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IDSA COMMENT

Was there ever an Arab Spring?

March 23, 2017

The unfolding tragedy in the Arab world began as the Dignity Revolution in Tunisia in December 2010. It led to the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ruler since the bloodless coup of 1987. In turn, the coup of 1987 had removed from office President Habib Bourguiba who had held office for 30 years right from the country’s independence from France in 1957. Subsequently, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt fell in February 2011 after ruling for 30 years. He was followed by Colonel Gaddafi of Libya who, in power since 1969, fell in August 2011 and was brutally shot dead two months later. Finally, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, in power since 1978, reluctantly resigned in February 2012.

In short, between January 2011 and February 2012, four dictators, who had ruled or misruled for a total of 128 years over 120 million human beings, fell. And more than once, it appeared that President Basher al Assad, in power in Syria since 2000, would also fall. But Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah came in and put him on a life-support system. There is no immediate prospect of his fall.

Was the Arab Spring a Mirage?

When President Hosni Mubarak fell on February 11, 2011 as Egyptians fearlessly called for his resignation from the historic Tahrir Square and elsewhere, many long-time observers of the Arab world recalled the immortal words of Wordsworth about the French Revolution “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”. But after six springs, a horrendous death toll of about 550,000, and 11 million rendered homeless, we realize how starry- eyed we were. To understand what happened and what went wrong, it is necessary to look at each country specifically.

Tunisia

Tunisia is the only success story, and that too a partial one. Democracy is reasonably rooted with an excellent constitution, easily the most advanced in the Arab world. There was never any serious threat of an army coup, though some reactionary elements invited the military to step in after Egypt saw the fall of democratically elected Morsi in the wake of a popular agitation engineered and promoted by the military and the rest of the Deep State in July 2013.

However, there are some dark clouds in the Tunisian political firmament. Economic progress has been tardy and unemployment remains high at 15 per cent, even higher among the educated at about 30 per cent nationally, and even as high as 35 to 40 per cent in the backward regions. Another matter of grave concern is that 3,000 young Tunisians have joined the Islamic State in Iraq/Syria as fighters, the largest number from any country. The terror attacks on the Bardot Museum (March 2015) and the holiday resort at Sousse (June 2015) have compelled Tunisia to tighten the law to combat terror in a manner that abridges civil liberties.

Egypt

Egypt witnessed a counter-revolution. The Deep State wrested power from the elected president in July 2013. Its hold has only become tighter since then, despite an attempt to have a democratic façade by way of a contrived election that made Field Marshal El Sisi President in June 2014. He banned the Muslim Brotherhood and branded them as terrorists with no justification whatsoever. There was a massacre at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square (August 2013), distressingly reminiscent of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The toll was over 800. Freedom of expression has almost vanished and Egypt has moved away from democracy at a rapid rate. Egypt has serious economic problems. Between 2011 and 2015, GDP growth have averaged at a low of 2.5 per cent a year. Public debt as a percentage of GDP has gone up from 82.1 in 2011 to 88 per cent in 2015.

Libya

The next dictator to fall was Ghaddafi who had seized power in a bloodless coup in 1969. He was inspired by Colonel Nasser of Egypt. A megalomaniac, Gaddafi did a lot of good and even more harm to Libya. He did use the oil revenue to improve the living standard of the people and the infrastructure, but he destroyed institutions and concentrated power in his own hands. When he fell, there was utter chaos and the country went back to the Hobbesian state of nature with everyone fighting with everyone else. Currently, Libya has more than one government. There is no national army, but any number of war lords.

The key question is: why did the West intervene militarily in Libya and that too with such alacrity? President Sarkozy recognized the rebel National Transition Council (NTC) as the sole representative of the Libyan people on March 10, 2011, five days after it was formed, even as the European Union was to meet the next day at summit level to discuss Libya. In an interview to a French TV channel on March 15, 2011, Gaddafi said that he was puzzled that Sarkozy was against him as he only ‘had made him President’ by sending him money for his presidential campaign in 2007. Though Sarkozy has denied accepting money from Gaddafi, it is generally known that as Interior Minister he had visited Gaddafi in 2006 and asked for money for his presidential campaign of 2007. A Libyan document dated December 10, 2006, mentioning a decision to allot up to Euro 50 million to Sarkozy, was accepted as genuine by the Council of State, the highest court in France, on November 6, 2014. The scandal of accepting money from Gaddafi was one of the causes of Sarkozy’s failure to get the nomination for the forthcoming election.

