‘Resistance to the Arab Spring is Futile’
That proposition was put up for debate this month by a major global broadcaster. Was it gallows humor, or do the debate’s organizers live on another planet?
“Futile?” Unfortunately, anything but. From the look of it, the Arab Spring is withering on all fronts. Not one of the six countries rocked by uprisings has even begun to see the freedoms the demonstrators have called for.
Two of the dictatorships have bloodily crushed their rebellions. Two have plunged into what has to be called civil war. The two who set off the revolts and kindled the dream of an Arab Spring are shuffling toward what will probably end up as new forms of authoritarian government – religious ones.
Tunisia is headed that way. Its Islamic fundamentalist Ennahda Party, driven underground or into exile by Ben Ali regime, has reappeared in force. The progressives who rejoiced in February and the country’s dozens of secular parties have been unable to unite. Ennahda spokespersons are vowing to preserve secularism and ensure women’s rights and they will continue to make palliative noises up to the elections now rescheduled for Oct. 16. But would the fox announce itself to the chickens?
Egypt has a September election target: Only the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to mobilize masses of voters by that date. Like Ennahda, the Brotherhood insists it now respects pluralism and is ready to compromise. A “Muslim Democratic” government, several degrees more conservative than Turkey’s but not provocatively repressive, would be favored by the country’s military caretakers, who are organizing the elections. The military owns a quarter of Egypt’s economy, and seeks a stability that the give-and-take of a secular-dominated parliament might not guarantee.
Of course the most violent push-backs have been in Syria and Bahrain, where the uprisings have threatened whole state structures due to the interlocking of regime and security apparatus in each. Tunisia and Egypt were different; in them, the militaries stood separate. The rulers in Damascus and Manama know that they and their dependents will become hunted species if the house falls. But since they have the tanks, the right friends, and queasy enemies, the Assad and Khalifa dynasties are virtually certain to stay in power. While that is the case, the quest for freedom will be dead inside their borders.
Freedoms don’t thrive in civil wars, and so the hopes for an Arab Spring in Libya and Yemen have been bankrupt almost from the start of their revolts. Secession has trumped democracy in Libya. The east of the country has pulled away from the west since Italian colonial times. In the heady examples of Tunis and Tahrir Square, disgruntled Libyan easterners saw a chance to permanently separate themselves from Gadhafi and his hated Tripoli regime. NATO has supported their secession hopes. The post-standoff outcome, months or even years from now, will be two Libyas. Given the rag-bag of leadership personalities on display in Benghazi today, can anyone imagine a workable democratic government emerging? And who’s to say Moammar Gadhafi or one of his sons would not win an election in Tripoli today?
Yemen is funneling itself into a chaotic civil conflict with inter-communal strife as bad as what Sudan and Congo have seen. Even before the uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh began, his government was fighting three regional insurrections. There’s a vocal and active al-Qaeda affiliate on Yemeni soil. The country could split, like Libya, and revert to the North and South Yemens of a quarter century ago, or it could become a simple failed state. If there were Yemenis who took to the streets believing that getting rid of Ali Saleh would bring them the dignities of fairness and freedom, they face a long wait.
What about the Arab monarchies that have ridden out the storm up to now – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Oman? They will circle the wagons and give mutual aid, as two of them did in sending troops to back their fellow royalist regime in Bahrain. Far from yielding to cries for more freedom, they will clamp down, ready to follow the example of Syria if regime survival is in question.
The Arab Spring was a brief dream. The rulers resisting it have been anything but futile. The only constant in human struggle anywhere is that revolutions do not deliver poetic justice.