The Arab Spring
Oringially Published in Empirical's May 2012 Issue
It started in Tunisia. A poor street vendor in his mid-twenties, humiliated, assaulted and suffering the confiscation of his wares at the hand of the police, sought help from the mayor of his city. Finding that the mayor was apparently not interested in his complaint, the young man who, according to the account of family members had suffered police abuse many times before, set himself alight in protest. He is said to have cried out “how do you expect me to make a living?” before his public self-immolation, visible to the busy traffic in the center of the small town, Sidi Bouzid.
Within weeks he would die from his wounds; before that he would have also helped, intentionally or not, to stir into life a movement whose consequences were as unforeseeable and striking as its coming was unexpected.
The Arab Spring was, and is, by all accounts an organic, authentically “grass roots” movement whose influence is like that of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity in Poland during the twilight of European communism.
The comparison is both apt and misleading: the contagious influence of the democracy-seeking uprising has moved with what seemed like an irresistible momentum and popularity that panicked local autocrats into either immediate promises of moderation or brutal crackdowns. However, Walesa’s highly organized movement changed Poland after nine long, hard fought years of struggle. The late Muhammad Bouazizi and his accidental revolution changed Tunisia in weeks, and swept over much of the Arab world soon after. The comparison with Poland does not bear out in full for many other reasons. Reasons that are under-reported, shameful, and that involve us.
One of them is that this time we were not exactly on the side of democracy. The Arab Spring affected not just one nation but a whole sub-sphere of countries that are aligned by way of religion and, largely, by autocratic strangulation that the ostensibly liberty-promoting West has long colluded in.
This happens to be uncontroversial. It is a matter of fact. For years, Tunisia sat under the weight of its vain, pro-Western, self-serving dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had replaced an ailing and long-serving reformist predecessor in 1987. His accession, which led to the beguilingly-titled “velvet revolution” was supported by European powers, as they explicitly admitted. In 1999 Fulvio Martini, former head of Italian military secret service SISMI, admitted to a parliamentary committee that “in 1985–1987 we organized a kind of golpe [Italian for “putsch”] in Tunisia, putting president Ben Ali as head of state, replacing Bourguiba who wanted to flee.”
Bourguiba did not necessarily want to flee. In fact, although he was in poor health, he was “helped” out of office by a man who pushed for his impeachment on medical grounds in an effective coup d’état. “President-for-life” Bourguiba was replaced by a politician who tried to cling on to power as long as possible and made it to nearly half the way of his predecessor’s thirty-year term.
Tunisia under Ben Ali became what an internal US diplomatic document released by Wikileaks describes as “a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems.” This was in July 2009; the cable also acknowledges the concerted efforts of a persecuted pro-democracy movement in the country, at first glance indicating Washington’s sympathies. Not so. Despite the (accurate) insights of the memo, the US had maintained ties to the pro-US regime of Ben Ali and even sent military aid just as the movement for democracy began to spread across the country, during the birth pangs of the Arab Spring.
Stephen Zunes of Foreign Policy in Focus wrote in January 2011 of US policy toward Tunisia: “Congress weighed in with support of the regime by passing a budget resolution that included $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments . . . [that] provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid.”
Just to clarify: the largely non-violent, pro-democracy, anti-corruption protests in Tunisia, which were met in those early days by violent suppression, were not supported by Congress. Instead, military aid was dispatched to the oppressors. Around this time, Hillary Clinton told the world that the US “was not taking sides,” despite the tell-tale funding.
The money sent to Ben Ali, although instructive, is a bagatelle (less than 1%) compared with the aid that was directed toward Tunisia’s regional big brother, Egypt, the nation of Tahrir Square. US support for Egypt’s ex-ruler Hosni Mubarak, ousted by an unprecedented display of massive public discontent and solidarity, was a constant fixture for decades, as internal memos candidly acknowledge: the purpose being to defend Israel’s security (pragmatic) and to maintain US access to the Suez Canal (strategic).
The US had been a party to the maintenance of the corrupt power of Mubarak, acting as a singularly important insurer of the regime’s viability. The planes that flew over Tahrir Square, representing a military force on the wrong side of democracy, were made in America and sold by American companies to a brutal dictator who had a record of torturing and killing his own people. This is a fact that the State Department knew perfectly well.
