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. 

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.

Racheed Ghannouchi returns to Tunis

The Majalla recently posted this article on the return of Islamist and leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party Racheed Ghannouchi to Tunis and asked me for my comments, published here. Here is a more extended version of my thoughts:

Gannouchi’s return, and the thousands of people who greeted him at Tunis airport, is significant for the immediate future of Tunisia in numerous ways. Firstly, his very return is a clear indication from the new regime – if we can yet call it such – that things are to be done differently than prior to the Revolution. Gannouchi was condemned in absentia by Ben Ali’s regime to lifetime imprisonment, a sentence that officially has still not been lifted. Allowing him to return unmolested is an indication that the new interim government seeks to satisfy demonstrators’ demands of a break from the political intolerance of the previous regime.

The second observation is that, whilst Gannouchi’s return has sparked joy amongst his supporters, it has also mobilized secularists. Small groups were at Tunis airport to demonstrate against Ennahda, and a march by secular women against Gannouchi was organized on Saturday. Whilst it is still early days in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, these secular versus Islamist battle lines might form the key political divisions in the months to come. Remember that Tunisia’s founding father Habib Bourgiba modeled his state on Attaturk’s secular reforms in post-Ottoman Turkey. Were a more Islamic leaning to gain popular support, it would not be totally surprising for a similar ‘Kemalist’ secular party to emerge in defence of these values.

That said, the final significant point about Gannouchi’s return is his reconciling and moderate tone. He was quick to dismiss comparisons with Ayatollah Khomeini and expressed keenness to emulate the democratic and pluralist AK Party in Turkey rather than autocratic Islamists such as Hamas. Moreover he stated a desire to cooperate with all opposition groups including secularists.  He said his Ennahda party would not field a candidate in any forthcoming presidential election, allowing a consensus figure to be Tunisia’s first elected leader, but would contest seats in parliament. It must be recalled that Gannouchi and his party played little part in the street-led revolution that allowed for his return and he cannot lay much claim to it. His spirit of cooperation and moderation is therefore unsurprising as he is currently in no position to make grand claims about plans for power even if he wished to.

 

Egypt Protests: Is Syria next?

The incredible scenes in Egypt today have led several commentators to speak of a possible ‘domino effect’ in other Arab authoritarian regimes. I have long written about this phenomenon and am not surprised that events in Tunisia have spread to Egypt and beyond. Arab identity remains important in the region, recently buoyed by the internet and satellite television like Al-Jazeera, and the impact of Arabs in one country successfully overthrowing a dictator can inspire other Arabs still suffering under authoritarian rule elsewhere. Whilst it is still far from certain that ‘regime change’ will occur in Egypt, many are already suggesting Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria are the next candidates for similar transformations. Lets examine Syria in particular and consider the likelihood of it following Tunisia and (possibly) Egypt.

The case for the Syrian domino falling

Syria shares many characteristics with Egypt that might suggest Bashar al-Assad could suffer the same (possible) fate as Mubarak. It too is effectively a one party state, ruled by the Ba’ath party since 1963. Like the NDP in Egypt, the Ba’ath has lost any of its original ideological motivations and primarily acts as a defender of the status quo and the regime. Like the NDP ordinary Syrians resent (and privately mock) the party, which is seen as nepotistic, preferential and one of the few routes to personal advancement. Syria too suffers from terrible corruption that, as in Egypt, many resent. Syria recently finished near-bottom of the World Bank’s report on business-friendly countries. Figures related to the president or from his dominant Allawi sect, such as his cousin Rami Maklouf, own large companies many of which are granted government monopolies. On top of this, Syria like Egypt has its economic problems, with increasing numbers of people suffering from recent economic reforms that have cut previous subsidies on basics such as bread and oil and have left the poorest elements of society poorer. Unemployment is high too, though nowhere near the levels of Egypt.

The other major disadvantage for Syria is that its population, perhaps more than any others in the region, have been encouraged to feel a sense of Arab identity by the regime for decades. If the ‘democratic domino effect’ has an impact, it may well be felt extra strongly in Syria simply because there it will be harder for the regime to argue the Egyptians and Tunisians are somehow different to the Syrians, given they have been encouraging the reverse for generations. The sight of Egypt, ‘Umm Dunya (the mother of the world), becoming democratic could well encourage Syrians to demand the same.

The case against Syria being next

There are also key differences between Egypt/Tunisia and Syria that may cause events to unfold differently. One key difference is that President Bashar al-Assad is relatively popular. He is still seen as quite a new leader (having been in power 11 years as opposed to Mubarak’s 30 and Ben Ali’s 23) and is regarded as a moderate, approachable reformer. Assad successfully transcends resentment against ‘the government’ and ‘the party’ by most Syrians you speak to and retains a popular image of someone who is trying to reform Syria and move it forward but is held back by the ‘old Guard’ of his father’s regime. If any protests do occur in Syria it is quite possible that people will call on Bashar to reform the regime himself rather than step down.

