by Ziad AbuZayyad
The recent decision of the Arab League foreign ministers (Nov. 12, 2011) to suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League was interpreted by observers as the last act before international intervention in Syria; the same had happened earlier in Libya. But the Arab League’s decision came after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad failed to understand the course of events in his country in light of what had happened in other rebelling Arab countries, leaving the Arab League countries with no option but to ask the Security Council to adopt the Arab initiative and impose sanctions against the Syrian regime. Such a decision by the Arab League in the past opened the door for NATO intervention in Libya and eventually may serve to allow outside intervention in Syria as well.
The democratic process in Egypt is moving forward very slowly; the High Military Council is still the dominant power in the country. But the army has so far failed to restore stability and internal security. Contrary to the national unity demonstrated in Tahrir Square during the revolution, the political factions and protest movement have failed to agree on a joint position on the future of the economic and political system, and on the relationship between the state and religion within a democratic pluralistic regime including political Islam for the first time. There are divisions within the political elite and political opportunists; in addition, there is a retreat in the role of the young rebel generation as result of their lack of experience and a political agenda. All these factors have become the symptoms of the post-Tahrir Square revolution. Rumors about a possible secret understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army for sharing power has caused a split between the Islamic movement on the one hand, and liberals and secularists on the other. There are strong indications that the army is not relating to the revolution as a revolution and is trying to develop a crisis management policy of kicking out President Hosni Mubarak just as a personnel change to calm down the crowds without allowing real change in the ruling system. The army is willing to continue to rule, not only from behind the scenes but also by including this principle in the proposed constitution! This became obvious after the former government head — Essam Sharaf, guided by the army — presented a document including guidelines for the future constitution known as “Dr. Ali Salmi’s document.” This document was seen by the protest movement as an attempt to constitutionalize the army’s hegemony over running the state. The rejection of this document brought back hundreds of thousands to Tahrir Square. Clashes with the army were renewed (Nov. 20, 2011) but this time with harsh treatment by the army causing the death of more than a dozen and hundreds of injuries. The army-supported, temporary government accused the demonstrators of trying to pressure it to postpone the parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for Nov. 28. The firm stand of the military on this issue forced the elections to be held on time, while succeeding in guaranteeing relative calm and free elections according to all local and international observers.
The fragmentation which took place within civil society and political groups encouraged the army to increase its involvement in civil and political life, while the slow action of bringing Mubarak and his associates to justice, and the continued clashes with demonstrators and arrests gave the impression that the army was maneuvering and not serious about allowing the change for which people struggled. The rise of the Islamists and the emergence of Salafist groups (Islamic fundamentalists), which were banned during the former regime, increased the suspicion and fear of the Christians, who demonstrated calling for guarantees to protect their rights to be embodied in the new constitution.
Obviously, there are some militant groups which are not satisfied with the results of the elections that brought the Islamists close to power and will continue pushing to end the hegemony of the army over political life. Their demands are becoming sharper and clearer — to dismiss the head of the council and transfer all power to a civil government — though not supported by the majority of the people, who fear that the country will sink into chaos and instability. However, the army will not give up easily and will continue to claim the right to have the last say in the country’s affairs. With the exception of the politicized elite and activists, there is a wide popular fear of unrest and support for empowering the army to maintain stability and public order in Egypt.
According to Dr. Abdel Monem Said, chairman of the board of al- Ahram newspaper and publishing house and president of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, in an article published recently in several Arab newspapers, the majority of the Egyptian people want an effective role for the army and a strong president to match a government dominated by the Islamists in coalition with the liberal national parties. This kind of combination will contribute to a self-restrained parliament preventing extremism or radicalism.
A public opinion survey conducted by the Ahram Center last October showed that 38.5% said that the army is functioning well, while 40.6% said very well. This means that 79% are satisfied with the role of the army. Though the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, achieved the needed majority to form the next government, it will not survive without widening its constituency by sharing with other political partners and avoiding confrontation with the army. The pragmatism and wisdom of the Turkish Islamic movement became a model for the Islamic movement in many countries in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Egyptians are interested in maintaining their internal stability and political harmony. This could be achieved by having the army as strong guards, functioning alongside a president who has a strong personality, experience and the efficiency to achieve internal political balance and harmony, retain internal stability and public order and improve the economy. These goals could be summarized by saying that the role of the coming president and government will be to bring Egypt out of its revolutionary situation and back to a normal state with more democracy.
