become more pronounced after the United States was hit by terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. There prevails the conception (or the misconception) in the United States and its allies that the anti-Islam stand is substantial enough to justify the noise they have made about promoting democracy in the Arab region.

…the anti-Islam attitude has become more pronounced after the United States was hit by terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001.

Understandably, the United States and its allies have their right to hold their respective opinions about the Arab world and the religion predominantly practiced here, that is, Islam. Yet, their own stand does not justify their inclination or decision to impose the sociopolitical concepts they are comfortable with in other parts of the world, including the Arab countries. In fact, democracy loses its essential political parameters when it is sought to be imposed on any group of people, a country or a region. It is indeed a tragic irony that the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies understand the symbolic and religious importance of the church and the Bible for them and most Christians. Yet, they have apparently decided not to view religious (Islamic) values upheld by Muslims. Little attention has been paid to U.S. presidents taking oath by the Bible or addressing the nation from a church’s pulpit, royal weddings in Britain taking place in the church and other similar forms of importance given to their religious values. Please note, when they make even a grand and great show of their religious practices, the traditional or conservative label is not tagged to these. But when a Muslim does so, the tendency prevails to tag these labels to his or her identity. Now, the big question here is, who should be viewed as at fault for perhaps deliberately misunderstanding and propagating incorrect images about Muslims and their religion? The tragic irony is that little importance has been accorded to understanding the importance of Islam from the angle of practicing Muslims.

The manner in which hype has been raised about Arab Spring leading to a political transformation, that is, establishment of democratic rule in affected countries, suggests that the West apparently prefers holding a negative opinion about Muslim countries in the region. This helps the West in adding some credence to the noise it makes and the force, including military as well as economic, it uses in the name of helping Arab world move towards a democratic world through a phase labelled as Arab Spring.

Nonrevolutionary Impact of Arab Spring

In essence, governments have been pushed out of power in four countries. While Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on 14 January 2011, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown on 23 August 2011 and Yemeni president Ali Abdullah was replaced by Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi on 27 February 2012. In Libya, Gaddafi was overthrown after the National Transitional Council (NTC) took control of Bab al-Azizia and was killed in his hometown, Sirte, on 20 October 2011 after the NTC took charge of this city. In Yemen, Saleh signed a power-transfer deal, following which presidential election was held, leading to al-Hadi taking over as president. Saleh stepped down and signed this deal in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

It is well known that Gaddafi never had cordial ties with the West. There have been attempts in the past too by external powers, primarily the United States, to dislodge him from power.

Ahead of the change of rulers at the helm, there prevailed some hope in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt about this spelling a major sociopolitical turn for the people and their respective countries as a whole. Regarding Libya, it is astonishing why this country is included as one that is witnessing Arab Spring. It is well known that Gaddafi never had cordial ties with the West. There have been attempts in the past too by external powers, primarily the United States, to dislodge him from power. Prospects of Gaddafi being removed by rebels in his own country were practically nonexistent. Undeniably, the role played by external military intervention led to his being overthrown and then being killed. Libya stands out as an outstanding example of what apparently is the prime motive of nations propagating the importance of Arab Spring, which sociopolitically for the affected people is only a mirage. The West, particularly the United States and its allies, is keen for complete control of this oil-rich and geostrategically important area. Installation of governments “friendly” towards their concerns thus is their prime motive. Removal of Gaddafi forcibly and then his being killed, with external military intervention, without being given a chance to face any trial, proves this intention of the West. This also supports the point of Arab Spring, promoted to install puppet regimes in these nations, as a totally undemocratic move. It has nothing to do with a few protests or demonstrations that have probably been incited by external support, which cannot be described as either revolutionary or part of any people-oriented movement. Libya illustrates these as being neocolonial designs deliberately promoted to suit interests of a few external powers, which are not from any angle in line with what the Libyan community desires.

While in Libya, the United States and its allies have succeeded, they are still trying hard in Syria. Ironically, with each passing day, the Syrian crisis is beginning to be viewed as more of a new cold war between the United States and Russia than as a part of the so-called Arab Spring. Despite the Syrian crisis having continued for more than fifteen months, prospects of it ending in the near future seem bleak. More than 12,000 people have died in the exchange of fire between the rebels and the supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Paradoxically, their prevails a certain rigidity between the warring groups, preventing them from reaching out to each other, because of which the crisis seems nowhere near the point of coming to an end.

