The Arab Spring,10 Years On…

I believe that one of the most important political/cultural/social movements of the last ten years was the Arab Spring. Therefore, I thought it deserved the initial post here at the relaunch of STL. But as I tried to put something together as a coherent argument on something about it, I realized that I am at a loss. The way in which it did not substantially work for the better leaves me lost even after ten years. I have no sure feelings, beliefs, or convictions on the period, or what is now called the “Arab Winter.” I can say I was so hopeful at the time that it almost lent itself to elation, but now I feel nothing but such dense disappointment; almost hopelessness. I have read books, articles, and saw many documentaries and news pieces on this most important set of events, yet I cannot put my finger on any argument to be made. Maybe it’s because I am a Westerner; a Roman Catholic. Maybe it’s because I was not there on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, or the destroyed streets of Aleppo, or at the Libyan storm drain where Qaddafi was found and killed. Maybe it is because I do not want to believe something negative. I don’t know. But below is a strategy, something I hope that can salvage the movement using the stories of the those times. Maybe something to look to inspire the future.

Simply put, What happened between the end of 2010 and the end of 2020? My thoughts are scattered below: 

Up until December 2010, the North African country of Tunisia was as typical of an Arab state as it gets: a history of empire and colonialism; a hopeful independence; a state-centered, socialist economy; a slide into dictatorship implemented through secret police (Feldman, 2020). This small, coastal nation on the Mediterranean Sea did not seem out of the ordinary in any way compared to its’ neighbors..

Then on December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire to protest against police harassment. He died on January 4, 2011, but not before his gesture went viral, sparking protests against the country’s authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the people’s poor economic situation. Ben Ali’s 23-year-rule ended 10 days later when he fled to Saudi Arabia, becoming the first leader of an Arab nation to be pushed out by popular protests. What happened next across the Arab world, what we now refer to the as the “Arab Spring,” followed something like this:

On January 25, 2011, thousands of Egyptians marched in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, demanding the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for 30 years.  Then on February 11, as more than a million took to the streets, Mubarak resigned and handed control to the military.

The Muslim Brotherhood-linked government of Mohammed Morsi was then elected in 2012, but was overthrown the following year by the military led by the general, now president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

On February 15, in Bahrain, protesters took over the Pearl Square roundabout in the capital which they renamed “Tahrir Square”, and demanded a constitutional monarchy among other reforms. But their camp was stormed by riot police three days later, killing three people and injuring many.

The same day the Bahrain protests started, the Libyan police used force to break up a sit-in against the government in the second city, Benghazi. The country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi pledged to hunt down the “rats” opposing him. The uprising turned into a civil war with French, British and American air forces intervening against Gaddafi. On October 20, 2011, Gaddafi was captured and killed in his home region of Sirte by rebels who found him hiding in a storm drain. The country is now split between rival eastern and western-based administrations.

On March 6, a dozen teenagers tagged the wall of their school in southern Syria with “Your turn, doctor”, referring to President Bashar al-Assad, a trained ophthalmologist. The torture of the youths sparked mainly peaceful protests at first, and calls for democratic reform. But with violent repression by the government, the revolt turned into civil war. Syria’s war also contributed to the rise of the ISIL (ISIS) group and renewed conflict in neighboring Iraq, culminating in a genocidal attack on minorities in the north of the country.

On October 23, 2011, Tunisians streamed to the polls for their first free election, in which members of the Ennahdha movement triumph.

On February 27, 2012, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled for 33 years, handed power to his deputy Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, after a year of protests. The Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen also descended into violence following initial protests.

Russia, who with Iran is al-Assad’s biggest ally, started air attacks against Syrian rebels on September 30, 2015, changing the course of the war. After 10 years of fighting, which left 380,000 dead, al-Assad was able to claim significant victories.

