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Why the Arab Spring revolutions stumbled

Mohamed Shuman , Thursday 30 Jul 2015
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I always have reservations on describing what happened in Tunisia in late 2010 then in Egypt, Libya, Syria and the Yemen in 2011 as revolutions. They are widespread mass uprisings which led to the change of the ruling elite faces in Tunisia and Egypt with the continuance of the regime, the state and economic and political policies.

These uprisings drove Libya, Syria and Yemen towards state collapse and sparked wars by proxy on behalf of regional and international powers, taking the form of sectarian and provincial wars. In these wars more than quarter of a million people were killed, about two million were wounded and the displaced and refugees exceeded three million people, according to the UN estimates.

The numbers are shocking and the scene in the five countries is mixed and confused and cannot be described as an Arab Spring because it led to catastrophic situations in Libya, Syria and Yemen and difficult problems in Egypt and Tunisia but it did not reach the extent of civil war and the state's collapse.

Hence, it will be difficult to equalise the five cases, for there are historical and societal differences. However, there are some general characteristics, the least of which is the synchronisation of the peaceful political mobility in its beginnings and its spread like a contagion and maybe as an imitation of Tunisia in the rest of the Arab countries. This synchronisation presents reasonable evidence of the wellness of cultural and political Pan-Arabism.

The widespread and unprecedented popular mobility which took place during 2010 and 2011 in the five countries and the interactions which occurred in the last four years were subject to several explanations and interpretations, perhaps the most important of which are the following:

First: The conspiracy theory which is the most famous and the most circulated within popular quarters. It springs from a postulate that the last five years' events were an outside conspiracy launched, as usual, by America, Western countries and Israel and in another narrative was sparked by Iran and Hezbollah and in a third narrative it was led by the Muslim Brotherhood backed by Turkey and Qatar.

Despite the details of the three narratives, it denies the Arab peoples the ability to revolt or to demand reformation and change. They are always in the situation of the object or the manipulated from the outside and through outside powers that supersede the Arab people's will and their legitimate demands regarding democracy, social justice and establishing a state based on citizenship.

According to the proponents of this theory, the surrender of the Arab countries was not with the same degree. Thus, the state did not collapse in Tunisia and Egypt due to historical circumstances and social and political development; however, both states suffer from problems, the most important of which is the continuance of foreign conspiracies against both of them.

Second: The inability of the five countries' institutions and elites to reach a consensus concerning the steps of political and social reformation whether before the popular uprisings or after them. Reformation constituted one of the most important concepts of the Arab political and media discourse before the Arab spring, although it was not accommodated in any executive steps and the ruling elite did not respond to it albeit its formal talk about it and pretending to be doing it. This has opened the door in front of the revolutionary mobility. The irony is that after millions took to the streets and squares, ruling elites and the state institutions did not respond and present concessions, but showed its class and sectarian prejudices in a blatant way and exposed the state's fragility and sectarianism in Syria and tribalism in both Yemen and Libya.

The worst was that when the new elites attained power in Egypt and Tunisia, they failed to realise some of the most important demands of the masses. Perhaps this is because of its political make-up or due to the resistance of the state's bureaucracy and its institutions which suffer from corruption and refuse change and reformation. This raises anxious questions concerning stability both in Tunisia and Egypt especially that the revolutionary events in the two countries exhausted the economy and caused the emergence of terrorist groups raising Islamist slogans.   

Third: The extent of the ruling regime's authoritianism, its alliances and the nature of the state's formation, especially the army, in the five countries. These factors have defined the behaviour of the popular uprisings in every country and its expectations; peacefulness was predominant in the movement of the masses in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen against the ruling regime where the army sided with the people in Tunisia and Egypt. Thus, Ben Ali and Mubarak gave up power after a few days. In contrast, Gaddafi and Al-Assad relied on armed repression of the uprising from the first moment and waged a war against their peoples. Thus, the people carried arms and with the state's collapse, provincial, tribal and sectarian affiliations became dominant overwhelming the political opposition and the state based on citizenship.

While the majority of the army sided with Al-Assad, there was no army in the known sense of the word in Libya. This means that the bloodiness of the Assad and Gaddafi regimes and their long history of repression imposed on the popular mobility to carry weapons, while the Gulf mediations and guarantees postponed Ali Abdullah Saleh's use of weapons against the people in Yemen.

After 30 June 2013, Egypt has known levels of violence and terrorism at the hands of Islamist groups but still they are limited, and the state is still capable of confronting it firmly and decisively. As for Tunisia, it has faced cases of lesser violence and terrorism, but the threats continue to exist.  