United Nations–Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is still hopeful that his peace plan could avoid a civil war in Syria. Yet, more than 900 people have been killed since the UN-brokered 12 April ceasefire went into effect. The credibility of Annan’s peace plan is certainly facing a strong litmus test. Despite it still being nowhere near the stage of spelling any success, the European Union remains committed to helping Annan and the UN observer team in Syria. Ironically, the external forces keen for an end to the Syrian uprising do not hold the same stand on how it should be achieved. The United States has, for instance, categorically stated that the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must step down. Annan’s peace plan expects Assad to implement the same, with its priority being to “stop the killing.”

…the European Union has displayed its stand against the Assad government by announcing more sanctions against Syria.

Meanwhile, the European Union has displayed its stand against the Assad government by announcing more sanctions against Syria. These include a travel ban and assets freeze on three people and two entities suspected of playing a major role against opposition forces in Syria. Restrictions, it may be noted, have not helped in controlling the unrest in Syria.

The parliamentary elections held in Syria earlier this year in May were projected as a part of political reforms promised by Assad. Describing the polls as a “farce,” the opposition groups boycotted them. Against this backdrop, the situation may take a positive turn if greater importance is given to initiating a dialogue between representatives of the Assad government and opposition forces.

On one hand, while opposition forces are supported by the United States, the European Union and other countries, Russia remains committed to help the Assad government. Defying Western criticism, Russia has continued arms deliveries to Syria. Russia has justified this move, favouring defence of government forces, by pointing to rebels receiving arms from abroad.

Despite a strong backing from external powers, the opposition forces are weakened by there being divisions within themselves. There is no leader who can be named as representative of Syrians rebelling against the Assad government. This weakness has repeatedly come to the fore, with their being no unity amongst them to decide on the fate of the next Syrian government if Assad, by choice or by force, decides to relinquish his hold on power. To a degree, this is also responsible for the failure of Annan’s peace plan in Syria.

The opposition forces have not given adequate importance to moves made by regional groups to end the Syrian crisis. The Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition group, has opposed participating in talks initiated by the Arab League to unite the Syrian opposition. Absence of unity among the Syrian opposition is also responsible for it failing to gain international recognition as representative of the Syrian people.

Undeniably, the external powers are alarmed at the limited prospects of the Syrian crisis ending soon. The regional countries are apprehensive of its negative impact within their borders. This apparently explains their growing concern at the failure of Annan’s peace plan. This probably prompted the Arab League members to get together and discuss the issue among themselves. Partly, their attempt has been punctured by refusal of the SNC to participate in their talks. Now, it is to be watched whether this move succeeds in the near future or not.

A fortnight’s time is certainly not sufficient to label the overthrow of Mubarak as a result of protests and demonstrations that began in Egypt. Protests are still taking place here.

Where Syrian citizens are concerned, they have started giving greater importance to nonviolent and peaceful means of resistance. They have accepted that prospects of Assad being pushed out of power as Muammar Gaddafi was in Libya are practically nonexistent. Besides, the instability and chaos in other countries that have witnessed political unrest in recent months has made Syrians wary of their country facing the same fate. In this context, Annan’s peace talks may succeed if the government and opposition forces agree to start talking and stop indulging in conflict.

In Egypt, the situation is different. Despite the “success” of Arab Spring being marked by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, people are now beginning to question the reality of what they have gained. Please note the speed with which action has taken place here. Protests began here on 25 January 2011, and the government was overthrown on 11 February 2011. A fortnight’s time is certainly not sufficient to label the overthrow of Mubarak as a result of protests and demonstrations that began in Egypt. Protests are still taking place here. In other words, just the overthrow of a leader does not mark the success of a protest or even a series of protests and demonstrations painted as part of a revolutionary movement. It was envisaged, without any sociopolitical planning, that Mubarak’s dismissal from power would spell Arab Spring for Egyptians. Ironically, his dismissal from power has not spelt good tidings, politically, socially or diplomatically, either for the people or for the external powers keen for this change.

