How the Arab Spring was hijacked
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
Rayan Fakhoury argues that the Arab Spring has been hijacked, and that, ultimately, it is dead.
On the 4th of January 2011, the now renowned “Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi” died in intensive care following a symbolic act of self-immolation. This was the final act of desperation in protest at the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he suggested was inflicted upon him by a municipal official and her aides. However, to many across the Arab world, it was more than that. It symbolised the dramatic consequences of a life under the repressive rule of an autocratic, oligarchical government, a message that immediately brought forth a surge of empathy from millions throughout the region, suffering under similar oppressive circumstances.
It is essential to recognise that the wave of Arab protest – uprising even – never existed as an organised movement. It was never a unified or co-ordinated effort. It existed in a far more fundamental way, it existed as an idea; a political and human experience, as a self-consciousness that surfaced among the Arab world triggered by this symbolic gesture of a man in despair. Far more importantly though, it emerged following years of autocratic rule, of the systematic rejection and denial of human rights across the region, as well as economic hardship and surging unemployment inflicted upon the citizens by what is typically a minority-ruled despotic government and its totalitarian policies. Thus with Bouazizi’s act of desperation erupted a wave of protest and revolution across the Arab world; Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and the Gulf states to name a few.
Yet despite its humble and powerful beginnings as an act of sustained popular will, the Arab Spring was in itself fundamentally flawed, as if suffering from a hamartia (or tragic flaw). Let’s take Egypt for example, whilst the revolution was largely successful in that it rid the country of a worthless dictator, a lack of organisation and political parties led to a power vacuum which was easily exploited by essentially fundamentalist parties such as the Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political maneuvering was initially met with some resistance among the more liberal protestors but ultimately lacked the organisation to act effectively on the national and political level. This comes as a direct result of the oppressive nature of the former regime in suppressing any potential political dissent; as ultimately the only remaining political party with the organisational efforts to assume any form of influence and control over the government was the Muslim Brotherhood. The spontaneity of the Arab Spring that was so crucial in its sustained success and international recognition – in that it literally took the form of a frustrated and repressed civilian population, and not a unified political opposition – also became its downfall due to the fact that from this disorganisation emerged a political and social vacuum that was capitalised upon by these aforementioned parties. It is pivotal to recognise the demographic from which this revolution started, and this was essentially an educated, intellectual youth – generally liberal – battling for reform in favour of economic and political freedoms that were never experienced by previous generations but that were, through education and media, exposed to the youthful revolutionaries. It is also essential to emphasise that this young liberal generation, that brought about this revolution, were immediately pushed aside and now lack the political authority to become significant on the international stage and within the government. Thus the population that had worked so tirelessly to bring down an oppressive dictator were forced with the decision of another member of the former regime, and hence no change at all, or a party which for many did not represent their own views and brought with it fears of further repression; under a different logo.
Herein lies the flaw of the Arab spring: quick revolutionary policies undertaken by the entire (but by no means unified) population have quickly led to a power vacuum easily exploited by radical movements which are organised enough to take advantage of the situation. The same has been evident in Tunisia – as evidenced by the recent 13th August protests for women’s rights following a clearly oppressive change in the constitution by the current government with regards to women, a clear step back in the nation that was always considered the most secular in the Middle East. It’s also clear in Yemen, where a lack of stability and the emergence of a vacuum has been exploited by Al-Qaeda who have now made considerable progress in militant operations in the south. Even the Libyan uprising has paved the way for other human rights concerns and the exposure to more radical groups as a result of the nation’s volatility. For example, the pure negligence of international law and human rights in the treatment and death of Gaddafi (regardless of how evil he was as an individual) shows just how unprepared and unorganised the rebels were for any real future progress. This is further highlighted and emphasised by Russia and China’s sustained condemnation on the misuse of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 by NATO for aggressive and essentially military regime change purposes in place of what was initially described to be a humanitarian intervention.
Syria poses an even more focal threat to the stability of the region, and carries with it a set of intricate and complex political threads which are far too heterogeneous to make wild generalisations about (and for this reason I plan to dedicate an entire article to the Syrian conflict). However, it is crucial to understand that this instability is fundamentally tied to the failings of the Arab Spring, as what began as peaceful protests (which was often met with repressive force, but was also sometimes met with the hope of significant reform; as evidenced by the government’s proposition for a reformed constitution, that underwent change as early as June 2011 under the supervision of respected Western intellectuals and legal experts – notably endorsed and partly written by Professor Sir Jeffrey Jowell, the acclaimed professor of Public Law at UCL – and yet was often intentionally overlooked by the international media. It must also, however, be noted that these reforms were taken by many within Syrian society and externally to be “too little too late” following the initial oppressive responses of the regime) escalated into all out war that threatens the regional stability of not just Syria, but the entire Middle East. One must independently analyse the different external agendas and roles that caused this escalation, as it is intrinsically more complex than the acts of a hegemonic government against its people – as many a media station would like the general public to believe. Despite the narrative now suggested in the West, armed men were present on the streets of Syrian cities and villages since the early days of the Syrian awakening 18 months ago. True, the Arab Spring initially began largely as waves of peaceful protests, and yet more than one camera crew (including Al Jazeera, although this footage was afterwards discarded from their broadcasts due to its misalignments with their own national agenda) captured film of gunmen attacking Syrian soldiers near the village of Wadi Khallak as early as May 2011. That same month, Syrian television obtained tape of men armed with Kalashnikovs near crowds of unarmed Syrian protesters in Deraa.
There is nothing civil about the war in Syria; on the contrary, it has become a proxy war in which regional and global powers capitalised on the initial instability of the region – under the often misconstrued veil of peaceful protests – in order to shift the regional and global power distirbution in their favor, in what has essentially become thinly disguised imperial ambition by a whole collection of states (although it is important to recognise that the Syrian regime is no innocent player either). This is clear from the emergence of foreign mercenary powers from the very start of the revolution, which the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia have publicly claimed to arm and support financially in order to distort the balance of power in Syria, to the now widely-recognised presence of Al-Qaeda and Salafist groups performing their ‘Jihad’ in Syria. The media as well has played a crucial role in this conflict, with CNN recently describing a group of masked, heavily armed gunmen as “activists”, a title that would never be given to such an explicitly violent group of the opposition who have – as well as the Syrian regime – been accused of war crimes and severe violations of human rights such as tortures, the sacking of churches and inhumane executions by the likes of Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch; and with Syrian state TV offering its own wave of propaganda to the public. Further exploitations by the Russian, Chinese and American governments only highlights the massive foreign influence exercised in this conflict. Also a particularly critical faction has been the focal role played by the portion of the initial peaceful protestors or army defectors that have taken up arms legitimately in defence of their civil rights against a historically oppressive regime. This entire distortion of the conflict is perhaps best epitomised by Syria’s deputy prime minister’s statement that “The global balance of power takes place in Syria”. It is precisely this convoluted diversity of factions and external agendas that makes any reasonable, pragmatic prospects for peace perhaps naively optimistic; and now, the danger exists for Syria to turn into the next Afghanistan.
Ultimately, the Arab Spring is dead. What once began as a spontaneous self-consciousness among the Arab people, what seemed to be an indestructible political experience has been hi-jacked by its own faults and the essentially imperialistic ambitions of external and regional powers. The Middle East now, more than ever, seems vulnerable to perpetual conflict and rapidly deteriorating instability.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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