The Arab Spring – a premature celebration


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Podcast produced and presented by Alex Burd

In December 2011 a Tunisian vegetable vendor set himself alight in protest at the economic policies of his country. The death of Mohamed Bouazizi would light the touch paper in Tunis and the surrounding Arab world which would see dictators toppled, wars break out and millions of people displaced in what would become known as the Arab Spring.

9781783606696Many seasons have come and gone since then and Tunisia has gone on to hold its first free elections since the country’s independence in 1956. However the wider region remains in a state of severe unrest. Professor Richard Falk of Princeton University in the United States is an expert in the Middle East and has reported on the Israel-Palestine conflict for the United Nations. His new book – Chaos and Counterrevolution: The Arab Spring (Zed Books 2015) argues that the initial optimism of 2011 has been replaced by oppressive government or brutal civil war. He spoke to me from his home in Istanbul via Skype about the major topics in the book. With the Arab Spring representing a multitude of movements in several countries we focused on a several case studies – the uprising in Egypt, the civil war in Syria and the reaction in America.

The domino fall of authoritarian regimes in the region was greeted with optimism in both the West and the Middle East, however Professor Falk believes this was misplaced, no more so than in Egypt.

Prof Richard Falk: What seemed so exciting in 2011 and was recognised as the Arab Spring especially by the mainstream media always seemed to me to be a premature celebration. That these uprisings in the Arab world which were certainly unexpected and more formidable than could have been anticipated were still not very clear in their program or their understanding of the pre-conditions of a genuinely transformative politics. For instance in Egypt the most important country in relation to the Arab world, the notion that you could transform the Egyptian political scene merely by getting rid of the hated leaders and his immediate entourage and leaving the armed forces more or less in control of the state was a naive notion.

For real change to take root Falk believes that change must be wholesale and absolute. For inspiration he thinks the current movement should look back to 1979 and the Iranian revolution.

RF: What the Iranian revolution did achieve was a rupture with the political past which was associated with the Shah’s government. But what was missing in the context of the Arab Spring is that you can’t really have a rupture with the past unless you transform the bureaucracy that was operating in the in the past. In Egypt particularly with its strong political centralisation has a very strong bureaucracy and very centralised government structure. And, to depend as the uprising in Tahir square did depend on the good will of the military was a very precarious way to achieve a transition to a more inclusive and democratic political order, which was the goal of the Arab uprising.

Having not thought past the initial challenge to existing regimes the movements that make up the Arab Spring have found themselves struggling to control the vacuum left behind by the men they’ve displaced.

RF: There were two main scenarios depending on the particular conditions in each of the principal Arab countries which existed. One was the restoration of authoritarian rule the like of which existed during the Mubarak period. And then was re-established in even more severe form by the July 2013 coup led by General Sisi. The alternative was a period of protracted conflict and chaos epitomised by the situation that emerged in 2011 in Syria but then has subsequently to Lydia and Yemen.

The West initially championed the uprisings around the Arab world. With the movement in Egypt led by a new generation of activist, active on social media, the West hoped that the Arab Spring would usher in secular, liberal regime while maintaining the beneficial economic relations that were remnants of the imperial age.

The hope was that you could have this more moderate governing process without disturbing the advantageous economic links to the global economic order, I think that was the hope. That hope to a large degree frustrated by the unexpected political popularity at least in 2011 and 2012 of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was known to be a political force in the country. But Egyptians as well as outsiders thought that it would remain a minority force and the new leadership would essentially be secular and maintain continuity with the Mubarak past. The economic dimension which is certainly part of the argument of my book is not perhaps given as much attention as it deserves. Clearly these authoritarian regimes are closely linked to the economic framework of globalisation, and that makes the external actors – both the private sector actors and the governments – have a bias towards maintaining the established order, to the extent possible. In response to what happened in Egypt there was an attempt to adapt to what seemed like a revolutionary transformation and keep as much of the established order in being as possible. But then the Muslim Brotherhood rose to the political leadership as a result of democratic elections there was more and more nervousness on the parts of external actors including Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA. This expressed itself by being happy with the 2013 coup which was really antagonistic to the supposed commitment to a more democratic political order in the region and so it demonstrates the primacy of geo-politics in relation to political democracy.

The reaction in the West has been mixed and inconsistent, varying from indifference, to verbal posturing, and more recently bombing campaigns. While the early years of the 21st century have been dominated by American involvement in the Middle East, the USA has been reluctant to get embroiled in another conflict in the region. Professor Falk has believes his response marks a change in American foreign policy towards the region.

RF: I think it was an attempt to demonstrate that the US could live in a post-colonial world and could accept the dynamics of self-determination, especially if they seemed to be heading in a moderate direction. There was the recognition that the intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq had proved to be political failures and there was the feeling that the policy that had been adopted towards Turkey after it elected a somewhat Islamic leaning government in 2002 was an important way of preserving Western interests without relying on force. So it was a kind of effort to think that soft power diplomacy was sufficient to protect Western interests in the region.

Obama has made multiple pronouncements on the subject but hasn’t been prepared to authorise boots on ground.

President Barack Obama I have at this point not ordered military engagement in the situation but the point you make about chemical and biological weapons is critical. A red line for us is if we start seeing a bunch of chemical weapons being moved round and used. That would change our calculus.

Falk also believes that the personal politics of the Commander in Chief are key in outlining his response.

RF: That Obama was a domestically orientated President – he had opposed the Iraq war, his campaign to be President rested on removing American troops from Iraq; so he has certain scepticism about using American troops to achieve foreign policy goals in the region. If he had lost the election to Romney one might have had a more interventionary policy and no one knows how that would have worked out but judging how it has gone elsewhere and in Libya itself it’s doubtful that it would have proved successful. The lack of action has come into conflict with the wishes of the American’s staunchest allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Along with the President’s domestic focus Falk believes that the relationship with Israel in particular has been a significant impediment on US foreign policy in the region.

