In my last column a couple of weeks ago, I delineated the new trends related to the Arab uprising in the Arab republics and the Arab Spring. These trends are associated with the unprecedented tectonic shifts and historical changes that are breaking decades-old politics and ushering in new trends of people-power buoyed by the advent of new technology and resilience of the youth with dreams and huge expectations.
Purple is now the common colour of freedom and determination for people voting freely for the first time in their lives in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt — and soon in Syria.
Some of these phenomenon that are shaping the new Arab polities and societies are “the end of one-party rule, the end of the indispensable ruler, the end of Pharaoh-like figures and tyrannical rulers in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and hopefully soon in Syria. The landslide victories of Islamists at the polls as the new rising and formidable socio-political power is changing the face of the Arab polity and moving it more towards the right with a more conservative face”.
These unprecedented changes are emboldening a new generation of Arabs to push for accountability, rule of law and people power. Along with it, questions about the end game and to where these sweeping and fundamental changes are taking the Arab World are being raised.
There is a trend I would like to discuss: The clinging to power by the once-unchallenged masters, presidents and dictators. The heads of these states, all of them, belittled these sweeping changes and people power. They shrugged off the uprisings at first, resorted to their old tactics of intimidation and bullying. They relied heavily on their intelligence (Mukhabarat) and secret police, backed by the major world powers which gave them solace and assurances.
They knew how indispensable they were. They knew and saw beyond the West’s jargon and rhetoric of democracy and elections, in which there was a fundamental preference by the West and especially the US for trading democracy and freedom in favour of security and stability. Condoleezza Rice put it bluntly at the American University in Cairo — of all places — when she lamented: “For 60 years my country, the United States of America, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region [the Middle East] and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
But that was in 2005, during the days of the Bush administration’s idealistic freedom agenda to reverse the freedom deficit and end Arab exceptionalism and fighting tyrants. All of that rhetoric bit the dust and gave way to sobering realities after the Islamists, led by Hamas in Palestine, and the Muslim Brotherhood made gains along with other Islamists in other corners of the Arab world. That put a quick end to the idealistic dream of how democracy would stunt terrorism. We went back to the more placid argument — that stability and security trumped freedom and democracy. Then came the Arab Spring and the uprisings that once again changed the dynamics and forced the West and the US to sit down and take a deep look at the trajectory of events and the new powers that are shaping Arab politics.
One factor attributed to belligerence and which inflated the sense of indispensability of those dictators has been the old game that nations play — relying on the services of dictators to advance the major powers’ interests, which gives them a false sense of being omnipotent.
The US and the West are anything if not lean and adaptable. The US has a self-correction mechanism, albeit a slow one. Remarks by US officials led by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that Mubarak’s regime in Egypt — “our ally” — was stable, were made just a few days before it was toppled. Such stances and backing are what strengthened the resolve of those dictators to cling to power and dig in their heels.
Syria’s dictator Bashar Al Assad, although much weakened, is foolishly still clinging on to power against all odds. Most Arab states have shunned and isolated him, but he is still presiding over a thuggish regime that is bent on annihilating his own people.
Three vetoes by the Russians and Chinese at the UN Security Council have given Al Assad’s thuggish regime the licence to kill its own people. Last month, more than 3,000 Syrians were killed — the bloodiest month since the Syrian revolt broke out 17 months ago. Since the decimation of Al Assad’s top circle in a daring and game-changing operation, more than 500 Syrians have been killed over two days in massacres and street fights in capital Damascus and in other beleaguered cities. Al Assad is emboldened by the Russian and Chinese vetoes and by the support to go so far as to bomb his own capital, the oldest inhabited city in the world with more than five million people.
The trajectory of these fast-moving trends is uncertain and could carry the seeds of instability and even chaos, especially in countries where the autocratic leaders are digging in their heels and defying the logic and the rule of nature. They are not heeding the lessons of history and are in a state of denial.
For Al Assad, the Cold War mentality of Russia and the China and the backing of Iran give him the false sense of invincibility and exacerbates his self denial. Al Assad keeps repeating he is not Libya’s Gaddafi, or Tunisia’s Bin Ali or Egypt’s Mubarak — exactly like all those who were deposed before him had said about their colleagues who were bludgeoned to death, arrested and tried or fled into exile. When will they learn? You can’t reverse the tide or swim against the current. What will help East and West is to stop the game nations play, stop meddling in others’ affairs and stop siding and giving dictators everywhere a false sense of indispensability and a sense of omnipotence.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji