Whenever people rise up against dictatorial, corrupt or inefficient leaderships often risking their lives on the streets, most of us on the outside looking in cheer them on. Revolutions constitute an explosion of the human spirit that refuses to be exploited by elites and it is only natural that our hearts are open to their struggles which often produce heroes facing down tanks and water cannon. We admire their courage.
Like so many others I was an enthusiastic supporter of the so-called Arab Spring in early 2011. It was an exhilarating time of hope. Autocrats toppled like nine pins. The people were now in charge of their destiny. Well, that was the idea but it all went terribly wrong.
Egypt’s revolution was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood bent on turning the nation into a theocratic state, a plot that was thwarted by a counter-revolution backed by the military. Syria and Libya were thrust into civil war followed by Yemen a few years later when pro-Iranian Al Houthis stormed the capital while threatening to invade neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Tunisia is touted as a great success story. However, according to Sarah Yerkes and Zeinab Ben Yahmed writing on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website, “for Tunisians the revolution was not about democracy, it was first and foremost about improving their daily lives … public anger with the government and overall hopelessness is high and growing”.
Mass uprisings have also been instigated by foreign powers. Spurred on by the European Union, which promised an associated membership of the body as well as economic benefit, protests in Ukraine resulted in its elected pro-Russian president being forced to flee.
Russia termed the action as a “coup” threatening its interests, promptly annexed Crimea and helped fuel an insurgency in the east. Corruption and mismanagement have damaged the country’s economy. The people’s mistrust of career politicians recently hurtled a comedian into the top job.
Venezuela is currently a victim of US interference. The Trump administration unilaterally anointed a new president to replace the incumbent Nicolas Maduro and is threatening military intervention despite the fact that his rival’s attempts to lure the military on side have failed. Maduro is taking the threat seriously. He ordered the armed forces to be ready in case of US attack which according to polls few Venezuelans approve, even those suffering from a lack of food and medicines.
It is easy to romanticise revolutions and often they do succeed in unseating unpopular leaders some glued to their lofty chairs for decades. That said a glance at recent history tells us that unintended consequences can be destructive. Born from fermenting civil discontent they all follow a similar pattern as we witness today in Algeria, Sudan, Venezuela and France.
They begin with peaceful protests. Demonstrators wrap themselves in their flag and demand concessions from the authorities. Their numbers swell causing disruption. There are often mass sit-ins and strikes that continue for weeks or months. Bad apples invariably turn up looting and torching cars as well as buildings.
The authorities make concessions to the crowds aimed at restoring order but once the people have smelled the heady aroma of success they push for more seeing an opportunity to oust a president or prime minister. And once that goal is achieved, they demand the unachievable.
France’s yellow vests are a prime example. Embattled President Emmanuel Macron has spent over 90 hours negotiating with their representatives and he has bowed to most of their requests sounding contrite. Even so, they still swarm the Champs Elysees damaging the economy.
Putting aside emotion, the bottom line question is this: How many of those who rose up demanding change can honesty say they are better off today in terms of standards of living, job opportunities, safety and security than they were before?
I can only hope against hope that Algerians and Sudanese prove to be the exceptions that prove the rule. Elderly and ailing, President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika was forced to retire. Sudan’s president of 30 years Omar Al Bashir is behind bars. Yet there is little jubilation.
Algerians now demand an end to the old guard. The Sudanese won’t leave the streets until there is a transitional government dominated by civilians. In both cases, the generals have been accommodating but patience is running out. Just like gamblers in a casino, winning rests in knowing when to stop.
Once too many red lines have been crossed threatening collapse of the state, unknown territory looms. In a region blighted by violence and instability, I can only keep fingers crossed and wish them good luck.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.