Internal stability will continue to be challenged by the ability of a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood to dispel the suspicion and fears of liberals, secularists and Coptic Christians. Potential for confrontation exists between the Christian Copts and fundamental Salafist groups. The country will lack stability for a while. This will be a challenge for the army and politicians as well. The Egyptian Spring has not blossomed yet, and no one can expect that it will blossom very soon. The future is heavily cloudy! Egypt is a country with an ancient heritage and political traditions. The demand for real change and democracy will not be satisfied by a cosmetic change. The protest movement will keep on until either a bloody confrontation with the army, with all its possible disturbing scenarios, take place, or the army agrees to hand over authority to a civilian government and go back to its barracks.
The bloody confrontation between the police and demonstrators in Tahrir Square in November brought down Essam Sharaf’s government and led to the formation of a new government headed by the veteran politician Kamal Ganzouri, with promises from the army to hand over full authority to his government. But soon Ganzouri’s government was put to the test; the renewed harsh clashes between the demonstrators and the army in Tahrir Square with more than ten deaths and hundreds of injuries in mid-December may bring down the new government as well. The protest movement proved that it will not be satisfied by cosmetic changes and will continue to pressure for a real change. The outcomes in the coming months will show if this will really happen or if the masses will continue to dominate the streets. Such a situation places a large question mark on the ability of Egypt’s economy to survive the crisis.
The democratic process in Tunisia is very encouraging. Regime change took place almost with no victims compared with Egypt, Libya and Syria. The elections brought to government a moderate, enlightened Muslim party, which raised the fears of secularists but is trying by all means to assure its opponents that it is open to sharing power, accepting peaceful transition of power through the election polls and building a civil state.
Libya’s spring was totally different from those of Tunisia or Egypt. The Egyptian people are homogeneous, unlike the tribal social structure of Libya and Yemen. Gaddafi’s 42-year rule encouraged tribal affiliation, preserved the tribal structure of the people and did almost nothing for social, economic and cultural development. He regarded the revolutionaries as rats and was willing to use his military power, including the air force, to crush the uprising. It should be admitted that without the intervention of the NATO forces in Libya, there would have been a massacre against the Libyan people by their own government. This intervention led to the end of Gaddafi but has failed so far, and maybe for a long time to come, in establishing a new democratic regime that respects human rights and adopts democracy as a system of governance. The Libyans revolted against the regime, but they had no unified leadership or political agenda. The revolutionaries were united on overthrowing Gaddafi, but soon after his killing they turned their guns on each other. Confrontations took place between them over taking control of some former regime army and police stations, but their tribal affiliation was in the background. The country lacks discipline and public order; the threat of internal fights is still possible. The challenge facing the new government is how to go back to the situation which was in place before Feb. 10, when the revolt against Gaddafi started.
Collecting weapons from civilian hands, maintaining security and public order and economic development are the three pillars which can hold any new government together. But there are no indications that this will happen in the near future. The capture of Seif El-Islam, the last son of Gaddafi remaining in Libya, gives more hope for the possibility of retaining stability.
The tragic situation in Syria is worsening. The peaceful civilian protest is developing into a military confrontation, and the differences between the political opposition forces mainly in exile are weakening peaceful protests inside the country. Violent armed confrontations between defecting army troops and units and those loyal to the regime are escalating. There are no signals that the regime will give up; on the contrary, it is showing total isolation from reality internally and regionally. After more than 10 months of bloody attacks against civilians and building up counter-attacks by armed protestors, a civil war is inevitable. Converting the peaceful civil protest into a military confrontation will play into the hands of the Assad regime and give him an excuse to use excessive power against the protest movement. This will be a disaster for Syria and the region, because any disturbance in Syria will spill over to Jordan and Lebanon and the stability of the whole region will be at stake.
Yemen is slightly different. Civilian protest is still the dominating factor; the number of victims was and is high while the ruthless President Ali Abdullah Saleh refuses to give up. The United States and the Western countries were not showing a firm position against his atrocities, and his warning of Al Qaeda’s possible takeover of Yemen if he steps down seems to be received seriously by the West. Saleh, supported by some tribes, was cunning and maneuvering to gain time until he could get guarantees of immunity from being brought to trial for his crimes against his people. The recent compromise suggested by the Gulf states to keep him symbolically as president while delegating his powers to his vice president were not satisfactory for the protest movement but was accepted by the political opposition. In spite of the relative quietness it’s inevitable that violence will break out again. The protestors demand that he be brought to trial for corruption and war crimes against his people. Yemen is sitting on a volcano where fighting may erupt at any moment between different factions and ethnic groups.