RF: From the Israeli point of view democracy in the Arab wold is always threatening because the public is much more committed to Palestinian liberation or national determination than are the elites or the governments. So from the very beginning Israel was nervous and both Israel and Saudi Arabia were unhappy about the failures of the USA to give Mubarak the amount of support he should receive.

I regard Israel as a very big burden of the pursuit of American national interests and the interests of the wider world in a stable, peaceful Middle East. A large part of the special relationship between thus and Israel is conducted behind closed doors but there is no doubt in my mind that if there wasn’t a special relationship the US would press for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East and solve the Iran problem in a much simpler and satisfactory way and probably have a spill over into other issues including the Israel – Palestine conflict.

One of the ongoing theatres in the Arab Spring has been the civil war in Syria. The United Nations estimated that from the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011 to January of this year two hundred and twenty thousand people have been killed and that number has continued to rise. The ongoing refugee crisis has made headlines around the world and many organisations estimate that one in two Syrians have been displaced either internally or in surrounding countries. This has led to calls for Western powers such as the United States and the European Union to intervene and avert this humanitarian crisis. Professor Falk believes that while some motives may be pure, Western foreign policy is often tempered by other factors.

RF: The motivations of some of the proponents of the right to protect were and are humanitarian but I think the implementation of the norm is conditioned by the geo-political setting. for instance the refusal to do anything to protect the people of Gaza while intervening to protect the people of Libya is to me illustrative of a geo-political doctrine that can be justified by material considerations, strategy, resources, and the humanitarian issues provide a cover for that then that’s all to the good. But if you have a clear case of humanitarian vulnerability and catastrophe as Gaza seems to me to have been for a very long time and nothing is done it suggest the hypocrisy of treating this as a morally norm.

Now the closest I think international practice came to humanitarian intervention is probably Kosovo in 1999 but there again there were other non-strategic interests one of which was the demonstration that NATO was still an important political actor in the post-Cold War setting and this was the intervention in Kosovo was on the 50th anniversary of NATO and also the sense that it was important to uphold the political viability of Europe as a place where human rights were protected or at least genocide was avoided.

The most significant Western intervention came in Libya. Britain and France led a NATO coalition which established a no-fly zone in the region following the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. This moved was backed by the USA and contributed to the overthrow and death of Gaddafi in September 2011. This was seen by some as a model for Western involvement in the Arab Spring – however Professor Falk disagrees.

RF: What was done in Libya seemed to have far less risk associated with and more reward because of the oil and wealth of Libya as a country. In comparison to Syria which has virtually no oil and is not a rich country, it’s afflicted a climate changed induced drought and unlike the isolated regime of Gaddafi, the Bashar Al-Assad had a much deeper and broader base of support and a more sophisticated capability, as well as having important friends like Iran and Russia. So on the one level it’s prudential, and another level it’s the geopolitical stakes. In Libya the stakes seemed quite high, while in Syria they seemed to quite low compared to the risks. One can understand the differences in approaches based on these two sets of considerations.

What has further complicated matters in the region has been the rise of the Islamic State militant group. The jihadist organisation goes by many names is believed to have been founded in 1999. It came to international prominence in 2014 when it declared a caliphate in the Middle East. Having once worked alongside Al Qaeda the two have split in recent years due to differences in tactics – Richard Falk believes the two groups still share some key similarities.

RF: ISIS is a strange formation of which the whole story isn’t fully known, it seems to have emerged partly of the purge Ba’ath party and partly was seen in its early phase of resolving the Syrian crisis in a positive anti-Assad manner. As happened in Afghanistan with al Qaeda this is another Western constructed Frankenstein which comes back to challenge its initial creator or supporter. So there’s a big blowback dimension to the relationship to ISIS. That this was something that either partially allowed to take shape as a result of Western policy and then pragmatically something maybe consistent with those policies until it turned its fury against Western interests and Western values. The same thing happened in Afghanistan where these extremists were seen as very useful as long as they were anti-Soviet but it didn’t occur to those that were giving them weapons in support that there support was to the West whether it was in its Communist form or American form.

The mistakes in Iraq, in Afghanistan – even with complete military superiority it is hard to translate into desired political outcomes. On the part of sophisticated policy planners there is a fairly wide consensus that intervention has not been successful. It’s a lesson the US should’ve learned in Vietnam where it had complete military control and yet it lost the war and was defeated politically despite an enormous investment of personnel and resources. The same pattern has been repeated again and again. There’s been an attempt to reinvent counter-insurgency doctrine to make hard power intervention more instruments, to learn from the past but so far there hasn’t been a formula found that for an acceptable price makes military intervention geo-politically attractive as an option.

As the five year anniversary of the start of the Arab Spring approaches it is difficult to remember the initial optimism that greeted the uprisings as unrest, repression, civil war and terrorism has gripped much of the region. Can country really be seen to have come out of the Arab Spring movement better off? Richard Falk believes that Tunisia, where it all began, offers some hope – though not without reservations.

RF: I think the Tunisian uprising was the most sophisticated in terms of understanding what it took to be inclusive in this post-dictatorial period after the elimination of Salah, the dictator. The leadership, including the Islamic movement, was very subtle in its view that it would be a mistake to try to concentrate power in an Islamic party. In that sense this was more reassuring to the West and built a solider base for political reform in Tunisia. But even there difficulties have emerged. But elsewhere we find no comparable success as far as trying to challenge political order.

Chaos and Counterrevolution: The Arab Spring by Professor Richard Falk is published by Zed Books and is available now. I’m Alex Burd and you’ve been listening to Pod Academy.

Photo: Tahrir Square 2011 by Iokha

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