Ten years after Tunisia, It all seems for nothing when put together like that, does it not? All those aspirations for a more liberal-democratic pan-Arab region. A Guardian-YouGov poll published on December 17 even finds that a majority of populations of nine countries across the Arab world feel they are living in significantly more unequal society today than before the Arab Spring. And read here about Bouazizi’s legacy in his own country.

But maybe not all is lost. Let’s look at some social movement theory from Han and Wuk Ahn (2020) that may pick up the Arab Spring up from the canvas someday:

“Studies of social movements have benefited from the examination of narratives. Social movements are defined as networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individual, groups, and/or organizations engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities. Activists use stories to make sense of the reality surrounding them, motivate collective action by forging collective policymaking. Narratives unite participants in social movements and are utilized as tools. To be effective…social movements should not just mobilize financial and human resources, utilize political opportunities, and present solid transition plans but should also adopt effective frames. Narratives provide actors with tools to turn themselves into heroes with a powerfully mobilizing identity when they lack established organizations or coherent ideologies [38]. Narratives translate feelings of shame and individual responsibility into feelings of empowerment, efficacy, and entitlement.”

So maybe the people of the Mid-East will someday be able to launch a new uprising, one taken from the stories of the those contentious politics that have occurred over the last decade. At this point, I admit I really do not know. I feel as if I’m just clinching at straws to pull something positive out of it all, something positive in this Arab Winter.

What do you think? Leave comments below. 

Here is a good video piece from Al-Jazeera I find particularly moving that centers on the professional and amateur reporters who documented the movement. Maybe those reports and films will serve to inspire those of the next Arab Spring, if it ever occurs. 

5 Quick Political Facts for Today (2/15/15)

  • John Boehner apparently has no idea what goes on in Congress despite being the Speaker.  Boehner stated it was important to investigate Benghazi again because some questions haven’t been answered, like these:

“Why wasn’t the security for our embassy in Libya given to our ambassador after repeated requests the night of the event,” Boehner continued. “Why didn’t we attempt to rescue the people that were there? Why were the people there told not to get involved?”

All of those questions have already been answered and answered multiple times by the Congress Boehner allegedly leads.  Maybe he didn’t notice the last report since the Republicans strategically released it on a Friday late in the day so the news cycle wouldn’t pick it up.  This was done, of course, since it debunked every argument they’ve made about questions still existing about the attack.  Regardless, the propaganda machine continues…

  • Republicans further show their immoral and disgraceful position on hard-working immigrants.  The GOP is out to stop immigrants with children who have worked jobs and paid taxes to the government for years from getting proper benefits for their contributions.  And it should be noted that many illegals have paid taxes and been a boost to federal tax coffers, particularly since they get little out of federal programs.  Some other commonly believed myths are busted in the article and should always be pointed out when discussing the issue:

Over the past decade, immigrants in the U.S. illegally have paid an estimated $100 billion in Social Security payroll taxes, even though few will ever be able to collect benefits…At least half are paying income and payroll taxes…Even if these immigrants pay taxes, they are ineligible for most federal programs. They cannot legally get food stamps, unemployment benefits, Pell grants or federal student loans. They cannot get Medicaid, except for emergency medical services, and are ineligible for subsidies under Obama’s health law.

  • Shiites are now reacting to ISIS brutality with brutality of their own, which has been going on since “Mission Accomplished”.  If people chose to ignore the fact that Shiite death squads were executing Sunnis in Iraq as soon as Saddam Hussein was out of power, that’s their choice to be ignorant.  But violence begets violence and that situation forced people to turn to more violent groups like ISIS so they could take revenge for the countless murders of their friends and families.  This isn’t to say it was/is right for anyone to join an extremist group or death squad.  But it does show how horrible the U.S. plan for post-invasion Iraq was just an absolute disaster and there is little that can be done by the U.S. to fix this bloody situation now.  And with this vicious reaction by Shiites against Sunnis, this situation is continuing to get worse.
  • The West is still disgracefully and inexplicably supporting the brutal monarchy in Bahrain.  Great piece by one of the activists for change in Bahrain who recently had his citizenship taken away from him after years of punishment, including torture, for expressing his opinion and calling for a better government in his home country.  It is a very reasonable question to ask why the West continues to display such hypocrisy on democracy when it comes to certain areas of the world.  (Spoiler alert: it’s oil.)
  • Egypt purchases military planes from France at the expense of its people.  I mentioned the purchase of the Rafale fighters a few days ago but this article points out two further realities of the purchase.  First, it’s not needed: “One thing is very clear,” says (Jon) Alterman (senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies). “On the basis of national priorities there is no military urgency to buy more combat aircraft.”  Second, by spending the money on the military instead of infrastructure or social programs (clearly taking a cue from the U.S., unfortunately), this means the spending won’t go to put Egypt’s unemployed to work, which includes more than half of its citizens under the age of 25.  Stupid priorities now will equal a bad situation in the future.