Despite his taking money from Gaddafi and signing big contracts with him, Sarkozy was seriously concerned about Gaddafi’s plans for a new African currency and for establishing a United States of Africa. Both projects would have undercut France’s influence in Africa. By 2010, Gaddafi had ceased to be a friend and had become a threat to France. Obviously, Sarkozy did not want to be ‘exposed’ by Gaddafi and it is believed that it was a French secret agent who fired the shot that killed Gaddafi on October 20, 2011. The Economist and BBC have scrupulously avoided mentioning the scandal of Sarkozy’s taking money from Gaddafi and have sought to explain his action as an instance of R2P (Responsibility to Protect) – a doctrine that was formulated after the US-led West failed culpably to act when the 1994 Rwanda genocide occurred. The BBC took part in a disinformation campaign that invented or exaggerated stories about mass rape by Gaddafi’s soldiers and other atrocities.

Obviously, Sarkozy had the motivation. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister during the civil war and Sarkozy’s primary interlocutor, told the Egyptian TV channel Dream TV that it was a foreign agent who killed Gaddafi. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the UK’s Daily Telegraph and others have carried reports about a French secret agent killing Gaddafi. Shall we ever know the truth?

Syria

The saddest case is Syria. Initially, if Basher al Assad had responded to the call for his resignation by reaching out to the people and announcing and carrying out reforms, Syria might have been spared the horrors we all have witnessed helplessly. Be that as it may, the intervention of external powers, both in favour of Assad and of the rebels, added fuel to the fire.

The United States under President Obama called on Assad to step down in August 2011 but did not have a policy on Syria. Arms were given to chosen rebels, but never enough to defeat Assad who obtained generous support from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Washington looked the other way when the Islamic State was capturing territory including Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq (June 2014), based on the wrong assessment that eventually the Islamic State would be a ‘strategic asset’ that could be used against Assad.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia sent arms and money to their chosen rebels. The rebels were never united in fighting Assad and often fought among themselves. As of now, there is no real threat to Assad though he is on a life support system provided by Russia and Iran. Syria is de facto balkanized and Assad’s writ runs only in a third of the country in terms of area though the population is concentrated there. The Islamic State is facing the possibility of military defeat, though one should bear in mind that the toxic ideology can inspire terrorist attacks even after loss of territory.

Yemen

After President Abdullah Saleh reluctantly resigned in February 2012, for a while Yemen moved towards a democratic destination with an approved constitution. But two obstacles came in the way. First, Saleh wanted his son to have a high position and, when that did not work out, he was ready to shake the system. The Houthis with a majority in parts of Yemen did not like the constitution as it reduced their political clout. Saleh, who had influence in the army and bureaucracy, and the Houthis joined together and challenged the government headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saleh’s successor. Hadi was not up to the task. The rebels captured the capital and the Saudis, fearing that Iran would gain if the Houthis succeeded, intervened militarily in March 2015. The US and UK sent arms to Saudi Arabia. Egypt and Pakistan declined to send troops despite a request from Riyadh. There is no clear evidence of Iran’s sending arms to Houthis and, in any case, there is a blockade. More than 10,000 have been killed. The Saudis have violated with impunity the international laws on war. The sooner there is a negotiated settlement the better. But Riyadh is still chasing the mirage of a military victory.

Bahrain

Bahrain saw demonstrations, but Riyadh sent in troops and the situation was brought under control, at least for the time being. Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries spent lavishly on welfare and took strict action to put down expressions of dissent. Overall, the monarchies in the GCC as well as in Morocco and Jordan have responded to the political challenge more smartly than the dictators.

The Economic Cost

The turmoil has caused enormous economic destruction. According to the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the cost of reconstruction will be a mammoth USD 614 billion. Who will pay? The US under President Trump? The GCC with their falling oil earnings? A European Union in disarray with Brexit and much else? The answer is painfully clear.

Conclusion

Though it began as a search for a path to political democracy in Tunisia, the Arab Spring was used or misused by different external powers and some entrenched interests within the Arab world including the Deep State to prevent the march towards democracy. The international community lacks capable leaders who can bring order out of the horrible chaos that is. However, it also showed that people cannot be intimidated by the police state forever.

It is an unfolding play and the end is uncertain. But it is difficult to be optimistic about a peaceful Syria emerging in the near future. The war in Yemen might end sooner as Riyadh realizes the impossibility of a military victory. There are reports that the UAE has already signalled its disapproval of Hadi’s rather uncompromising stand. Abu Dhabi expects Riyadh to bring Hadi round to a negotiated settlement.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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