Fourth: The cultural approach. The popular uprisings in the five countries revealed the extent of cultural and political divisions in every society and the historical failure of the state to absorb this division and its treatment where the state always resorted to repressing political Islam with its different versions, chasing its members and siding with the civil powers, which were not civil in the true sense, except perhaps in Tunisia's case.

Add to this, siding with specific sects or tribes and repressing or forging a tense alliance with other sects and tribes in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Hence, all the forces repressed by the state and its institutions participated actively and raised the slogans of freedom, democracy and social justice. However, it was waging its religious, sectarian, tribal and provincial wars internally. So, the modernist was mixed with the religious and the traditional accompanied with a vengeful streak desiring to exact revenge from all the modern state's symbols and its values. This streak found its way with weapons in Syria and Libya and to lesser degree in Yemen, while the vengeful streak among the MB and Nour party appeared to be against all what is civil or modernist after winning the majority of the parliamentary seats after the revolution.

When the MB ruled solely and excluded all the civil forces which supported Morsi in the presidential elections; it was a natural reaction for excluding them historically from the state's institutions. The meaning is that the cultural and political division whether it was religious – civil or sectarian or tribal modernist – was quick in igniting the fire of the civil war and partition after the overthrow of Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh or weakening the authority of Al-Assad.

While the cultural division and polarisation hindered reaching a consensus between factions and constituents of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In all cases, the Islamist terrorist organisations in Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen are violent manifestations of the division and the civil Islamist polarisation.

Fifth: The failed revolutions approach. This approach hypothesises that the five countries have witnessed an unprecedented revolutionary mobility due to the accumulation of despotism, discrimination and the state's failure. However, this mobility lacked in each country the conditions of successful revolutions and the most significant is the revolutionary organisation and the ideology or the vision for change and the absence of clear programmes for change.

The participants in every uprising also did not agree on an individual or collective leadership. Thus, the popular mobilisation failed with its peaceful nature in Tunisia, Egypt and the Yemen or with its violent nature in Libya and Syria, in preserving its momentum, co-existence between its factions and moving into a revolution; changing the regime and making real changes in the wealth, power and the state's institutions.

The revolutionaries did not take power in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, and Syria and Libya entered the civil war case since the beginnings of the popular uprisings. According to this approach, the anti-revolution forces in the five countries and neighbouring countries intervened in different ways to protect their interests or fearing the winds of change and democracy in the region.

Thus, the revolutionary path was hindered and the old forces returned to rule and backed the conflict and civil war parties in Libya and Syria, making the rest of the Arab peoples to look contentedly to its situation in comparison with the five uprisings countries. In addition to the negative roles of the anti-revolution forces, the USA and Western countries applied double standards in dealing with the popular uprisings. They did not welcome them in Tunisia and Egypt, while they encouraged them in Libya and Syria and intervened militarily in the former and stopped short from doing so in the latter. Besides, they did not provide adequate support to the opposition.

With the exception of the first interpretation, I have a persuasion of the significance of the last four interpretations which are indispensible in analysing the path of the Arab uprisings and its stumble making them incomplete for several reasons. I have pointed out some of them and I may add the weakness of the political forces, the fragility of the civil society and the absence of the culture of democracy.

In spite of all this, the parliamentary and presidential elections were on the top of the agenda of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Consequently, it brought undemocratic forces employing religion in politics and understands democracy as a one way course – and only once – in order to reach power. These forces also refuse the participation of other political forces and marginalise women and religious minorities.

The misuse of practising democracy and confining it to the ballot results caused much harm to the two uprisings – the Egyptian and the Tunisian – and hampered their development, although these countries were the nearest to the conditions of the democratic transformation in comparison with Yemen, Libya and Syria.

Finally, there is a question that arises: Did the Arab uprisings or revolutions were a total failure, or it stumbled for different reasons? Thus, the indicators of the state collapse, falling of large numbers of those killed and wounded and destroying the economic pillars of three countries in addition to Iraq, then the emergence of Islamist terrorist groups and the stumble of the democratic transition in Egypt and Tunisia. All these indicators prove complete failure of those uprisings or show its stumble. Thus, it will be completed through a complicated and long historical path in which the Arabs must pay economic, human and moral cost.

This catastrophic path is similar to the situation of Europe in the nineteenth century, in the way presented by Fukuyama, where it spent several decades in order to achieve democratic transformation and the establishment of the state based on citizenship. It is a similarity, which I personally has reservations against, because history does not repeat itself. How much do we Arabs need to learn from history lessons to avoid its catastrophes and sacrifices which may sometimes seem to be meaningless!

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt (BUE).

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