The British and other European partners colluded in this as they do with the regime in Saudi Arabia: a place where torture goes unpunished if it is done by the right family, and where Uganda’s late leader Idi Amin, and now Tunisia’s Ben Ali, have tasted sanctuary due to the generosity of the same. The cries of “Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam!” (“The people want to bring down the regime!”) were fatally silenced in Bahrain with UK-made arms and vehicles, with the support of the ruling House of Saud. Not a word of serious or high-profile protest from Washington or London on that matter.
As for Libya, and there can be no doubt that the NATO forces that intervened in the country’s civil war far exceeded the mandate granted them by UN Resolution 1973, Gaddafi’s removal was a messy affair. That he was a man guilty of crimes against humanity is not remotely contestable.
A significant but under-reported example of this surfaced in March this year, after an international tribunal on crimes committed during civil war in Sierra Leone was concluded. In the opinion of the chief prosecutor, David Crane, a senior international lawyer, Gaddafi should have been held responsible for crimes against humanity along with the former ruler of Sierra Leone, Charles Taylor. Crane told The Times of London that moves to prosecute Gaddafi had been initiated, given that he “was ultimately responsible for the mutilation, maiming and/or murder of 1.2 million people” in the war in question.
Unfortunately, any such attempts to do so were prevented by the governments of the United States and the UK, a story virtually effaced from world news at the time. When asked why this happened, Crane’s reply to The Times was terse: “Welcome to the world of oil.” Crane may or not may not be right in his assertion, but the fact remains that the prosecution’s attempts were blocked. This is likely due to the fact that Gaddafi was undergoing a period of détente with Western nations at that time, and a number of major energy companies were operating in the country. It is true that, on the positive side, Western leaders such as Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy have all praised the democratic gains of the Arab Spring and pledged support. Time will test the substance of their words.
For the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and post-Gaddafi Libya, now comes the hard part: the flood of challenges faced by nascent democracies in the third and “second” world. In Egypt the people remain dispossessed of the power to act by themselves, even en masse, against the mountainous strength of the armed forces. Although supportive of the revolution, the military leaders do not appear to want to lose power after it. What sociologists refer to as the “monopoly of violence” or crude power still lies with that ethically ambiguous institution, and is unlikely to be seriously threatened by future leaders.
Elsewhere in North Africa, Libya-the-liberated has to rebuild Sirte and other cities, which have been devastated in parts to a likeness of Europe in 1945, but that is a relatively minor challenge. If the National Transitional Council can hold firm to their promise of constitutional reforms and genuinely democratic elections, Tunisia’s future looks set for democracy to become established.
But there are many shades of democracy, and some of them are simply shadows cast on a cave wall. Merely holding monitored elections does not ensure that corruption, nepotism, and foreign interference will not intrude on the new territory, thereby sidelining the interests of the average Tunisian.
The risk of the latter is not small. There are a number of reasons. The post-Gaddafi political power gained from the “people’s revolution” is being handed over to an elite, who are likely to establish themselves as leading candidates for future elections, if historical precedents are anything to go by. It should not be forgotten that the Chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdul Jalil, used to be the justice minister in Gaddafi’s government. He can be tied to a wide swathe of crimes committed against the Libyan people in this role, even if he was just following orders.
What’s more, the French newspaper Liberation reported that the rebels made overtures to France just two weeks into the civil war, requesting support for their campaign in return for a guarantee of 35% of the nation’s oil when liberated. The evidence for this is contained in a letter allegedly written to the Emir of Qatar by members of the NTC. Reuters reported that it “saw a copy of the letter,” written in Arabic, which states that the interim government’s information minister Mahmoud Shammam had authorized a deal with France.
The evidence has been described as a fake by Shammam, and denied by the French government, but some, including the prominent journalist John Pilger, believe its authenticity. Pilger cited the letter as one of many articles of “evidence for what the thing really is.” Whether or not it is the case that a deal was done, corporate interest in Africa’s most oil-rich nation is high, and all but the most naïve must realize that this will have political consequences.
The view of leading business insiders such as Emad Mostaque, a senior strategist from panies are desperate to position themselves. Talking to Reuters in August, Mostaque stated: “Libya is a fantastically wealthy country that doesn’t need foreign money but foreign expertise. This could be the start of an experiment in hydrocarbon-fueled capitalism with a lot of money up for grabs.”
Libya’s resource wealth was outlined neatly by The Washington Post in an article on June 11th this year: “Libya has some of the biggest and most proven oil reserves—43.6 billion barrels—outside Saudi Arabia, and some of the best drilling prospects.”
