It was on 17 December 2010 that Tareq Bouazizi, a 27-year-old street vendor of fruits barely making a living to support his family in the small town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, attempted suicide by setting fire to himself. The primary provocation was that he was harassed and insulted by petty local officials. He died on 4 January 2011. That act of protest started a chain of cause and effect initially known as the Arab Spring, but more correctly can be called an Arab Tsunami, which swept off power autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, all within thirteen months. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was in power for 23 years; Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, 30 years; Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, 42 years; and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, 34 years. When each dictator fell, there was hope that the country might move towards democracy even if the route might prove to be long and difficult. That hope has proved to be a mirage, except in Tunisia.
Let us seek an explanation for what happened and what did not happen. In Tunisia, the aspirations for democracy prevailed for two reasons. One, there was no ‘Deep State’ that wanted to grab power and prevent the emergence of democracy. Two, the Islamist Ennahda Party under the wise leadership of its founder Rashid Ghannushi played a responsible role after emerging as the winner in the first post-Ben Ali election. The recent award of the Nobel Peace prize to the civil society quartet in Tunisia is an appropriate recognition of its political maturity and determination to pursue democracy.
Coming to Egypt, Mubarak abdicated on 14 February 2011 for two compelling reasons. One, the popular revolt against him was widespread and there was no way of putting it down unless the Army stood by the President and started killing hundreds. Even that might not have worked. The second reason was even more important. The Army ‘invited’ Mubarak to leave, primarily because it did not want Mubarak’s son Gamal to succeed him. Since 1952, Egypt has been ruled by men in uniform and the Army, heading the Egyptian Deep State, was not going to accept a civilian President. In short, the 25 January Revolution of 2011 in Egypt was only half-a-revolution. The people and the Army wanted Mubarak out, but for different reasons.
The Muslim Brotherhood won the general election and the Presidential election. But, the Army held on to the levers of power. President Morsi tried hard, but rather clumsily, to recover power, and rapidly alienated a large section of the population. The Army saw the opportunity, skilfully encouraged an anti-Morsi agitation and ‘kidnapped’ President Morsi on July 3, 2013 and toppled him, effectively reversing the 2011 revolution. Field Marshal El Sisi, elected President in June 2014, still enjoys popular support though he has hardly taken Egypt towards democracy. Egyptians do seem to prefer military-administered stability to democratic chaos.
In Libya, without the NATO military intervention, Gaddafi might not have fallen, or fallen when he fell (August 2011). With Gaddafi’s fall and his killing, Libya descended into chaos, mainly because he had destroyed all political institutions, and external powers coveting the oil wealth of the country added fuel to the fire of civil wars already raging. There are two Parliaments and two Governments in Libya and any number of armed groups. The United Nations has been arranging talks between the two governments, but it is too soon to say what is going to happen. NATO intervention was a big error of judgment and the people of Libya and the region are paying a high price for it. It seems that the Western political leadership has recognised the error.
In Yemen, Saleh tried hard to cling on to power, but finally and reluctantly, left office in February 2012. His deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was elected President and for a while Yemen moved towards democracy by adopting a new constitution. But Saleh was watching and sulking. The Houthis, a Shia group, were dissatisfied with the constitution and with Saleh’s support they started an armed revolt in 2015. President Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh decided to intervene militarily in Yemen with support from the rest of the GCC (except Oman) and the war is on though some UN-sponsored talks have taken place. The Saudis have accused Iran of instigating and supporting the Houthis, though without any convincing evidence. The two primary reasons for Yemen’s lack of progress towards democracy are the persisting hold of Saleh on the army and the higher bureaucracy as well as the failure of the political system to address the grievances of the Houthis in good time. Yemen remains de facto divided.
It is in Syria that the Arab Tsunami has done maximum damage. The death toll has exceeded 250,000 and almost half of the 22 million population is displaced. When protests occurred in early 2011, the Syrian government reacted with unnecessary violence. As we all know, violence provokes counter-violence, and soon external powers added fuel to the fire by extending support to President Basher al Assad on the one hand and to his numerous opponents on the other. Assad’s opponents are far from united and they seem to agree only in seeking the president’s fall. But for the military support of Iran, its ally the Hezbollah, and Russia, Assad might have fallen. But he still has support from the people who do not see any alternative to him. The West made a serious error in insisting on his exit from power.
