The Arab Spring’s foreign spoilers

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 4 January 2021

Much analysis has been written to mark the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Understandably, many have focused on the domestic reasons why, with the exception of Tunisia, hopes of democratic transformation were dashed in most states that witnessed protests, ushering in instead instability, renewed dictatorship and civil war. Yet, the external reasons for the Arab Spring’s failures should not be dismissed or marginalised.

From the very beginning, foreign powers, whether regional or international, interacted with domestic forces and played a major role in determining the fate of the popular uprisings that swept the region. While the Arab Spring’s first popular uprising, in Tunisia, took regional and international powers by surprise, they were far less passive about the copycat protests that erupted across the Arab world in its wake.

The United States, at the time led by Barack Obama’s administration, which didn’t want to be caught on “the wrong side of history,” was a prominent player. In Egypt, it was only once Obama had turned on his ally, President Hosni Mubarak, that the protests translated into regime change. It was Obama’s message to the Egyptian military, via Defence Secretary Robert Gates, that Mubarak must resign that prompted his removal. 

Similarly, Obama’s decision to back British and French plans for Nato to intervene militarily under the pretext of preventing Muammar Gaddafi from crushing protesters ultimately led to the fall and death of the Libyan dictator. Yet, for all these seemingly positive moves, the US did as much to contribute to the uprisings’ failure.

On 14 March 2011, when the Bahraini government crushed its nascent protest movement with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Washington remained silent. With Bahrain home to the US Fifth Fleet, and the Obama administration keen to retain Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s backing for the Libya campaign, the White House indicated that sometimes geopolitical priorities trumped its support for democratic protesters.

Likewise, when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was toppled in a 2013 coup,again backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the US did nothing to defend the elected government, eventually endorsing the new dictatorship established by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Some have argued that US activity, or inactivity, also worsened the fates of uprisings in Syria and Libya. In Syria, Obama called for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down when he brutally crushed protesters, and eventually sent weapons and money to the armed rebels that tried to overthrow him.

But Obama’s efforts were half-hearted, and he didn’t follow up with direct intervention, even after Assad crossed his “red line” of using chemical weapons. This all helped to fuel a civil war by aiding the rebels enough to fight, but not enough to win. In Libya, the US’ relative retreat after Gaddafi was defeated, offering very limited institutional and state-building support to the new democratic government, contributed to its collapse into civil conflict.

et, the US was far from the only injurious international power. Russia and China repeatedly intervened at the UN Security Council to veto numerous attempts to punish Assad for his repression in Syria. Moscow was determined to prevent the collapse of the Baath regime in Damascus, providing weapons and money to shore up Assad’s depleted forces before intervening directly in 2015 with its air force and special forces to turn the tide of the war.

Since then, President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in the Middle East have widened, but again he has primarily been supporting autocrats, such as the rebel Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who seeks to overthrow the weak UN-backed government.

Regional players were also far from benevolent. Long before Putin’s intervention in Syria, it was Iran that led the charge to keep Assad in power. As soon as protests broke out, Tehran sought to undermine them by offering Assad money and weapons, fighters and commanders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, and Shia militia from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to supplement Assad’s fading military.

While Syria was Iran’s primary focus, it also supported the Houthis in Yemen. And in Iraq, US-Iran tensions have undermined the peaceful protest movement there.

Despite being fierce rivals, Riyadh was even more reactionary than Tehran. While it helped broker the exit of Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 and backed anti-Assad forces in Syria, Saudi Arabia broadly sought to stifle the Arab uprisings.

Fearing the 2011 protests might come home, King Abdullah spent lavishly in the early months: not only $37bn on welfare measures domestically, but a further $21bn in neighbouring Bahrain, Oman and Jordan to help their embattled rulers buy off dissidents.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia bankrolled the Egyptian military’s 2013 coup, alongside the UAE, contributing to the collapse of the democratic experiment there. Moreover, in sending in its own troops to Bahrain in 2011 and Yemen in 2015, it showed a willingness to go beyond its traditional chequebook diplomacy to ensure the Arab uprisings turned in its favour. Riyadh thus greatly contributed to the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the return of autocracy to Bahrain and Egypt. 

Qatar and Turkey were two other regional powers that have impacted the Arab uprisings’ outcomes in an ambiguous way.

On the one hand, Qatar was one of the early supporters of the Arab uprisings. Al-Jazeera channel played a key role in reporting on protests and providing a platform to inspire activists across the Arab world. Doha urged Nato to intervene in Libya to save protesters from Gaddafi, backed the anti-Assad rebels in Syria and gave generous grants to the newly elected regimes in Tripoli and Cairo. 