Ahead of the presidential elections held this June, Egyptians expressed disillusionment at what they were facing. Sharing his views with the media, Nobel peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei said, “We are in a total mess, a confused process that – assuming good intentions – has led us nowhere except the place we were at 18 months ago (when Mubarak fell), but under even more adverse conditions.” Interestingly, ElBaradei withdrew from the presidential race earlier this year, saying that a fair vote could not be held in the circumstances the country was gripped by. “We are going to elect a president in the next couple of days without a constitution and without a parliament. He will be a new emperor, holding both legislative and executive authority and with the right to enact laws and even amend the constitution as he sees fit.”1

In other words, ElBaradei’s comments suggest that Arab Spring for Egyptians has spelt only “more adverse conditions” and Mubarak’s dismissal. He also announced his decision not to cast his vote. By taking control after Mubarak’s dismissal, the Egyptian military has assumed more power than it had earlier. This has led to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) being accused of having staged a “counter-revolution” after Mubarak was forced out of power. During Mubarak’s regime, the military did not enjoy power or role in politics that it assumed after his dismissal. Again, this development is hardly suggestive of Arab Spring having spelt notable democratic gains for the Egyptian people. One dictatorial ruler has been replaced by a more dictatorial government. With respect to presidential elections, considering the candidates in the race, it is difficult to expect either to spell a more democratic and better sociopolitical climate for the people.

The choice was confined between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister. Neither of whom is viewed as a preferred candidate by Egyptian protestors. Not surprisingly, this outcome of the so-called Arab Spring has been painted as the “end of Egyptian Revolution” by certain representatives of Western media.2

It is not possible to give an elaborate analysis of all the nations assumed to be affected by Arab Spring. Therefore, this aspect shall be delved upon briefly. Though Algeria has been barely affected by Arab Spring, the government has been critical of the so-called revolutionary movement. It is possible that Algiers did not deliberately get affected by this Arab Spring as it still remains affected by the internal violence of the 1990s, in which more than 200,000 people were killed. Nevertheless, the country was briefly affected by protests and demonstrations against economic problems like housing troubling them. In an attempt to control them, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika lifted the 19-year state of emergency on 22 February 2012 and assured revision of the country’s constitution for democratic reforms.

It is indeed ironical that countries having faced only a few sporadic protests for a limited period of time have been projected by the West as having being affected by Arab Spring.

Addressing a rally this May, Algerian prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia said, “The Arab spring for me is a disaster. We don’t need lessons from outside. Our spring is Algerian, our revolution of 1 November 1954.” The Algerian war of independence began in 1954 and lasted till it secured independence from France on 3 July 1962. Comparing Arab Spring with Algerian national war of liberation, Ouyahia said that unlike the “glorious days of 1954,” Arab Spring is “a plague.” Its effect can be seen in the “colonization of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, partition of Sudan and weakening of Egypt.”3

It is indeed ironical that countries having faced only a few sporadic protests for a limited period of time have been projected by the West as having being affected by Arab Spring. The flaw in this approach lies in adopting a critical approach even towards governments that have seemed liberal enough to have allowed protests, though for a limited period of time. Continuation of protests leading to civilian anarchy, unrest and perhaps overthrow of the rulers is least likely to be supported by any government. Nevertheless, this only supports the point that there prevails a tendency in the United States and its allies to raise hype about protests in countries where it is keen on change of rulers and governments.

The protests in Jordan have been described as small and peaceful, with the king stepping in to assure reforms for the people. While protests are continuing in Jordan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, they have either been subdued or have ended in Tunisia, Sudan, Oman, Iraq, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, Western Sahara and Israeli border areas. The illustration of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries as having been affected by Arab Spring may be viewed as highly questionable. They are gradually but definitely moving towards reforms in their respective countries. None of these countries’ populace may be listed as waiting to take to streets in demand for change of their governments. Besides, even if these have been witness to a few protests now and then, it would be erroneous to project these as a part of any revolutionary movement.

Continued…: Arab Spring: A Mirage – II

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Nilofar Suhrawardy

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a well-known freelance journalist who has, at different periods, written extensively for national papers.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left