U.S. Still Following “How to Make People Hate Us” Playbook in Bahrain

If people ever wondered how foreigners could hate the United States so much, there is a simple formula for how it happens:

  • People live under an oppressive regime that quashes any chance at expanded freedoms or a move to democracy using horrific methods, such as torture and/or executions.
  • The U.S. government financially and rhetorically supports the regime and, by association, supports any oppression, torture, or executions.
  • The oppressed people’s anger at both their own government and the U.S. grows to the point of desperation and they decide to strike back…

For examples, see Egypt, UAE, or Saudi Arabia, the countries where most of the hijackers on 9/11 were from.

The formula continues in countries around the Middle East, including Bahrain.  Since the uprising began in 2011, nearly 100 people have been killed, almost 3,000 have been injured, another 3,000 have been arrested, and possibly over 1,800 have been tortured.  The U.S. government’s reaction to this: keep selling arms to the government.

Now, in a move drenched in irony, Bahrain’s news agency is reporting the government will not tolerate upcoming protests planned for August 14, the anniversary of Bahrain gaining independence from Britain:

“The government will forcefully confront the suspicious calls to violate law and order and those who stand behind them through decisive measures,” BNA quoted Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa as saying after a meeting to discuss preparations to confront the planned protests.

This comes just after the government deported an American teacher for criticizing the government on the Internet.

But a special report by Reuters today about an American citizen being held on seemingly false charges by Bahrain reveals another reason why U.S. actions in the past decade have had an appalling aftershock in oppressive places such as this.  From the article:

The young man was blindfolded, cuffed and driven to an undisclosed location where, he says, he was ordered to stand on one leg for four hours. He says he was beaten repeatedly as threats were made to rape his mother and sisters until he confessed, falsely he says, to attending a memorial for a dead protester and throwing a stone at a burning police vehicle…When asked to comment about Maidan’s account of his treatment, the office of the Bahraini government’s spokeswoman told Reuters in a statement that it has a “zero-tolerance” policy towards torture.

Hmmm…I wonder where the Bahraini government got the idea that putting someone in a stress position for hours at a time and verbally threatening the well-being of their family does not equal torture?

And we must also wonder how many Bahraini people already hate the U.S. for its support of these actions.

Close U.S. Allies Abusing Justice in Middle East

An old saying goes “friends are the family you choose”.  If that is the case, the United States’ “family members” in the Middle East need some lessons in justice and human rights.  And who better to push for those lessons than the U.S.  (Not going to hold my breathe on this one.)

Here’s a quick roundup of recent events:

Just the same ole song.

It goes without question the punishments in all three cases do not even begin to fit the crimes, if you even consider any of these actual crimes.

The problem is the United States’ government chooses not to punish these countries in any way and by doing nothing is condoning these actions.  If people wonder why folks in the Middle East have a negative perception of the U.S., this is just a small taste of why that animosity exists.  The citizens of these countries are fully aware of the relationship between their governments and the United States, such as:

It’s difficult for Americans to understand why dissident citizens of these countries equate us so closely to their oppressive governments because, frankly, we have no idea what it is like for our government to be so reliant on another greater superpower for so much economic aid.  But the perception is there and for good reason.