In Egypt, Doha’s unconditional backing for the Muslim Brotherhood government may have contributed to its uncompromising stance, increasing the military’s appetite for a coup.

Turkey’s involvement was also mixed. When the Arab Spring began, Turkey was often heralded as a potential model for the new democracies expected to emerge, particularly the mildly Islamist ruling AK Party. Though slower to endorse the protesters than its ally Qatar, Ankara eventually became a prominent supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, several rebel groups in Syria, and the new government in Tripoli. 

Yet, as with Qatar, this did little ultimately to prevent the return of dictatorship in Cairo and contributed to the weakness and disunity of the Syrian opposition. Moreover, as Turkey itself became more authoritarian following the 2013 Gezi Park protests and a failed coup by the military in 2016, Ankara’s commitment to democratic forces abroad also waned.

Moreover, while it continues to defend some regions of Syria, notably Idlib, from Assad attacks, it arguably contributed to Syrian regime’s overall victory in the conflict by making deals with Russia and Iran that allowed Damascus to retake several key rebel areas.

These foreign governments, therefore, all contributed to the failure of the 2011 uprisings in most cases.

While their motives differed and they prioritised different arenas, all arguably had a net negative impact. Moreover, they are not yet done. The governments that intervened to try to shape the Arab uprisings to their advantage continue to interfere in the politics of the many states scarred by that experience, whether Syria, Yemen, Libya or elsewhere. 

With new uprisings emerging and activists successfully toppling governments in Sudan and Algeria, and attempting to in Lebanon and Iraq, foreign spoilers have circled once more to try to influence the outcome.

While these activists can learn much from the domestic mistakes that derailed the revolutionaries of 2011, they would do well to also consider how they might mitigate against the damaging foreign interference that greatly contributed to the Arab Spring’s failures. 

How the wars in Libya and Syria are strangely intertwined

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 22 July 2020

When Egypt recently threatened to intervene in Libya’s war, Cairo received the wholehearted support of Damascus.

That the embattled Syrian regime, itself still fighting a gruelling civil conflict that has drawn in a myriad of foreign intervention, would so enthusiastically back similar interference elsewhere might seem odd. But it serves a wider purpose for Assad, ingratiating him to Egypt and its allies.

It also fits a pattern that has been present since the beginning of both the Syrian and Libyan civil wars in 2011. Though the two conflicts have taken different paths, the Libya war has frequently impacted events in Syria, with reverberations felt in unexpected ways on the other side of the Mediterranean.

One key way in which the Libya war has impacted Syria has been to inspire some opposition actors to take up arms in the first place. When Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, the early opposition movement against President Bashar al-Assad was consciously peaceful, taking its cues from the successful bloodless revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt months earlier.

Yet, when this failed to achieve the rapid success seen elsewhere and Assad responded with brutal violence, some looked instead to the Libyan model of revolution, where armed rebels had toppled Muammar Gaddafi. While this prompted heated debate among Syrian opposition members, by March 2012, the opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, had formally endorsed the armed strategy that rebel fighters on the ground were already taking.

Libya had already become a source of Syrian rebel arms and finance. As early as November 2011, Syrian rebels were reportedly negotiating with the new post-Gaddafi government in Tripoli about providing weapons. After a leading Libyan rebel, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, travelled to Turkey, the Libyan government made a $100m donation to the Syrian rebels.

A regular supply of weapons was sent from Libya to Syria’s rebels via Turkey. Also, Qatar was inspired in Syria by its apparent success in backing rebels against Gaddafi. It is an interesting question as to whether Doha would have been so enthusiastic were it not for events in Libya.

‘The intervention is coming’

A similar question could be asked on the importance of Libya in impacting western views of the Syria crisis, and the Syrian opposition’s expectations of western intervention. After Nato directly intervened against Gaddafi, Syrian opposition groups increasingly expected something similar against Assad.

The rebels’ strategy in 2011-12, encouraged by their allies in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was geared towards taking territory and holding out long enough until the inevitable western intervention. One opposition figure, Bassma Kodmani, later recalled regional powers frequently telling the opposition: “It is coming definitely, the intervention is coming.”

Yet, the Libya campaign paradoxically deterred similar western intervention in Syria. Former US President Barack Obama had reluctantlyagreed to attack Gaddafi, under pressure from interventionists in his administration and his international allies. When Libya then descended into civil war, leading to the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012, Obama’s initial caution returned to the fore, and he became even more unwilling to intervene in Syria.

This was seen in 2013, when he found a way to avoid striking Assad, despite Damascus defying Obama’s “red line” of using chemical weapons, to the outrage of the Syrian opposition and its allies. Obama and the anti-Assadists took different lessons from the Libya intervention, impacting their approach to the Syria war.

Turkey-Russia rivalry

More recently, as Libya’s civil war has heated up, it has begun playing a new role in Syria’s conflict. Whereas once knock-on effects from Libya reverberated in Syria, now, Syria’s war is having consequences in Libya.

The clearest example of this is the rivalry between Turkey and Russia. They back opposing sides in both conflicts, though Ankara and Moscow have both invested more in Syria. In recent years, however, each has increased their presence in Libya, seemingly as a means to boost their regional leverage in general and, at times, in Syria specifically.

It has become common at bilateral meetings between Russia and Turkey for both Syria and Libya to be under discussion. Setbacks in Syria have led to an increased presence in Libya. This was seen recently after Turkey’s comparative defeat to Russia and Assad in Idlib in March, precipitating a massive and decisive increase in Ankara’s support for the government in Tripoli.

A further Syria connector is their use of Syrians to fight in Libya. Turkey transported soldiers from its Syrian rebel proxies, the Syrian National Army, to fight in Libya, while Russia has used former Syrian rebels as mercenaries to fight for its Libyan ally, General Khalifa Haftar.

Sad pattern

Though less consequential than either Turkey’s or Russia’s actions, Assad’s own involvement in Libya is similarly expedient. His endorsement of Haftar, including by recently giving him Libya’s embassy in Damascus, carries ideological components. Both are autocrats who loathe the Muslim Brotherhood, are allied to Russia and are opposed by Turkey.

Despite these commonalities, Assad did not weigh in on Haftar’s side for several years. His move now comes more from a desire to woo Haftar’s key external allies, the UAE and Egypt. A desperate need for Abu Dhabi’s economic support, especially, to prop up his floundering, sanctioned economy – rather than ideological solidarity – seems his primary motivation.

With both states likely to remain unstable for some time, subject to intervention and influence from the international powers that have helped drive and prolong the conflicts, it is unlikely that this will be the last time that events in Libya and Syria impact one another.

For almost a decade, Syria’s tragic war has been strangely interwoven with the equally grim conflict unfolding in Libya – and this sad pattern seems unlikely to end soon.

Arab Spring: Coup d’etat or Revolution?

Part of the series ’10 myths about the Middle East’ in this month’s Majalla:

Within days of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt, memorabilia of the popular anti-regime protests that preceded his downfall went on sale in Tahrir Square, the scene of the largest demonstrations. Pin badges and T-shirts, embossed with Egyptian flags proudly boasted of the “2011 Egyptian Revolution,” reinforcing the narrative already adopted by the international media that a popular revolution had toppled the Egyptian president, just as it had his Tunisian counterpart a month earlier. Yet such an analysis glosses over the back-room politics and shifting alliances among the elite and their international backers that actually transformed popular unrest into regime change. As has since been seen in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Yemen, in the months after Tahrir, widespread anti-regime popular unrest alone may prove incapable of toppling dictators if it lacks the support of key sections of the elite, notably the military.

The involvement of the military in the ousting of the only leaders to be toppled thus far, raises questions about how “revolutionary” the Arab Spring has actually been. Among the many frustrations voiced by activists who took to the streets against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, has been the amount of power wielded by the military in the post-ouster states. Though both the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries have fashioned themselves as the “guardians of the revolution,” activists have subsequently complained that the army has hijacked popular unrest to safeguard their own privileged positions. In Egypt, since Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February, the army has broken up further demonstrations and arrested hundreds, the same as the Mubarak regime did in its final days. With the interim government, guided by the supreme military council, pushing for constitutional changes and elections that aren’t as deep or as transformative as ardent democrats demand, the situation in Egypt appears at times more of a coup d’état than a revolution.

However, it remains too early to write off the revolutionary potential of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt or elsewhere. That departed leaders were ousted by military coups, albeit under popular pressure, does not delegitimize claims that a revolution has taken place. Many celebrated revolutions in history were the result of coups rather than widespread popular unrest, such as Egypt’s own in 1952, Iraq’s in 1958 and, further afield, the Bolshevik’s October 1917 Revolution. What makes them revolutionary or not is the extent of the political, social and economic change that follows rather than the exact method of regime change. For the Arab Spring it is too early to say. Perhaps the elites of the old regimes will remain in place, under the protection of a military that seeks to pay only lip service to the democratic changes demanded by the street. Alternatively, after this adjustment period, the old pillars of the deposed regimes may be gradually whittled down as widespread political and economic transformations take place.

