The Arab uprising

| June 26, 2011 | 0 Comments
This protest in Saada, Yemen, was organized by the Houthis, a group of Shias who have fought government discrimination.

This protest in Saada, Yemen, was organized by the Houthis, a group of Shias who have fought government discrimination.

Events across the Middle East and North Africa appear remarkably similar in causation to what occurred in the 1970s in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and, after 1989, across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Many outsiders misread the Arab mind and heart as anti-Western, and consequently came to depend on outdated stereotypes, overlooking that it was really about toppling tyrants.
Unemployment, rampant corruption, brutality against dissidents, incompetence — all played roles in each democratization wave since the ’70s. What has been termed the “Authoritarian International” has now taken major blows among 340 million Arabs, aided by Internet news, Facebook, Twitter and Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV network. Apologists for Moammar Gadhafi, for example, such as Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Chavez in Venezuela and China’s party-state media, all look merely self-interested.

The suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, who was denied by police the right to sell vegetables in the streets of his rural town, sparked protests among Tunisians and across North Africa. The 23 years of indifference by President Ben Ali towards most Tunisians became the key factor in the collapse of his government.
Tunisians have long had a reputation for moderation, education and intellect. The third of the population on-line, including two million with Facebook accounts, created a communications spike, which emboldened aspirations for fuller lives.

Hosni Mubarak probably launched the democratic revolution in Egypt when he attempted to have his son, Gamal, nominated as his successor as president. The protests in Tahrir Square were led by an alliance of secular groups. The disciplined efforts to maintain a non-violent opposition inspired the world. The army, gauging the depth of opposition support and its longer-term interests, stayed loyal to citizens. Mr. Mubarak Sr. now faces murder charges for the deaths of 846 protesters.
As Dennis Ignatius, Malaysia’s former high commissioner to Canada, put it: “For more than two weeks, Egyptians took to the streets to demand freedom and an end to decades of tyranny. They were shot at, beaten, bullied and jailed, yet they kept going, numbers swelling with each new attempt to silence them or break their will. They were seeking the same basic rights that the West has always insisted are the birthright of every human being.”

The American journalist, Tom Friedman, offers an interesting perspective:
“While Facebook has gotten all the face time in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, don’t forget Google Earth. On Nov. 27, 2006, on the eve of parliamentary elections in Bahrain, The Washington Post ran this report from [an interview] there: ‘Mahmood… said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas. ‘We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district,’ he said. ‘And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas [the Sunni ruling family] have the rest of the country to themselves.’”
As the protests mounted, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa shamefully opened fire on pro-democracy protesters, with hundreds reported injured or killed. Under the banner of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudis moved troops into Bahrain, claiming it was to counter Iranian influence. In reality, it was to put down democratic aspirations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Street protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain helped ignite the ones in Libya, Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Yemen.

The UN-adopted doctrine of Responsibility-to-Protect (R2P), applicable when regimes turn on their own citizens, is being sorely tested in Libya now; it must succeed.
We know that many more residents of Benghazi, Misrata and other centres would have been slaughtered — hunted from door to door as “rats”, according to Moammar Gadhafi — if NATO aircraft had not attacked his mostly hired-to-kill mercenaries advancing on Benghazi. If Mr. Gadhafi keeps power in Tripoli, he will most probably seek to revert to his “‘mad dog” role in the Lockerbie bombing and other international terrorism of earlier years. Ways must be found under Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 to continue to protect Libyans and to increase   pressure on those around the colonel to remove him.

Syria and Yemen
Presidents Ali Abdullah  Saleh in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a and Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s Damascus appear to have learned nothing from the Arab Spring except how to wage unlimited war on fellow citizens. Like Mr. Gadhafi with the International Criminal Court and Mr. Mubarak with Egypt’s courts, both should, once toppled, face justice for the cold-blooded murder of more than 1,200 civilians (as of May 26). Canada should impose similar sanctions on Mr. Saleh as already done to Mr. al-Assad. [At press time, Mr. Saleh was recovering in Saudi Arabia from serious injuries sustained in an assassination attempt.]

Democracy Rising
Freedom turns out to be what most Arabs want and are willing to fight for. Too many Westerners presumed that the best course was to work with the petrodictators. It is a potent reminder that all peoples, regardless of culture or religious background, want to be free to pursue their own dreams and to determine how they will be governed. It tells us that we need to put our faith in the innate human desire to escape tyranny.
Jeremy Kinsman, Canada’s former head of mission to 15 countries or organizations and principal author of Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development Support, wrote about the Arab events: “There is no single template for democracy. Each trajectory is different, depending on traditions and states of readiness. To sustain popular acceptance, democracy must deliver other essential outcomes — transparency, fairness, justice and adequately shared economic progress.’’
For the 22 members of the Arab League — all with large Muslim majorities — a major issue in terms of democratic governance will be how to apply the directive in the Qur’an: ‘’commanding right and forbidding wrong.”
When Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy, held parliamentary elections in 2009, support for extremist parties declined. Most voters seemed concerned about good governance, jobs and economic growth. Overall, support for fundamentalist parties fell. Similarly, in Malaysia’s 2008 elections, most voted for parties that promised good governance. Parties that had purely religious agendas did poorly.

A final word
When Europeans rose against Communism in 1989, Westerners rushed to cheer them on. When Burmese monks led protests against the country’s military rulers in 2007, we insisted that the generals must go. When Iran’s rulers launched a bloody crackdown on peaceful demonstrators following the massively rigged 2009 presidential election, we demanded that those responsible be sanctioned.
There was no talk of transition. There was no turning to despots to oversee the move towards a democratic future. There was no suggestion that somehow the people pressing for change with their very lives were not ready for better governance. We understood that the transitions, after years of tyranny, would be messy affairs. We expected that mistakes would be made. Democracy is, after all, everywhere a work in constant progress. But we believed that liberty would prevail and that democracy was an unstoppable force.
This is the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for, a response to radical Islam that we did not dare believe would come. Democracy and freedom are mobilizing Arab peoples virtually everywhere. The West must not choose the safety of the status quo in the guise of “stability.”
We must not allow fear of radical Islam to keep us from supporting nascent Arab democracies. And neither should we buy into despots’ self-serving sophistry that the only way to contain radical Islam is through dictatorship. There is a better way — the way of freedom and democracy — and that is what peoples throughout the Arab world are choosing. They must not be left to stand alone or wait in vain for the support of free peoples everywhere.
Samuel Huntington’s notion of the “clash of civilizations” contains many flaws. One was failing to understand that human dignity is essentially indivisible in today’s world.

As Secretary of State for Africa-Latin America (1997-2002) and Asia-Pacific (2002-2003), David Kilgour visited a number of the countries he discusses.

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Category: Dispatches

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