The United States tries to sell the idea we believe in democracy and equal rights for all around the world but the actions of our government tell a different story.  You can’t sit on the sidelines and pretend you aren’t aware of such egregious human rights abuses when doing business with these governments.  That might have been a believable position in the time before the Internet and the easy flow of information.

It’s now no longer believable or acceptable (as it never should have been).  The time for change in this area came a very long time ago and the need for constant pressure on our elected officials should be growing by the day.

And everyday that goes by where a change in the behavior of the U.S. government doesn’t happen is a day with the potential to create more hatred of Americans by people we continue to simply ignore.

Schizophrenic U.S. Policy in Middle East: What Type of Government do we Support?

A couple of articles in recent days on the CSM’s site might leave one wondering just what is U.S. policy toward the Middle East as far as the idea of democracy is concerned.  The first article concerns John Kerry’s surprise visit to Iraq and his negotiations with the Iraqi government over support of Assad in Syria.

If we put enough blinders on to forget the WMDs that were not in Iraq or the links to Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden that were also absent from the country, we can get to the distant third reason we were given for invading the country: bringing democracy to the people.  Well, mission accomplished!  But it seems this new democracy is doing what it chooses instead of taking orders from other countries, namely the U.S.  Clearly, the Iraqis need to understand the way to run your country when it is a democracy is to listen to whatever the U.S. says and do just that.  In other words, they are “free” to do whatever we tell them to do.

This is so easy to follow!

My poly sci might be a little rusty so I’m just going to assume that is the meaning of democracy.

Not really but that is the message we send.  From Secretary of State Kerry:

“I also made it clear to [Maliki] that there are members of Congress and people in America who increasingly are watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful – how that country can be, in fact, doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals, the goal expressed by the Prime Minister with respect to Syria and President Assad.” (Emphasis added.)

Common goals?  Not abundantly clear as noted in the article.

But the short, unmasked version is: ‘How can they defy us?’  To which I assume their reply might be: ‘We’re a democracy and this is what we want for now.’  To which we might reply: ‘It was easier working with Hussein.  Maybe we bungled this one.’

But hey, we are all about democracy these days, right?

Not really as indicated by the second article.  One of America’s closer allies in the Middle East, Bahrain, stopped Doctors Without Borders from holding a conference there on medical ethics and showed what a shining example of democracy they are in the region.

What’s that?  Bahrain’s a monarchy?  Like other close ally Saudi Arabia?  Huh?  Are we preparing an invasion?  This is confusing!

The fact is, we can’t pretend we are interested in bringing democracy to the world when we openly and closely work with governments such as these.  And the true nature of U.S. policy in the Middle East should be summed up for what it really is: work with us and we like you no matter what you do to your people or how you run your government.

The actions are just too transparent to even attempt to hide any longer, such as resuming arms sales to Bahrain after the government violently put down protests for democracy.  Part of this mess is summed up in one line:

While the US and Saudi Arabia may be pushing for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the replacement of his Iran-friendly government with one run by Syria’s majority Sunni Arab population, it would be horrified at the overthrow of Bahrain’s Sunni Arab king by his mostly Shiite subjects.

I’m honestly not sure why we even try to mask our overall policy with any rhetoric alleging a concern for democracy any longer.  We want what we want and that is final no matter what the people of other countries say.

Backing up rhetoric with action in Bahrain – The Washington Post

Backing up rhetoric with action in Bahrain – The Washington Post.

Too often actions like these of the United States’ government go unnoticed by the public and, when bad things happen, we wonder why instead of realizing what we did to create bad feelings among the people of foreign countries.  Sadly, it seems silly to some to even point out an immoral action in such a small country but, regardless of the country’s size, these hypocritical actions should always be noted and condemned for what they are.  If we don’t take the time to criticize these moves, the public is just as guilty as the government for allowing this to happen with utter silence.