The West can’t direct the Arab Spring, but we can support it

Middle EastSecond anniversary of the Arab uprising was celebrated last Monday by a crowd pelting the President of Tunisia with stones and crying “The people want the fall of the government”. It was the demand that led to the fall of the President Ben Ali two years ago after a young vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid in despair at his treatment by the officialdom. His family has since had to move to Tunis to avoid the locals angry at falling employment and insecurity that followed the revolution he caused. (source: Adrian Hamilton – The Independent, UK – 21/12/2012)

No, it hasn’t been all plain sailing in the two years of the Arab Spring and there are plenty of people around who are ready to write off the whole movement as yet another example of the ungovernability of Arabs unless they are brought to heel by a dictator. And you can find plenty of reasons if you are so inclined to despair of Middle East’s inability to achieve peaceful reform. A civil war in Syria, a torn country in Libya, an Egypt in which an elected president planned to take on more powers than his unelected predecessor are hardly cause for optimism. Yet to see what is happening in terms of a call for democracy, and failure to manage it, is to misunderstand its nature and its momentum. Mohamed Bouazizi didn’t kill himself because he wanted to vote. He set himself alight because, trying to make a humble living selling produce, he found himself blocked and humiliated by a system that was only interested in enriching itself.

His death aroused such a groundswell of fury because his frustrations resonated with most of the population. For 60 years now most of the Middle East has been run by authoritarian regimes, most of them backed by the West, which have suppressed their people and monopolised wealth among their family and friends. Overthrowing that was never going to be easy and it was idle of the outside world to have thought it would be. What you are talking about is not simply a change in government but a change in the whole way that society and the economy operates. You can’t expect mature politics to be instantly practised in countries such as Egypt where political parties have been banned for half a century. You cannot expect a regime change, as in Tunisia, to produce immediate benefits when employment falls and prices rise. Arab Spring hasn’t developed in the way that the collapse of Soviet Union did, although Ukraine and the Central Asian states have hardly sped along a smooth road of democracy. You need only to look at recent history of Yugoslavia and the Balkans to see that the collapse of central control releases all sorts of violent racial and ethnic tensions which have lain dormant under the surface. The Arab Spring is no different. It would fly in the face of history to believe that the end of authoritarian regimes in Syria or North Africa won’t lead to civil strife or that they won’t cause unrest amongst their neighbours, even discounting the Sunni-Shia divide which so obsesses Western commentators. The central point, however, is that, just as in 1989, we are seeing the end of a long era. Of that, no one should be in any doubt. Call for change, an end to corruption, and the exercise of greater freedom for ordinary citizens is now being heard in every Middle Eastern country and beyond.

You can put it down to the mobile phone and the internet or to demographics or to other social changes but it is now nearly impossible to see the genie being put back in the bottle. Even in the Gulf, where it was long believed that oil riches would enable sheikhs to buy off trouble among their small populations, there are protests in the streets. Old regimes won’t give in easily. Kuwait has joined Bahrain in fiddling elections and suppressing opposition. United Arab Emirates has started to censor the internet. Oman has jailed leading activists and even so-called liberal Qatar has thrown a poet-critic of its Emir into prison for life, as if blanking out messages, incarcerating opponents will keep a lid on dissent. In contrast, the King of Morocco early on met protest with a dramatic change in the constitution which allowed the election of an Islamist Prime Minister. It would be idle to believe that all this will necessarily end in regime change. But it would be equally naive to think the Middle East tomorrow won’t be fundamentally different from today. West’s interests are not to try and determine the course of change, however unnerving the events, but to support it. Instead of worrying about the politics, we should concern ourselves with the economics. The EU greeted the Fall of the Wall with an immense effort to aid reconstruction and to bring the newly independent countries into the fold. We should be thinking of the same for the Middle East. Its future is just as important for us. 


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Consultor Internacional

One Response to The West can’t direct the Arab Spring, but we can support it

  1. BAHRAIN, one of America’s more repressive allies, tries to keep many journalists and human rights monitors out. I recently tried to slip in anyway. The jig was up at the Bahrain airport when an immigration officer typed my name into his computer and then snapped to attention. “Go back over there and sit down,” he said, looking at me in horror and keeping my passport. “We’ll call you.” The Sunni monarchy in Bahrain doesn’t want witnesses as it tightens its chokehold over a largely Shiite population. Almost every evening, there are clashes between the police and protesters, with both sides growing more enraged and violent. Around 100 people have been killed since Arab Spring protests began in Bahrain in February 2011. I was in Bahrain then as troops opened fire without warning on unarmed protesters who were chanting “peaceful, peaceful.” The oppression has sometimes been nothing short of savage. Police clubbed a distinguished surgeon, Sadiq al-Ekri, into a coma — because he tried to provide medical aid to injured protesters. By all accounts, torture has been common. In the larger scheme of things, Bahrain is a tiny country and maybe doesn’t matter much to the United States. What nags at me is that this is a close American ally — assaulting people in some cases with American equipment — yet the Obama administration mostly averts its eyes. This is a case not just of brutal repression, but also of American hypocrisy. After that initial crackdown in 2011, the king commissioned a blunt outside report, and the Obama administration hoped that the country would ease up under the more open-minded crown prince. That hope is collapsing, and Bahrain is now clamping down more tightly. “The human rights situation in Bahrain has markedly deteriorated over recent months, with repressive practices increasingly entrenched,” Amnesty International noted in a recent report on Bahrain. It concluded: “the reform process has been shelved and repression unleashed.” The crackdown has, in turn, hardened the opposition, which increasingly turns to Molotov cocktails, rocks and other weapons to confront the authorities. Moderates on both sides are being marginalized. This is a tragic turn for Bahrain, which traditionally was a lovely oasis of prosperity, moderation and toleration. Astonishingly, the country’s ambassador to Washington is actually a woman from Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community (…..)


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