Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The illusion of peaceful revolutions | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

There are numerous illusions about the “Arab Spring”, some of which are apparent and clear to any observer, whilst others may require years or even decades for us to uncover.

Ever since popular uprisings erupted in a number of Arab capital cities, there have been a number of widespread claims that are thought to reflect reality but which in fact are nothing more than “wishful thinking”. These represent nothing more than the hopes for the future of society, and the results of the so-called “revolution” that has taken place in more than one Arab state. For example, there has been much exaggeration with regards to the assessment of the true role played by social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and others, whilst online activists have been portrayed as possessing greater significance than they truly deserve.

Without a doubt, some people lent unjustifiable credibility to damning accounts of former regimes, whether real or fictional, as well as the causes that led to the current clashes. There has also been a lenient handling and characterisation of the slogans raised by some young enthusiastic revolutionaries, such as those demanding “dignity”, “freedom”, “democracy” and “human rights.” There have been many hasty comparisons between the Arab popular uprisings and the European revolutions that erupted and overthrew empires in 1848, or the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, not to mention other [positive] comparisons. However, the most significant illusion, which was exposed quickly, was the claim that such revolutions were peaceful or that they were free from any ideological or traditional bias.

We are not mistaken in saying that the majority of Arab revolutions included some violence, and were not free from ideological influence (leftists and Islamists) or traditional biases such as sectarianism, ethnicity and regionalism. The story that “non-politicized” youths staged peaceful revolutions against despotic regimes, with the aim of restoring political and social life, is therefore an inaccurate description.

It is true that there were indeed “idealists” who simply wanted to topple the former regimes, yet the opposition forces in the street never abstained from engaging in violence, sabotage, religious extremism, left-wing (anti-institutional) intransigence, and the use of sectarian and regionalist slogans.

The problems in Arab societies were clearly present, yet at the very peak of clashes between the regime and the people, the media and foreign observers – both awestruck – were indifferent to these differences – or structural imbalances – within the fabric of the opposition, claiming that we were simply experiencing a new stage in the history of the Middle East. However, as soon as the previous regimes fell, by coups or armed force, social ills and bias resurfaced, placing the futures of these countries – and even their internal unity – in real jeopardy.

Consider the Egyptian model, where sectarian violence suddenly erupted (last Sunday) between the Copts and the army, during which at least 24 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. Despite all that is being said about the peaceful revolution in Egypt, the incidents of armed violence and fierce confrontations between the demonstrations and the army reveal a state of continual deadlock in the security and economic arenas.

The military wants to initiate a transitional period via elections to hand over power to traditional parties and, at the same time, maintain its privileges and independence. Meanwhile, youth activists are seeking to stage a genuine revolution on the ground, beginning with a redrafting of the constitution and potentially including the trial of the military apparatus. It is for this reason that the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] has found itself at a real impasse, because from the very beginning it was not honest enough to say that it had staged a military coup. By keeping pace with the youth and even using the “revolution” slogan, the military has placed itself in a state of confrontation with the raging and undisciplined masses seeking to carry out radical change.

If every group feels it can, or at least has the right to, change the principles and conditions of civil peace, as well as the political and social balance in the country, then why are the Copts being denied this?

In Libya, demonstrations transformed over the space of a few days into a civil war that necessitated foreign military intervention. In Bahrain, the sectarian and radical Shiite slogans dominated all other causes. As for Syria, the state is now divided between sectarian and ethnic demarcation lines, whereas in Yemen there is a tribal and sectarian undercurrent in the struggle between the President and his party on the one hand, and the allied tribal, sectarian, and political forces who oppose him on the other. Even in Tunisia, the “birthplace of the Arab Spring”, some experienced political leaders who were entrusted to undertake the transitional period have attempted to curb the revolutionary fever and reduce the aspirations of the revolutionaries. However, they were surprised to see hundreds of Islamists breaking into the offices of a private television channel to forcibly shut it down. Despite the transitional government’s attempts to perform its role as a caretaker government and prepare for the upcoming elections, tension and insecurity continues to exist in some areas.

Those who advocate the “Arab Spring” argue that what we are experiencing is nothing more than the inevitable result of the previous regimes’ policies, and that the transitional process may require an indeterminate amount of time before all these states are able to return to normal. No one can estimate the amount of time required until this can happen, but they [the Arab Spring advocates] do guarantee that the future will be better than the past.

So far, over 30,000 people have been killed in the states involved in the “Arab Spring”. The numbers may be so high because of the civil war in Libya, but we must remember that countries such as Syria and Yemen could slide into open conflict at any time.

According to a report by “Geopolicity” the Arab Spring states have sustained losses exceeding $56 billion, whilst the gross national income of Libya has declined by 84 percent, and the gross national income of Yemen has declined by 77 percent (The Cost of the Arab Spring, October 2011). In Egypt, SCAF has been unable to restore a sense of normality in light of the weekly one-million strong demonstrations that cripple state institutions, and the violations being committed under the pretext of freedom of expression.

Egyptian financial reserves abroad have declined from $29.8 billion to $19.4 billion, a sum that is not sufficient even to meet the requirements of Egyptian imports for 4 months. When we take all these figures into account, one must admit that the claim of peaceful Arab revolutions was nothing more than wishful thinking, and far from the truth. However, it is crucial that there is now a peaceful exchange of power. The results of the forthcoming elections must be respected, with no intentions of violating the principles of social co-existence between different sects and components of society.

In Sharon Nepstad’s book, ” Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century” (2010), the author explains that when civil opposition resorts to arms, the situation often shifts into a lasting conflict between social components, often exacerbated by international sanctions which provide repressive regimes with additional tools to exploit the political situation. However, in rare cases where the opposition uses purely peaceful means, whereby it does not challenge the military or the security apparatus, it can gain social acceptance, thereby granting the country an opportunity to distance itself from the culture of the past.

The greatest challenge facing the “Arab Spring” is distancing itself from violence and politicization. If it fails to do so, the region will not benefit from this period and will only incur more failures and shortcomings. Indeed, the previous regimes were abhorrent, but the situation will not be rectified if the opposition is even more aggressive. Gandhi once said “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”