Five years af­ter the Arab Spring

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

“It was very bad luck, but non-vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion is still a vi­able tech­nique — and democ­racy is still just as suit­able for Arabs as it is for Poles, Peru­vians or Pak­ista­nis. It’s just go­ing to take a lit­tle longer than we thought in 2011.”

Five years ago this month, the “Arab Spring” got un­der­way with the non-vi­o­lent over­throw of Tu­nisia’s long-rul­ing dic­ta­tor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

He dared not or­der the army to open fire on the demon­stra­tors (be­cause it might not obey), he was run­ning out of money, and even­tu­ally he flew off to Saudi Ara­bia to seek asy­lum.

In an Arab world where satel­lite tele­vi­sion broad­casts and so­cial me­dia had ef­fec­tively de­stroyed the power of the cen­sors, prac­ti­cally ev­ery­body else spent the four weeks of civil protest in Tu­nisia tensely watch­ing what the Tu­nisians were do­ing.

When the Tu­nisian rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies won, sim­i­lar non-vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions de­mand­ing democ­racy im­me­di­ately broke out in half a dozen other Arab coun­tries.

It felt like huge change was on the way, be­cause the world had got used to the idea that non-vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tions spread ir­re­sistibly, and usu­ally win in the end.

The ground-break­ing “Peo­ple Power” rev­o­lu­tion in the Philip­pines in 1986, for ex­am­ple, was fol­lowed in the next three years in Asia by non-vi­o­lent democrati­sa­tion in South Korea, Tai­wan, Thai­land and Bangladesh, and failed at­tempts at non-vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion in Burma and China.

Sim­i­larly in east­ern Europe, the fall of the Ber­lin Wall and the col­lapse of the Com­mu­nist regime in East Ger­many in 1989 was fol­lowed by non-vi­o­lent democrati­sa­tion in all the Sovi­et­dom­i­nated “satel­lite” coun­tries by the end of the year.

The Soviet Union it­self broke up in 1991, and some of its com­po­nent parts also be­came demo­cratic.

Non-vi­o­lence was a magic po­tion, and peo­ple as­sumed that it was bound to work in the Arab world too.

They were wrong. The non-vi­o­lent move­ments de­mand­ing democ­racy spread just as fast, but their only last­ing suc­cess was in Tu­nisia.

Egypt and Bahrain are back un­der au­to­cratic rule, and Ye­men and Syria are both be­ing dev­as­tated by civil wars and large-scale for­eign mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion. Libya is also be­ing torn by civil war (al­though the rev­o­lu­tion there was never non­vi­o­lent).

Is­lam is not in­com­pat­i­ble with democ­racy. In­done­sia, the most pop­u­lous Mus­lim coun­try, had a non-vi­o­lent demo­cratic rev­o­lu­tion in 1998 and con­tin­ues to be a thriv­ing democ­racy to­day.

Turkey has been demo­cratic for decades, al­though Re­cep Tayyib Er­do­gan, the cur­rent pres­i­dent, is do­ing great dam­age to the coun­try’s demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

Pak­istan and Bangladesh are both democ­ra­cies, al­though tur­bu­lent ones.

So what went wrong with the “Arab Spring”?

In the case of Bahrain, the prob­lem was that the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion is Shia, but the rul­ing fam­ily is Sunni and saw the demo­cratic move­ment as an Ira­nian plot.

Neigh­bour­ing Saudi Ara­bia saw it the same way, and sent the Saudi army in to crush the “plot”.

Ye­men was a lost cause from the start, since there was al­ready an in­cip­i­ent civil war in the coun­try. Now it’s a full-scale war, with for­eign mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion by a Saudi-led coali­tion that in­cludes half the coun­tries in the Arab world, and the non-vi­o­lent pro­tes­tors are busy hid­ing from the bombs.

Syria was a hard case since the Ba’athist regime, in power for more than forty years, had ac­cu­mu­lated a great many en­e­mies. The Alaw­ite (Shia) mi­nor­ity who dom­i­nated the regime were ter­ri­fied that they would suf­fer from re­venge-tak­ing if they lost power, and were will­ing to fight to the last ditch to keep power.

But it is also true that Turkey and Saudi Ara­bia, and later the United States as well, en­cour­aged an armed up­ris­ing in Syria that un­der­cut the en­tire non-vi­o­lent move­ment.

It prob­a­bly wouldn’t have suc­ceeded any­way, but it re­ally didn’t get tried. And in Egypt, the non-vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion ac­tu­ally won.

The vic­tory didn’t last long. The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood won the elec­tion in 2012, and the ur­ban, sec­u­lar mi­nor­ity who had made the rev­o­lu­tion pan­icked. They asked the army to in­ter­vene, and the army was happy to oblige — so now the army runs the coun­try again, af­ter a mas­sacre of non-vi­o­lent Mus­lim Broth­er­hood pro­test­ers in 2013 that was prob­a­bly worse that the slaugh­ter on Tien­an­men Square in 1989.

Egypt is by far the big­gest coun­try in the Arab world. If it had not thrown its democ­racy away, about a third of the world’s Arabs would be liv­ing in a democ­racy to­day.

It was very bad luck, but non­vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion is still a vi­able tech­nique — and democ­racy is still just as suit­able for Arabs as it is for Poles, Peru­vians or Pak­ista­nis. It’s just go­ing to take a lit­tle longer than we thought in 2011.

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