Break­ing state mo­nop­oly on in­for­ma­tion weak­ened despots

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - PA­TRICK COCK­BURN

A YEAR ago the pop­u­lar anger that grew into the Arab Spring was first ig­nited by an im­pov­er­ished Tu­nisian fruit and vegetable seller, Mo­hamed Bouaz­izi, who set fire to him­self af­ter his cart, his sole means of feed­ing his fam­ily, was con­fis­cated by po­lice.

Within days, pic­tures of protests in his home town sparked by his death were be­ing watched by mil­lions of Tu­nisians on the in­ter­net and satel­lite TV, and the po­lice state that had ruled their coun­try for so long had be­gun to crum­ble.

Twelve months later, the for­ward march of the Arab Spring move­ments re­mains un­pre­dictable. Three au­to­cratic regimes in North Africa have fallen – Tu­nisia, Egypt and Libya – but it is un­clear what will re­place them. Three regimes east of Egypt re­main em­bat­tled – Syria, Yemen and Bahrain – and are likely to be un­sta­ble for a long time to come.

It is be­com­ing clear that the Arab world and the wider Mid­dle East are fac­ing a pe­riod of pro­longed strug­gles for power that have not been wit­nessed since the 1960s. Some fac­tors in the up­ris­ings are com­mon to all these in­sur­rec­tions – such as the de­crepi­tude and cor­rup­tion of the po­lice states – but in other ways each coun­try is dis­tinct. In Libya, for in­stance, Muam­mar Gaddafi was de­feated pri­mar­ily by mas­sive Nato in­ter­ven­tion, so the anti-gaddafi mili­tias may not be strong enough to re­place him. The con­flict in Yemen has be­come a pe­cu­liar three-cor­nered fight be­tween an au­thor­i­tar­ian govern­ment, pro-democ­racy pro­test­ers and dis­si­dent, un­savoury po­lit­i­cal barons from within the elite.

The in­de­ter­mi­nate out­comes re­flect the fact that the protest move­ments in all coun­tries have been coali­tions of dis­parate el­e­ments. Is­lamists rubbed shoul­ders with sec­u­lar­ists. Hu­man rights lawyers made com­mon cause with ji­hadis who had fought in Afghanistan. Such coali­tions could scarcely have come to­gether in the 1990s, when Is­lamists be­lieved they could seize power on their own, and lib­er­als and sec­u­lar­ists were more fright­ened of fa­nat­i­cal Is­lam than they were of their dic­ta­to­rial rulers.

Other fis­sures are open­ing within the dis­si­dent move­ment. “The Arab Spring is turn­ing into the Is­lamic Spring,” a politi­cian in Bagh­dad told me. He might have added that, for many Shia, it is look­ing omi­nously like a “Sunni Spring”, in which the Sunni take over in Da­m­as­cus and the Shia are crushed in Bahrain.

In this sea of un­cer­tain­ties some trends are be­com­ing vis­i­ble. The Arab world as a whole is for the mo­ment weaker than it has been for a long time. But the Amer­i­cans are not in a po­si­tion to se­cure their po­si­tion as the hege­monic power in the re­gion be­cause of their mil­i­tary fail­ure in Iraq and Afghanistan, their eco­nomic cri­sis and their sup­port for Is­rael. Is­rael ner­vously looks for­ward to the fall of the Bashar alAs­sad regime in Syria, but knows it will swop a known op­po­nent for an un­known and pos­si­bly more dan­ger­ous suc­ces­sor.

Worse, from the Is­raeli point of view, the past three years have seen Turkey and Egypt, the two most pow­er­ful states aside from it­self in the re­gion, cease to be its al­lies and be­come in­creas­ingly hos­tile. This is far more men­ac­ing for Is­rael than any overblown threat from Iran.

Will Turkey fill the power vac­uum? Other pow­ers, Western and Mid­dle East­ern, are ea­ger for the Turks to play a lead­ing role in dis­plac­ing As­sad or bal­anc­ing Ira­nian in­flu­ence in Iraq be­cause, in the words of the old say­ing, “it is a great job for some­body – some­body else”.

Look­ing back over the past year, the demise of so many of these po­lice states has a spu­ri­ous in­evitabil­ity about it. Many had come to power in the 1960s or early 1970s in mil­i­tary coups with na­tion­al­ist cre­den­tials. In Egypt, of course, the coup came much ear­lier, in 1952, in re­ac­tion to resid­ual Bri­tish im­pe­rial con­trol and de­feat by Is­rael. It is of­ten for­got­ten to­day that these regimes were once able to jus­tify their rule by cre­at­ing pow­er­ful state ma­chines, es­tab­lish­ing national unity, or, as in the case of Libya and Iraq, na­tion­al­is­ing the oil in­dus­try and forc­ing up the price of oil.

But by about 1975 these mil­i­tary regimes had trans­muted into po­lice states, their rul­ing fam­i­lies mo­nop­o­lis­ing power. By the 1990s such rulers as the Mubaraks, Gaddafis and Ben Alis had be­come purely par­a­sitic, their shift to neo-lib­eral free mar­ket eco­nomics open­ing the door for crony cap­i­tal­ism ex­ploit­ing lo­cal mo­nop­o­lies, whether it was lux­ury car imports in Tu­nisia or cig­a­rettes in Iraq.

Much guff has been writ­ten about how the age of the in­ter­net and Face­book made the fall of these regimes just a mat­ter of time. Like most in­flu­en­tial mis­con­cep­tions, there is a nugget of truth in this. Twenty years ago, Bouaz­izi’s de­fi­ant ges­ture and the protests that fol­lowed might not have been known to the rest of Tu­nisia be­cause the govern­ment con­trolled the me­dia. These days, state mo­nop­oly of in­for­ma­tion no longer ex­ists.

Au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments in the Mid­dle East re­lied on fear to hold power. But they were caught un­aware when the beat­ings and killings they used to cre­ate this ter­ror were made pub­lic on the in­ter­net and Youtube and pro­voked, rather than de­terred, dis­sent. Thus, when the Syr­ian army crushed the Sunni upris­ing in Hama in 1982, killing an es­ti­mated 20 000 peo­ple, I saw no pic­tures of a sin­gle body or ex­e­cu­tion. Con­trast this with Syria to­day, when al­most ev­ery act of state vi­o­lence is placed on Youtube within hours of it hap­pen­ing.

What changed in 2011 was not that beat­ings, tor­ture and killings no longer in­stilled fear, but that gov­ern­ments now have to pay a much higher po­lit­i­cal price for us­ing such meth­ods. The in­ter­net was im­por­tant in this, but what re­ally trans­formed the rules of the game were the Ara­bic satel­lite chan­nels, no­tably al-jazeera. Only 7 per­cent of the Libyan pop­u­la­tion had ac­cess to the in­ter­net, but avail­abil­ity of satel­lite TV was gen­eral. It was this break­ing of the state mo­nop­oly of in­for­ma­tion that has been so cru­cial in weak­en­ing despo­tism in the Mid­dle East. It is per­ma­nently shift­ing the bal­ance of power from the palaces of the rulers to the peo­ple in the streets. – The Independent on Sun­day


LIB­ER­AT­ING: Egyp­tian women march in Cairo in protest at vi­o­lence used against them in clashes be­tween po­lice and pro­test­ers. The writer ar­gues the Arab Spring came about be­cause of a loss of state con­trol.

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