In relation to this, Syria has another advantage that its foreign policy is relatively popular on the streets. The continued war with Israel is widely supported and the regime successfully exploits this to justify the lack of rights and democracy. Indeed, when there was last movement for greater openness, The Damascus Spring of 2000-01, ‘national security’ and the conflict with Israel were the primary reasons given by the regime to justify repression. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia had this escape clause.

Another keys difference is that the economic situation is nowhere near as bad as elsewhere. Whilst Syria is not a wealthy country and has a lower GDP per capita than its neighbours, wealth is more evenly spread and far fewer people live below the poverty line (11%) than in Egypt (20%), Jordan (14%) or Yemen (45%). Moreover, Syria has only just begun a process of economic reforms that many (though not the very poorest) are still hopeful about. Though Egyptians saw 30 years of capitalism and external investment not bringing them rewards, Syrians are relatively new to infitah and still see it as a progressive force rather than something to resent.

The army is also more closely tied to the ruling elite than in Egypt. Members of the ruling Allawi sect hold high positions in government, the party, the army, security forces and business. Whilst in Tunisia and Egypt the army are institutions that are to some extent apart from the ruling party, in Syria they are completely tied together. It seems highly unlikely that their loyalty to the regime will ever waver as was seen in Tunisia and seems to be happening in Egypt. Moreover, many of these Allawis fear their fate at the hands of the majority Sunni population if they lose power. Both Egypt and Tunisia lack these ethnic divisions that give the ruling elite even more reason to hold onto power.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Syria has far less civil society than either Egypt or Tunisia (or Jordan, Yemen and Algeria for that matter) and consequently it is harder to imagine how opposition would get organized. Recognizing just this kind of threat, Facebook was banned very early on in its existence, and the internet was allegedly shut down immediately on Friday’s day of anger in Egypt, even before there was even a whiff of copycat demonstrations in Damascus.  Similarly, unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, all trade unions (which played a significant role in Tunisia) are controlled by the regime, and most content in mosques is loyalist and controlled. Whilst the Syrian security services, like the Egyptians, could well prove itself unable to repulse mass demonstration that go on for days, it is hard to see how Syrians would be able to mobilize in the same way as their Egyptian and Tunisians cousins.

Conclusion: Bashar takes the lead?

All this suggests that Syria is unlikely to be the next domino to fall, even if Mubarak does end up losing power. Damascus will certainly be nervous, and would probably prefer Hosni to stay on his throne, but the threat of an immediate overspill seems limited. However, two things may change this scenario. Firstly, if all the other dominos fall. If Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria follow Tunisia, pressure will certainly increase and Syrians, even with their like of the President and their history of relative passivity, may start to feel inspired to challenge the government if not Assad directly himself. Moreover, if those regime changes lead to stable, successful, largely democratic governments over the next few months, the pressure will be even greater. This will especially be so if they provide locations for free press where Syrian opposition can publish and have a voice closer to home than their current exile in London and Washington.

A second scenario, as optimistically suggested by Brian Whitaker today, is that Bashar will use his relative popularity and reformist credentials to bring change himself before he is pushed. This seems unlikely but if the ‘old guard’ and anti-democrats in his regime can be persuaded that the alternative is to be hounded out to Saudi Arabia like Ben Ali’s cronies, a period of limited reform – perhaps ending the state of emergency and allowing for more open parliamentary elections – is not totally inconceivable.

All of this is still up in the air, and until things settle in Egypt and Tunisia, who knows where things will lead. Today’s events have certainly changed things. How much is still to be seen.

The Tunisian Revolution (?)

Some great pieces have been written about events in Tunis this past week. Some, such as Robert Fisk are extremely skeptical of the outcome, whilst others have been more optimistic about a knock-on effect in the rest of the Arab world. The pick of the bunch is Mark LeVine’s piece on al-Jazeera suggesting what the US could and should do to ensure this is no flash in the pan and leads to a genuine democratic revolution:

While the United States and the international community should not directly intervene unless the military begins killing or arresting large numbers of people, there are a number of steps Obama could take immediately to ensure that this nascent democratic moment takes root and spreads across the region.

First, the President should not merely urge free and fair elections. He must publicly declare that the United States will not recognise, nor continue security or economic relations, with any government that is not democratically elected through international monitored elections. At the same time, he must freeze any assets of Tunisia’s now ex-leadership and hold them until they can be reclaimed by the Tunisian people.

Second, he should declare that the young people of Tunisia have shown the example for the rest of the Arab world, and offer his support for a “Jasmin Spring” across the Arab world. Obama should demand that every country in the region free all political prisoners, end all forms of censorship and political repression, and fully follow international law in the way they treat their citizens or the people’s under their jurisdictions.

Furthermore, the President should call on every country in the region to move towards free, fair, and internationally monitored elections within a specified time or risk facing a similar cut-off of ties, aid and cooperation. Such demands must be made together with America’s reluctant European allies.

Other articles worth a look so far are:

March Lynch on the impact of new media.

Christopher Alexander on why Ben Ali fell.

Mona Eltahawy on the revolutionary potential of the events.