Syria is de facto divided into many parts. The Syrian government’s writ runs over only one-third of the territory, though that is the more populated part of the country. The Kurds are virtually running their own territory. The Islamic State (IS) holds territory in Syria and Iraq, virtually abolishing the 1916 Sykes-Picot line. There are other fiefdoms too in Syria. Except for the Islamic State, the various rebels in Syria are supported by the US and its Western allies as well as by Saudi Arabia and its allies including Qatar and Turkey.
A number of conferences in Geneva, Vienna, New York, Moscow, Cairo, Riyadh and elsewhere have taken place, but so far to no avail. Given the seriousness of purpose on the part of the external powers, the political process can succeed.
The emergence of the Islamic State based on state violence at its extreme has caused much distress in the international community. The West and the rest of the world was shocked when the IS carried out an attack in Paris killing 130 on 13 November 2015. Earlier, it had placed a bomb in a Russian jet carrying tourists returning to Russia from Egypt, killing 224 people when the jet crashed in the Sinai. The threat of terrorist attacks from IS is serious.
However, it should be pointed out that the Islamic State would not have been as powerful as it is but for President Basher al Assad and President Obama. As the Islamic State was emerging, Assad did not try to put it down and did let it grow as he wanted to tell the West that his fall would result in the taking over of the country by violent extremists. Obama watched the growth of the Islamic State and decided to do nothing to stop its growth on the flawed assumption that at some point of time it can be used as a ‘strategic asset’ against Assad. The US did nothing to prevent the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State. When the helpless Yazidis and Christians were killed and raped, the US watched doing nothing. It is only when IS fighters appeared to threaten Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan state where the US has major strategic interests including oil, that the US started bombing Islamic State fighters. The bombing started on 9 August 2014. Eleven days later, James Wright Foley, a US citizen, was beheaded by the Islamic State. He was the first US citizen to be beheaded.
Until the West stops insisting on Assad’s exit from power, there is no basis for cooperation between it on the one hand and Russia and Iran on the other for seeking a ceasefire and a political resolution to the Syrian situation. The Western position is shifting, but it is yet to realise that it has no power to unseat Assad. A broad based coalition against the IS is being attempted, but it is too soon to say how effective it will be.
What is the future of the IS? The loss of Ramada (29 December, 2015), which it had since May 2015, to Iraqi government forces is a serious setback to the IS. It was the combination of air attacks by the US and action by the ground troops of Iraq that defeated the IS in Ramada. The question is whether this formula can be replicated with a larger ground force in order to administer a decisive military defeat to the IS, say, in Mosul.
When the Arab Spring dawned in Tunisia, the GCC responded by using its money power to launch welfare schemes costing billions of dollars It worked everywhere except in Bahrain. Finally, Saudi Arabia sent in troops to put down the protests when the regime in Bahrain appeared to be in danger of falling. The protests in Bahrain have lost their momentum for the present.
India has watched the Arab Spring scrupulously, avoiding taking sides but constantly arguing the case for a negotiated resolution of differences as there is no military solution. India does not believe that democracy is exportable. India has special interest in the political stability of the whole region and of the GCC in particular for obvious reasons. India successfully arranged for the repatriation of its nationals from Libya and Yemen. Efforts are under way to locate and get released a group of forty odd workers in Mosul.
The IS can pose a threat to India. But, so far only a dozen or two young people have joined it and some have come back disenchanted. The cyber space recruitment has to be stopped and the Government of India is seized of the matter. There is no need for India to join any bombing campaign against the IS or otherwise get militarily involved in the region in turmoil.
Looking for an epitaph for the Arab Spring, Shakespeare’s lines come to mind:
O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day;
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away.
That dark cloud is strong, but the sun is shining in Tunisia. How soon will the sun dispel the clouds once again? It seems difficult to be hopeful for the moment.
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)
Courtesy IDSA- The Arab Spring that was and wasn’t
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