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From popular revolution to political impasse

January 12, 2016 at 4:31 pm

Five years have passed since the youth took to the streets in protest against social conditions in Arab countries. In doing so, they broke the barriers of fear and frustration and adopted revolutionary slogans in the confrontations with the region’s oppressive regimes, which had held on to power for decades. In fact, the oligarchical nature of Arab regimes was in place for so long that they became synonymous with the names of their leaders: Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zein El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

In a matter of weeks at the end of 2010 until the early spring of 2011, the popular revolts ignited on the streets and in the squares of the Arab world as the people demanded bread, freedom and the fall of the regime. The results of these popular revolutions were at once quick and exciting. In Tunisia, Ben Ali and his family left the country on 14 January 2011. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak resigned from the presidency and handed over to the armed forces on 11 February. Gaddafi’s end in Libya was brutal as he was killed on 20 October. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) played a crucial role in allowing Saleh to step down in Yemen and transfer power to Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi on 27 February 2012 as part of a transitional government. In Syria the popular revolutionary forces were met with violence from the country’s armed forces.

The above led Western analysts to label the events the Arab Spring. It was expected that the peaceful revolutionary movements would lead the Arab countries towards modern, democratic, civil states, which would allow their citizens to exercise their freedom and political will. Unfortunately, none of this was actually achieved, even after five years of the so-called transitional period post-Arab Spring. Each country has been led down a different route, one that has nothing to do with the revolutionary slogans that once filled the streets.

These revolutionary paths, which aimed to achieve freedom and dignity, have been transformed into violent political crises and multi-dimensional military conflicts. It is important, in this context, for us to remember the many paths of the Palestinian cause, while keeping in mind that by its very nature it is still quite different. We must bear in mind how long it has been going on and how it has been transformed from the “Arab-Israeli” to the “Palestinian-Israeli” conflict. The liberation of Palestine has been reduced to demands for Israel to return to the June 1967 borders. The world no longer speaks of the cause unless it is in within the framework of the Oslo Accords or the resumption of negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. There is, of course, the occasional reference to the need to lift the siege of the Gaza Strip.

In this manner, the Arab cause par excellence has gone from being an existential struggle to one that is determined solely by borders. This transformation of the Palestinian conflict took more than 60 years, whereas transformations post-Arab Spring took less than five years. The people went from demanding the fall of the regime to begging for an end to the bloodshed; for prisoners to be released as well as a search for missing persons. They went from demanding freedom to asking for the state to meet them half-way in an agreement sponsored by the state itself.

Far from conspiracies and the idea that we are an Ummah that is being targeted by a “Crusader-like and settler-colonial West”, we must take into account the reality of the past five years and all that has taken place with the Arab Spring revolutions. The spark started in Tunisia, where civil society was able to forge agreements with various groups which distanced themselves from Ben Ali’s regime. The Islamists were able to return to the scene and kept in mind both regional and international viewpoints and balances. The military institution was limited and both the political left and the youth movement were able to work together with Islamic parties to find a way towards national reformation and reconciliation. An agreement was reached that all parties could agree on and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Egypt, the icon of the Arab Spring in many ways, the world was astonished when after 18 days of revolution the largest authority in the country for 60 years fell with Mubarak on 11 February 2011. Things took a strange turn, though, as the post-revolutionary road was neither reconciliatory nor revolutionary. The major players — predominantly the Muslim Brotherhood and the military — worked for their own benefit and did not choose to partake in dialogue. Without going into the details of the coup, which are well-known, Egypt has now gone down the path of reviving the deep-state apparatuses, which play on regional and international contradictions.

There are three countries left and they represent the clear pattern of the transformation of revolutions to political crises after they first went into periods of transition or calm, as in Tunisia and Egypt.

Syria has been transformed into a battlefield of open military conflict involving regional and international players such as Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran. The continued presence of Bashar Al-Assad and his regime places his army against Daesh and dozens of opposition militias. The UN has sent a special envoy to mediate and very few people actually remember the peaceful Syrian revolution at this moment in time.

In Libya, Gaddafi and what he stood for have come to an end and yet the country has yet to take a revolutionary path, and there is little sign of any moves towards reconciliation. Libya has instead been divided into various tribes and factions with two governments and ministries in Tripoli and Tobruk, in addition to other factions that are represented by armed militias. Like Syria, the UN has also appointed a special envoy for the crisis and no one talks about the Libyan revolution any more.

As for Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh has gone back on his agreement with Saudi Arabia and the GCC and has instead created an alliance with the Houthis. Saleh also turned his back on Hadi and his government and thus pushed Saudi Arabia to form a coalition and launch a comprehensive military operation, which began in late March last year. The UN went on to change its special envoy to Yemen and the Security Council passed another resolution as the crisis evolved into a conflict between Saleh and the Houthis in Sana’a and Hadi in Aden. Little is said now about the Yemeni revolution either.

Once again, we are not talking about conspiracy theories or an Arab-Islamic Ummah that is being targeted by the West. The focus of this article has been the popular revolutions, for which many have given their lives, dozens have been arrested and millions have been exiled or displaced. Yet, despite the popular will for freedom there are many parties that have worked towards creating these political crises and conflicts artificially. When will the people wake from the sense of defeat that has been plaguing them and when will they redirect the revolutions to their true and intended paths so that we can have genuine modern, democratic, civil states?

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 8 January, 2016.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.