Indicative of what may be to come, Britain’s trade and investment council are already in Tripoli. Shell and BP’s shares rose on the news that the firms were talking to the transitional government.
In Iraq, not too long ago, foreign influence weighed heavily into hydrocarbon laws receptive to foreign direct investment (FDI). In addition, the very constitution of the newly liberated country was written in a handful of months, with the real work done by four political figures all with ties to Washington in five weeks, sometimes discussing the binding central document in the air-conditioned confines of Baghdad’s US embassy.
As one Iraqi contributor to the official constitution drafting committee, Mahmoud Othman reflected (in a Washington Post article published on August 13, 2005), “The Americans say that they didn’t intervene, but they intervened deep.” Othman claimed that the US helpfully “gave us a detailed proposal, almost a full version of a constitution” to work from during the draft sessions, a statement that sits uneasily with the image of the US as the steward of free democracies.
But Libya is not Iraq, and constitutions can be amended. What are much harder to change are the details of oil contracts that may be hastily signed on terms favorable to foreign investors.
The most popular of these is the “Production Sharing Agreement,” or PSA. PSAs are agreements “in which the corporation provides capital investment” in return for “control over an oilfield, and access to a large share of the revenues from it” according to the oil-industry monitor, Platform.
PSAs routinely have clauses that fix a company’s involvement in a nation for forty years or more—sometimes indefinitely. They often force the government to protect the profits of the company against any future changes of law or adverse circumstances. Unless Libya has a referendum on this individual issue, a deal granted by a PSA might be agreed to without public consent, betraying the ghost of fair play and democracy that the rebels project.
There are a host of other issues to confront. As Phyllis Bennis wrote in Salon not long after Gaddafi’s death, “the challenge facing post-Gaddafi Libya is daunting.” She went on to indicate that already existing divisions are beginning to become painfully apparent and need addressing: “Rifts between east and west have amplified, with the. . . NTC widely distrusted in other areas of the country.” She added, “They have already had difficulty setting up shop in Tripoli, where anger remains at the disproportional Benghazi/Eastern Libya representation.”
The risk of internal tensions, even a second civil war, remains a possibility in Libya, where now, according to Russia Today, “The country remains dotted with the posts of militia forces who are refusing to lay down their arms.”
Finally, a serious human rights issue is constituted by the plight of non-Arabs in Tunisia, especially sub-Saharan Africans who are subjected to pockets of racist violence and the suspicion of being former members of Gaddafi’s mercenary forces. While it is true that militias from elsewhere in Africa were hired by the dictator prior to and during the war, many innocent people have been and continue to be threatened by extra-judicial violence based on the political implications of their skin color. Little is being done to prevent the attacks.
Despite all of the above, the Arab Spring remains a miracle of recent history. The fact of its emergence and–crucially–its eventual success in ousting dictators in three key countries in the Muslim world, demonstrated to the world that popular movements can actually change things. It showed that a lot of people exercising their collective strength can touch the untouchables.
Furthermore, it killed off a number of ghosts. The non-violence, dignity, and immense courage of protestors facing down the armed might of dictators exploded certain “war on terror” caricatures of Muslims that have obsessed the Western media. The millions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere suddenly replaced images of grim-faced terror suspects, Hamas suicide bombers, or that famous evil man with the beard on Al Jazeera.
How overdue it was. Bin Laden’s death could not have come at a more epochal and appropriate moment: his brand of extreme political Islam was made utterly irrelevant in the era of Tahrir Square. Al Qaeda leaders struggled to respond, coming out in favor of endorsing the uprisings, but their voices were insignificant.
Events like these offer hope, but also offer the potential for crashing disappointment if their potential is not fulfilled. Western governments, if they can see beyond their purely selfish interests, have a unique opportunity to be partners in a democracy-founding project that could signal a sea-change in our
relations with the region.
In Libya we can, for example, use our influence to enforce the protection of the human rights of indigenous Africans suffering in the country, and to avoid a second round of civil war. If we are set on making money out of the country, we can at least try to create decently paid jobs for Libyans. A great deal of the power to achieve this rests in the hands of the interim governments of the newly liberated nations, including their capacity to resist the multitude of temptations that will be thrown their way by interested actors. They have a difficult task, and they do need help from the Western powers. But if they are to take history seriously, they have no reason to make approbatory gestures without exercising the caution of the less deceived.
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