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The Portuguese lesson | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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At 12.25 AM [1974], a Lisbon radio station aired the song “Grândola, Vila Morena”, which was banned during the rule of dictator Antonio Salazar (1932-1974) as it was a favorite of the communists. This was the signal for some army elements to stage a coup against the regime, and within the space of one day – April 25th 1974 – Marcelo Caetano’s government surrendered. The people were joyous and took to the streets to celebrate the fall of a dictatorial regime that had lasted over five decades, but the perpetrators of the coup never imagined that their movement would lead to what some political historians term the “third wave” of democracy, which would continue for years, incorporating Spain, Brazil, and around 30 other countries in Europe and Latin America.

However, the peaceful transfer of power was not guaranteed, as the fall of the regime could have divided the units of the Portuguese army in accordance with their ideological orientations, from right to left, not to mention the remnants of the former regime.

Portugal continued to simmer for more than 18 months, during which six successive transitional governments held power. Farmers, laborers and the military held consecutive strikes as a result of worsening economic conditions, and at the time it seemed that a civil war between the conservative north and the left-wing, socialist-influenced south could erupt at any moment. During this difficult stage the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with his Portuguese counterpart Mلrio Soares in Washington, warning him that Portugal could experience conditions similar to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, and a state of decline in its confrontation with the communists. He said: “You are a Kerensky [Chairman of the Russian transitional government after the 1917 revolution]. I believe in your sincerity but you are naïve”. Soares replied angrily: “I don’t want to be a Kerenksy”, to which Kissinger responded: “Neither did Kerensky”. Contrary to all expectations prevailing in America and Europe, the Russian revolution scenario was not repeated; Portugal transformed into a democratic state, in large part thanks to General Antَnio Eanes, who led a military campaign to confront the communist officers, thus ending any threat to the fledgling democracy, and was duly elected Portugal’s new head of state [in 1976].

There is no doubt that those observing the popular uprisings that have swept the Arab world since January 2011 could find sizable similarities between what happened in Portugal and other countries of similar language and culture, and what happened in the countries of the “Arab Spring”. It is true that each experience has its own characteristics, but there are many similarities. Tunisia is very similar to Portugal in 1974, Egypt resembles the case of Brazil in 1985, whilst it can be argued that Yemen is like Colombia at the end of the 1990s, and Libya is a combination of [Hugo] Chavez’s Venezuela and Uganda under Idi Amin. As for Syria, it is very similar to Croatia after the collapse of Yugoslavia. The purpose here is not to apply these cases to specific Arab countries, but it is useful to consider the examples of other counties that went through similar experiences. Today, there is a heated debate going on in every “Arab Spring” country between those who support a peaceful, civil transition of power based on the principle of “social absolution” for the past era, and between those who call for the completion of a revolutionary model based on revenge, which would lead to the destruction of the existing regime and the emergence of a new revolutionary regime based on populist tyranny.

This debate is nothing new; many countries that have undergone revolutionary political transformations have experimented with different scenarios, sometimes ending in democratic models, other times ending in oppressive totalitarian regimes that were worse than their predecessors. There is no doubt that the region is still going through a transitional phase that may last for years; there are countries that are well on their way towards peaceful transitions, such as Tunisia, and there are others that are progressing slowly but are engrossed in concerns and clashes between political forces and the army, such as Egypt. Other countries have not made progress, such as Libya and Yemen, but at the same time they have not transformed into civil warring states. As for Syria, it seems like its long crisis is destined for civil war unless there are domestic and international guarantees to preserve the sectarian and ethnic balance in the event of the al-Assad regime falling. Every day that this bloodthirsty regime continues, it works to widen social gaps and burn the social fabric among the components of the Syrian homeland.

In his book “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century”, Samuel Huntington indicates that many parts of the world have experienced three waves of democracy, each of them followed by a return to totalitarian rule. During the first wave (1828-1926), wars and revolutions were undertaken to overthrow significant empires such as the Ottoman Empire, which was followed – between the years 1922 and 1942 – by a state of regression embodied in the rise of fascism and Nazism.

The second wave (1942-1962) was characterized by the liberation of Western Europe and the establishment of democratic systems, and the emergence of nationalist, independence movements in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. However, between the years 1958 and 1975, these countries witnessed a series of coups that destroyed democratic institutions such as parliamentary elections.

The third wave (1974-1991) incorporated more than thirty countries that transformed into democracies or at least moved towards liberal reform projects.

This historical division is undoubtedly disputed, because each state has experienced different conditions. For example, at a time when Kuwait was going through a democratic transformation in the 1960s, a country such as Libya was witnessing a revolutionary military coup led by Muammar Gaddafi and his associates, i.e. Libya was experiencing a state of regression. However, Huntington’s thesis was not only concerned with historical divisions, but also with studying the conditions and circumstances of the transition process in countries that witnessed a historic change in the structure of their ruling regime, and the administration of the state. Perhaps the highlight of Huntington’s thesis is the distinction between three obstacles to democratic transformation, and their role in instigating a regression away from democracy, as can be seen in the Iranian revolutionary model for example. Huntington says: “In China, the obstacles to democratization in 1990 were political, economic and cultural; in Africa, they were overwhelmingly economic; in the rapidly developing countries of East Asia and in many Islamic countries, they were primarily cultural”.

The problem for the advocates of the “Arab Spring” in our region is that they want to ride the wave of popular protests and go through the motions without taking into account the political, economic and cultural obstacles to democratic change. They argue that gradual reform will not succeed in achieving anything, and that regimes use this as a slogan to cover up their lack of legitimacy.

The advocates of the “Arab Spring” can be divided into two groups: the first are the Islamists of various affiliations; from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Salafis, or the independents who are seeking to fulfill a personal project. As for the second group, the majority of them are from the liberal left who raise the slogan of being rights or reform “activists”, yet they are closer to the “anti-establishment” current than social reformers. The difference between the two parties is that the Islamists enjoy popularity based on the religious undertones inherent in their conservative communities, and likewise they are closer to the street and act on the ground to provide voluntary services to the public.

As for the liberal left – in more than one Arab country – they are engrossed in a utopian perception of change, and today they are temporarily allied with Islamic parties and personalities under the pretext of this “change”. They are unaware of the conditions required for a gradual, civil, peaceful transition of their regimes, and for this reason some of them are nothing more than 21st century “Kerenksys”.

Some have dismissed fears about the state of chaos that followed the “Arab Spring” as nothing more than history repeating itself, justifying this by saying that every revolution must go through a state of turmoil and chaos. However, for those who say that peaceful, civil change must be achieved through a revolution, it is important to note that the state of chaos in the Portuguese example that we considered earlier did not last long, rather the key figures at the time sought to spare their country from a state of regression by confronting the revolutionary forces, prioritizing the interests of the state over the fantasies and dreams of the revolutionaries.

Any political or human rights activist protesting in demonstrations or on social networking sites should ask themselves: Is it necessary for the country to go through a state of chaos in order to achieve a democratic model? Of course, there are violent, dictatorial regimes, and it is natural that people will stand up in the face of injustice and violence, but in countries with economic and political stability, advocates of reform must work to develop their regimes and reform their culture, and not intentionally take a leap into the unknown. Behind every wave, as Huntington pointed out, there is a state of regression away from the values of democracy, and the “Arab Spring” is no exception.

The Roman historian Tacitus once said: “The first day after the downfall of a wicked Emperor is the best of opportunities”.