Libya’s golden boy is no black sheep

Here’s a piece i wrote for the Guardian on Saif al-Islam al Gadaffi back in 2008. It is still relevant today given the attrocities currently taking place in Libya…

“He may present himself as the ‘un-Gadafy’, but when the time comes, the colonel’s son will revert to type

Like one of its leader’s flamboyant costumes, Muammar Gadafy’s Libya likes to stand out from its Arab neighbours. While his contemporaries are labelled president, the colonel takes the title “Brotherly leader and guide of the revolution”. Rather than ruling a republic after seizing power in 1969, Gadafy created his own word – the Jamahiriya – to describe the system of councils and committees that veils his dictatorship. Now Tripoli seems to be defying another regional trend – set by Syria and emulated by Egypt – of lining up long-serving rulers’ sons for succession in a hereditary republic. Gadafy’s son, Saif al-Islam, announced this week that he has no intention of becoming leader and is retiring from politicsat the age of 36.

Saif’s denial that he’s being groomed to succeed is not surprising. He and his father have been quick to highlight Gadafy’s unique role as “revolutionary leader”, a position that will neither be inherited nor, according to the colonel, needed once he is gone. More incongruous is Saif’s decision to “retire”, given that he has nothing to officially retire from.

Over the past few years, Gadafy’s son has charmed his way around European capitals, speaking of a deep desire to reform his country – a doctorate from the LSE in one hand, and oil concessions for sale in the other. However, the colonel’s second son has never held a position in the Libyan government, instead creating the Gadafy International Foundation for Charity Associations – an organisation whose public role is as ambiguous and unspecified as that of its founder.

In carefully orchestrated press conferences, Saif has presented himselfas “the un-Gadafy”. He is good-looking, speaks perfect English and has shown a willingness to criticise his father’s regime, though stopping short of attacking Gadafy himself. He has encouraged western investment, while simultaneously rehabilitating Libya’s image in the international community. From embracing the free market and internet democracy to fighting climate change, Saif has been saying almost everything Libya’s critics have wanted to hear, making himself what George Joffe, of Cambridge University, calls “the most likely potential leader”.

Yet, for all his reformist rhetoric, Saif’s only true power emanates from his father, making him at best the friendly moderating face of the established dictatorial order. While he might have had successes persuading his father of the benefits of the market, repairing relations with the west and abandoning WMD, any suggestions of political reform have been met with fierce resistance by the colonel. Gadafy has called upon his allies to “kill enemies” who dared to suggest reforming his Jamahiriya. Consequently Saif, while deriding the “sea of dictatorships” in the Middle East, has simultaneously dismissed any suggestion that his father’s power should be curbed.

Might these limitations explain his withdrawal from politics? Saif’s official explanation was that his messianic mission was done, with Libya now having the systems and institutions it lacked in the pre-Saif era. Yet a few economic improvements aside, the Jamahiriya dictatorship remains steadfastly in place, and reformists such as ex-prime minister Shukri Ghanem have been sidelined, making this statement look either false or delusional. Alternatively, insiders have suggested that Saif has grown frustrated at the slow pace of reform and retired amid a rift with his father.

Yet why bite the hand that feeds? It’s clear that both the colonel and Saif benefit from each other: the son is given limited power to play high-profile reformist, while the father can put a young western face on his decrepit regime. Whatever disagreement has prompted Saif’s retirement it is almost certainly a temporary blip, or even a cleverly planned publicity stunt in his slow ascendancy to power. No doubt he will soon be back in the spotlight. With two local newspapers, both owned by Saif, begging him to reverse his decision, don’t be surprised to see the prodigal son return to the political fold by popular demand in the near future.

Though Gadafy is still only 69, and holds a position that will no doubt be discontinued when he does leave the scene, all signs still point to Saif eventually assuming the role of de facto leader. His retirement and protests to the contrary fool few. Similar noises were made by Bashar al-Asad in the months before his father’s death propelled him to the Syrian presidency in 2000, and you can be sure that Gamal Mubarak will say likewise right up until his appointment as Egypt’s next ruler. For all its desire to appear unique, Libya’s succession is looking awfully familiar.”