Jordan is witnessing a protest movement led by the Muslim Brotherhood calling to reform the regime; all measures taken by the king to date are not seen as enough. King Abdullah II is showing seriousness in dealing with the situation by opening channels of dialogue with the opposition to give them their share in the political life of the country, but the reformist opposition, mainly the Islamist movement, is not showing any satisfaction or willingness to accept becoming part of the political reform process. The Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy is that they will not give the regime a chance to save itself by joining it within its current shape. They demand real acceptance of the principle that the people are the source of authority. This implies redefining and limiting the authority of the king and the role of the secret security service (al Mukhabarat), which many people believe is the real government in the country.
Jordan has a unique social and political fabric. The internal political, social and tribal balance is very delicate, and preserving the monarchy seems to be in the general interest of all the elements of the Jordanian people, who are composed of a diverse array of citizens of Palestinian origin, Jordanians from the city and fellow citizens from the Bedouin tribes, those of the north and others of the south, Islamists and secularists, Arabs and other ethnic groups. The survival of the monarchy guarantees balance within the country’s forces so that no one group will take over power at the account of others’ interests. This explains why only in Jordan the protestors did not call for “the change” of the regime but “the reform” of the regime.
Morocco and Algeria
The king of Morocco went far beyond that of Jordan. He does not have to deal with similar delicate internal elements. As a matter of fact, he started a process of internal conciliation several years ago, and trying to preempt a revolution in his country, he allowed a reformed constitution to be legislated in May 2010, and free democratic elections on Nov. 25 of that year. The Islamic movement won the majority as expected, but the change is taking place peacefully though seriously. The change will have an impact on Morocco’s relations with its neighboring Arab countries. A positive improvement in relations with Algeria is developing. If this continues, it will allow for opening the borders between the two countries, which have been closed for 17 years. The Arab Spring is changing the way of thinking among the new regimes. The political climate between Morocco and Algeria will have an impact on resolving the dispute over the Western Sahara. This may allow for the resurrection of the Maghreb Union, which was created in 1989 but crippled as a result of deteriorating relations between Algeria and Morocco.
Elections are scheduled in Algeria for 2012, and the regime promises free and democratic elections. If this happens, and it most probably will, it will add a new dimension to the reform movement in North Africa.
The Occupied Palestinian Territories
Some may ask: Where are the Palestinians in all of this, and what about a Palestinian Spring? It’s true that the Palestinian youth were among the first who were specifically affected by the Egyptians’ spring. There were protestors in Manara Square in Ramallah, and they also tried to gather in Gaza but were dispersed by Hamas security. Palestinian youth are calling for ending the split between Fateh and Hamas. The slogan “The people want to end the split” was the Palestinian version of the Arab “The people want to end the regime.” There is a consensus that the enemy is the occupation. Changing the regime is not on the agenda, but this is not the case concerning corruption and mismanagement. However, resolving the split and unifying the political forces — mainly Fateh and Hamas — as a prerequisite to the national struggle to end the occupation is the top priority. Palestinians’ confrontation is with the occupation and not with their regime or leadership.
However, inspired by the Arab revolutions, Palestinian intellectuals and activists are discussing from time to time the option of a massive civil protest that moves toward the Israeli checkpoints and passages if the standstill in the political process and ongoing Israeli settlement activities continue. External pressure was exerted on the PA leadership to prevent such a development, and the latter made it clear by both words and actions that protests would be allowed only inside the cities and not be allowed to move outward to the Israeli checkpoints. This has worked up to this point, but there is no evidence that it will remain so forever. The impasse in the negotiations and the continued Israeli policy of settlement-building and violations of Palestinian rights by the Israeli military and fanatic Jewish settlers will lead to a general explosion of the situation. It is not a matter of “if” (i.e., probability) but one of “when” (i.e., timing). However, the explosion could be a local event or within the context of a possible regional burst of belligerent activities and violence.
The Arab Spring will have a strong impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on future relations between Israel and the Arab world.
Since the late 1970s and then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel, the Arab countries have shown a gradual but continued defection from the field of confrontation with Israel. This included leading countries in the conflict such as Egypt, Jordan and others which not only withdrew from confrontation with Israel but started to have direct or indirect relations with it. Arab dictators were able to impose war or peace on their people regardless of their will. The Arab revolutions ended this long era of ignoring the people will by maintaining a frozen, stable situation which was for the benefit of Israel in spite of its violation of the Palestinians’ rights.
