Karela Fry

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The sources of the Arab Spring

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Rashid Khalidi wrote in Critical Enquiry, a journal of the University of Chicago, about the revolutions sweeping through the countries of the middle east:

These have so far mainly been revolutions fashioned by ordinary people peacefully demanding freedom, dignity, democracy, social justice, accountability, transparency and the rule of law. Arab youth at the end of the day have been shown to have hopes and ideals no different from the young people who helped bring about democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America and South, Southeast and East Asia.

Nothing has yet been decided in these Arab revolutions. And the most complex tasks are yet to come. It was difficult to overthrow an out-of-touch tyrant and his greedy family, whether in Tunis or Cairo. Thoroughly changing the regime and building a functioning democratic system will be much harder. It will be harder still to ensure that a democratic system, if one can be established, is not dominated by entrenched, powerful interests. Finally, it will be a daunting task for any new popular democratic regime to achieve the social justice and rapid economic growth that will be necessary to provide equal opportunity, quality education, good jobs, decent housing, and desperately needed infrastructure.

The Arab world has been a scene of uprisings and revolts for its entire modern history. During the French occupation the people of Cairo revolted repeatedly, briefly liberating the city from the French in 1800. Egypt revolted again against foreign rule in the years up to 1882; it revolted again against the British in the great revolution of 1919, and once again in 1952. During the Syrian revolt of 1925-26, the French were driven out of most of Damascus, and bombarded the city savagely. Similar examples abound elsewhere. The Libyan resistance against the Italians that started in 1911 and went on for over 20 years, the great Iraqi revolution of 1920, that of Morocco in 1925-26, the Palestinian Revolt of 1936-39, all provoked ferocious colonial campaigns. These episodes marked the beginning of a somber chapter in human history: the first use of aerial bombardment against civilians in Libya in 1911; and the first use of poison gas against civilians in Iraq in 1920.

It has also been said that what distinguishes these revolutions from earlier ones in the Arab world and elsewhere in the Middle East is that they are focused on democracy and constitutional change. It is true that these have been among their most central demands. But this is not entirely unprecedented. There was sustained constitutional effervescence in Tunisia and Egypt in the late 1870’s until the British and French occupations of those countries in 1881 and 1882. Similar debates led to the establishment of a constitution in the Ottoman Empire in 1876 that lasted with interruptions until 1918. All the successor states to the Ottoman Empire were deeply influenced by this chequered constitutional experiment. In 1906, Iran established a constitutional regime, albeit one that was repeatedly eclipsed. In the inter-war period and afterwards, the semi-independent and independent countries in the Middle East were mainly governed by constitutional regimes.

The revolutions that took place from 1800 until the 1950’s were primarily directed at ending foreign occupation. These revolutions for national liberation ultimately succeeded in the expulsion of the old colonial powers and their hated military bases in most of the Arab world. These revolutions eventually produced nationalist regimes in most Arab countries.

What distinguishes the revolutions of 2011 from their predecessors is that they mark the end of the old phase of national liberation from colonial rule, and are largely inward-directed, at the problems of Arab societies. Of course, with the cold war the old colonialism eventually gave way to a more insidious form of external influence, first of the two super-powers, and for the last two decades of the US alone. The entire Arab regional system was upheld by that hyper-power, whose support was crucial to the survival of most of the dictatorial regimes now trembling as their peoples challenge them. But while this important factor was always in the background, the focus of the 2011 revolutions has been on the internal problems of democracy, constitutions, and equality.

The last question the Arab revolutions raise is that of the role of the western powers in upholding the rotten Arab status quo. The United States has always been torn in its foreign policy between its principles, including support for democracy, and its interests, including upholding dictators who do what is wanted of them. When there is little public scrutiny, the latter impulse invariably predominates in US policy in the Middle East. Today, with the American media featuring stories of charismatic young Arabs bringing down hated dictators and calling for democracy in perfectly comprehensible English, the American public is watching, and Washington has responded by tepidly supporting a democratic transition, and weakly calling for restraint by its other Arab clients in repressing their peoples.

An interesting perspective.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

February 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm

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