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Revolutions mature over time

It is a mistake to assume that dictators like Gaddafi kept ethnic and tribal factions in check, or acted as a lid by keeping volatile elements repressed

Image Credit: REUTERS
People protest at "Freedom Square" near the courthouse in Benghazi, to demand the government remove all former officers from Muammar Gaddafi's regime from their current positions January 18, 2013.
Gulf News

A mere two years into the various revolutions that are permanently changing the Arab world, impatient voices describe gloom and doom, with alleged disasters galore over the horizon. The tragic assaults in Libya and Algeria, along with the French-led military engagement in Mali, generated a suspected jihadist surge in North Africa, ostensibly revealing an undetected grim side of the so-called Arab Spring.

Regrettably, the fallen Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is now quoted as an authoritative source, especially his intuitive warning that if he lost power, “chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa”. In fact, the overrated self-appointed ‘King of Kings’ and ‘Colonel’ did nothing more than lift a page from well-oiled propaganda chapters, which anticipated “Bin Laden’s people … to impose ransoms by land and sea” and take back the region “to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats”.

Was this a correct reading of Arab revolutions and should several thousand terrorists scare seven billion human beings on earth?

Inasmuch as France’s deployment in Mali remained hugely controversial, it was natural that analysts would question the determination to halt an advancing force of jihadist fighters who controlled a vast area, even if most of it was empty desert. Likewise, because bandits organised the brazen takeover of an international gas facility deep in the Algerian countryside, killing nearly 50 and taking a large number of hostages, some doubted the resolve to invest in new governments that nevertheless faced many challenges.

Of course, the attacks in Benghazi and Tripoli were serious and reflected a weakening of the new Libyan regime, though the ongoing civil war in Syria, along with the crises in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia all contributed to the malaise. What used to be a dangerous neighbourhood became an arena for struggles, where instability became the norm rather than the exception, even if exaggeration was truly endemic.

Still, few should lament the fact that brutal dictators are gone for good, while significant efforts are under way to deny putative successors fresh gains.

Indeed, so-called jihadists may succeed in terrorising a few, though chances are excellent that most would be defeated especially when locals see what ideologically challenged militants offer them. To be sure, Al Qaida factions probably overlapped with clans, militias, and criminal networks, but the majority of these latter-day wannabes were of the fleeting, opportunistic varieties that enriched the wily and gave significance to the irrelevant. Moreover, it was a mistake to assume that dictators like Gaddafi and his fallen counterparts kept in check various ethnic and tribal factions, or acted as a lid by keeping volatile elements repressed, or that Islamist militants were engaged in ‘holy war’. Such assessments were nothing more than insults to those who sought liberty, and while gangsters took advantage of the chaos that followed epochal politico-military changes, most were exposed for being nothing more than passing cults.

In the case of Tunisia, it was now evident that citizens were far less enthusiastic about political Islam than they were a year ago, and even if the ruling Al Nahda party held a plurality in opinion surveys, the majority wished to see moderate Islam rule the country.

Nearly all rejected threats to freedom and demanded accountability.An even greater majority held Al Nahda responsible for sidestepping its own promises to create 400,000 jobs within five years. It was critical to note that Al Nahda lost 30 per cent of the seats in the new Constituent Assembly just a year after it swept into power, with an abysmal 19 per cent approval rating in late 2012, which were clear signs of failure.

In Egypt, and notwithstanding the putative Muslim Brotherhood alliance with President Mohammad Mursi to pass a haphazard constitution, opposition voices rejected the Islamist stamp on the state. The Egyptian judiciary, along with the police, and especially the military, remained relatively independent, all of which displeased the Brotherhood and assured that Cairo would be enmeshed in turbulence for at least a full decade.

Loyalty and patronage, staples of the Egyptian diet, effectively meant that few truly trusted Islamists even if many of the latter were elected. More important, the president’s successful wooing of the military backfired when the December 2012 Islamist-backed Constitution granted the generals broad immunity and autonomy from civilian control. This was not what Mursi wanted but then again, the military were not about to rollover and play dead.

Brotherhood offices were ransacked or burned, and media commentators accused the government of selling out the “martyrs,” while the vast majority of Egyptian television personnel rejected the Brotherhood’s amateurish methods. Simply stated, and no matter how hard the Brotherhood tried, Egypt’s institutions were gradually gaining the upper hand, which bode well for the future.

Similar changes were under way in several Arab countries as most dreaded the emergence of new dictatorships. Few wished to see their hard fought efforts wither at the proverbial wine. Most categorically rejected Islamist efforts that promised to transform every country where they attained power into mini-dictatorships. Everyone embraced the limited freedoms that were made possible after 2010.

Two years was far too short a time to write off democratising efforts and it behooved analysts to assess the learning process with utmost care. Denying the Gaddafis of this world legitimacy would not be a bad idea either.


Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (Routledge, 2012).