It is clearly evident that the more the regimes were involved in relations with Israel the more the people were sympathetic and supportive of any resistance against Israel. This has been proven by the failure of the normalization of relations between Egypt and Jordan with Israel. The era of mortgaging the political will of the Arab people by dictatorships comfortable with Israel is coming to an end. We are approaching a new era in which the people’s will is liberating itself from the clenches of dictatorships. This will play against the interests of Israel unless it grasps the moment and makes the needed change to catch up with the regional regimes by recognizing the national rights of the Palestinians, ending its occupation of Arab lands, and realizing the national and religious significance of Jerusalem to the Arab and Islamic worlds.
The Arab Spring was not a surprise. The surprise was why it took so long to come. Many reasons came together to produce these drastic developments: the refusal of the regimes to accept the principle of the transition of power through elections and their insistence on a monopoly on power, as well as corruption, poverty, unemployment and the marginalization of youth and ethnic groups. The young generation, which represents 70% of the population, was the common element in leading the revolutions in these countries, whereas the aged ruling leaders of these countries belonged to only 7% of the population. And finally, the collective awareness, as witnessed in Tunisia when a young man protested by setting himself on fire and when a youngster died in a police station in Egypt brought masses to the streets.
Arab dictatorships ruled with an iron fist and disgraced their own people to the extent that their arrogance went far enough for them to believe that they could pass their reign by inheritance to their sons.
Their countries’ resources were exploited as their own and were shared between their family members, relatives and friends, while their people were left in poverty and underdevelopment.
The U.S. and Europe knew the reality of these regimes, but for their own interests cooperated with them and turned their eyes from their severe violations of human rights and democratic values.
The Arab Spring cannot be compared with the European Spring in Eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe’s culture, mentality and proximity to Western European countries enabled a smooth change and transition there, while these elements do not exist in the rebelling Arab countries. We all know the results:
Arab dictators in Yemen, Libya and Syria declared, “It’s either me or to hell with them” and launched a war against their own people. The war in Syria is still on; no one can predict its results, but one thing we can be sure of: The people broke the barrier of fear and came out in a massive protest that will not be turned back.
Masses went out to the streets and public squares in a peaceful protest and civil disobedience. But the rulers confronted it with excessive power and violence, which led to a violent reaction from protestors, pushing some of them to seek foreign intervention.
No one can predict where these revolutions are heading. They all are speaking about democracy, free elections, dignity, justice, human values, etc. But translating this into reality is another issue. So far, Libya, Yemen and Egypt have proven that this will not be an easy task.
The U.S. and Western European countries fear a real change in the rebelling Arab countries which may threaten their interests and concerns, and are trying to contain these revolutions. The fact that these Arab countries control the world’s largest oil reserve, located in a central strategic junction between the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, and that any change may threaten the future existence of Israel can explain this. Many fears are expressed now by Arab intellectual circles about the fate of these revolutions which raised so many hopes in the beginning but soon faded as result of bloodshed, destruction and failure to make the transition to democracy smoothly and within a reasonable amount of time.
The Arab Spring may not blossom soon. Good governance, transparency, democracy and rule of law have not been realized yet. Hatred and suspicion of the intentions of Western countries is growing. Conspiracy theories have become a fashion. Past experiences with the West and its relations with the former regimes are not forgotten but instead strengthens the fears that what’s going on is a new return of colonialism with new faces and new regimes.
The Arab people have tried Western methods and values, and their bitter memories about their past cooperation with the former regimes are still fresh.
The U.S., the supposed leader of democracy, is losing its credibility due its double standard policy— calling for democracy and human rights for one people and denying it to another, by supporting the Israeli occupation and denying the Palestinians’ right to statehood. The recent position in the Security Council against Palestine’s membership in the UN is used as strong evidence of the U.S.’ biased position against the Palestinians.
The Arab revolutions are inspiring revolutions worldwide — even against the corruption and failure of the Western economic system. The double standard policy of the West, together with the failure of the Western system, discourages Arabs from adopting Western values, and has made them focus on the necessity of change. This change, for many people, could be achieved only by adopting the modern pragmatic Islamic approach. The Islamists seem to be the future. Whatever the U.S. or Europe may try to do to hinder this development, it will not succeed. Replacing the dictators of the past with new ones with the blessings of the West will not survive for long. The masses have learned their lesson and will not give up until they achieve their rights.