Opinion

The Great Debate

One year later: three lessons from the Arab Spring

By Stefan Wolff
The opinions expressed are his own.

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a jobless graduate in the provincial city of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, about 200km southwest of the capital Tunis, set himself on fire on December 18, 2010 after police had confiscated a cart from which he was selling fruit and vegetables, few would have predicted that this event would spark the phenomenon we now refer to as the Arab Spring. Protests quickly escalated in Tunisia and within four weeks Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had to flee to Saudi Arabia having failed to stop the protests either by repression of promises of reform.

On 17 January, one day after Ben Ali’s departure, another young man set himself afire near the Egyptian parliament. Within a week, coordinated mass protests began in Tahrir Square, and forced the resignation of long-serving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who handed power to the military on 11 February.

Since then, the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt have made at best incremental progress in some areas. In Tunisia, the first elections anywhere as a result of the Arab Spring went ahead in October and the newly elected parliament had its inaugural session on November 22nd. The election winners, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda (Renaissance) will have a coalition arrangement with a liberal and a centre-left party. While Tunisia avoided the appalling violence that characterised the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the new government and parliament still face an up-hill battle in the transition to a more democratic political system, including drafting a new constitution.

In Egypt, the military was instrumental in pushing Mubarak out of office, but the slow progress towards democratic reforms, several deadly sectarian clashes between Islamists and Christian copts, tensions and violence on the border with Israel, and a heavy-handed police crack-down on continuing protests in Tahrir Square do not bode well for the country’s immediate future—even if parliamentary elections go ahead on 28 November. While the army seems keen not to want to actually govern the country, they seem equally determined not to give up their privileged position that gives them political influence and control over significant economic assets.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, it seems as if the old regimes are determined to hold on to power at all cost, and despite diminishing chances of success. In Yemen, a crisis that had engulfed the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh long before the Arab Spring began is nowhere closer to a resolution even after Saleh at long last agreed to a transition plan sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council. This plan saw Saleh hand over power to his Vice President (not the opposition), allows him to retain the title of President for another three months, guaranteed him immunity, and left his assets untouched and members of his family in charge of most of the government’s hard power. Forcing Saleh out of office does also not address at least two of the country’s major crises—the Houthi rebellion in the North and the secessionist insurgency in the south, the latter of which has formed an alliance of convenience with al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula.  Unsurprisingly, violence in Yemen has continued unabated since Saleh signed the GCC transition plan on 23 November.

from David Rohde:

Complete Egypt’s revolution

For decades, the Egyptian military has operated an economy within an economy in Egypt. With the tacit support of the United States, the armed forces own and operate a sprawling network of for-profit businesses. The military runs factories that manufacture televisions, bottled water and other consumer goods. Its companies obtain public land at discounted prices. And it pays no taxes and discloses little to civilian officials.

Within weeks of Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February, experts predicted that the Egyptian military would refuse to relinquish its vast economic holdings or privileged position in society.

“Protecting its businesses from scrutiny and accountability is a red line the military will draw,” Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s military at the Naval Postgraduate School, told The New York Times. “And that means there can be no meaningful civilian oversight.”

from David Rohde:

Trust Tunisia

As the first elections of the post-Arab spring unfold over the next several weeks, you will be hearing the term “moderate Islamist” over and over again. Early results from elections in Tunisia suggest that the moderate Islamist Ennahda party is going to win the largest number of seats in a new assembly that will rewrite the constitution, choose a new interim government and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections. Members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who have also been described as moderate Islamists are expected to fare well in similar elections there in November. And Islamists play a growing role in Libya’s transitional council as well.

The Islamist parties insist that they have renounced violence, fully embrace democracy and will abide by the electoral process. Secular Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans, as well as some western pundits, warn that the Islamist parties are a Trojan Horse. Once Islamists take power, they will refuse to relinquish it and forcibly implement conservative Islam in all three countries.

What is striking is the silence emanating from Washington and other western capitals.

What’s behind Libya’s fast march to democracy?

By Daniel Serwer
The views expressed are his own.

In a trip to Libya this month, just weeks after Muammar Qaddafi’s fall, I found peace coming fast to Tripoli, despite continued resistance in several Libyan towns.  Ten days ago, families with children mobbed Martyrs’ square, where Qaddafi once held forth, to commemorate the hanging 80 years ago of Libya’s hero of resistance against the Italians, Omar Mukhtar. Elementary schools opened last week. The university will open next month. Water and electricity are flowing. Uniformed police are on the street. Trash collection is haphazard but functioning.

This is the fastest post-war recovery I have witnessed: faster than Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan. Certainly faster than Somalia, Sierra Leone or Rwanda.

Why this rapid recovery in a country marked by four decades of dictatorship? Why does Libya seem on track while Egypt seems to have gone off the rails?

Does everyone have a price?

DUBAI/

On Monday I went to Bloomingdales, the Gap and Starbucks but passed on a visit to Magnolia Bakery. Instead I  stopped by the St. Moritz bakery where you can order hot chocolate and sit by a video of a cozy winter  fire that overlooks the indoor ski slope and is just around the corner from the largest candy store in the world, which happens to face an aquarium that occupies an entire wall on one side of the world’s largest shopping malls. This by the way is opposite of what claims to be the world’s largest candystore whose mission statement is to make every day “happier’. Earlier, while exploring the watery depths of the bright Pink Atlantis Hotel (one of the white elephants of the property crash of 2007) I knew it was really the last kingdom because the fish swam around two cracked thrones and other kitschy stone artifacts.

Dubai is utterly overwhelming, the kind of  dystopia that blogger Evgeny Morozov sees in Huxley, a consumeristic paradise where mind-numbing shopping replaces real thought. Most of the I had no idea where I was except that my passport had been stamped Dubai  and many of the mall-going women were shrouded in black. After a few hours I sank into a state of ennuie. Given boatloads of oil money in the 1970s and the chance to build a whole new city, who on earth would decide to build a series of shopping malls?

It’s not like the developers didn’t have ambition, what with the architecture that demands superlatives — the gondolas, medieval stone houses and soaring illuminated sky scrapers and islands built in absurd never-before-seen configurations. But why not build a museum with, say, the most incredible collection in the world or a university with the finest research laboratories? With so much money why build this Disneyland? And what about the workers who make up most of the population?

Why democracy will win

LIBYA/

Philip N. Howard, an associate professor at the University of Washington, is the author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:  Information Technology and Political Islam”. The opinions expressed are his own.

The Day of Rage in Saudi Arabia was a tepid affair, and Libyan rebels have suffered strategic losses. Only two months ago, popular uprisings in Tunisia inspired Egyptians and others to take to the streets to demand political reform. Will the tough responses from Gadaffi and the Saudi government now discourage Arab conversations about democratic possibilities? It may seem like the dictators are ahead, but it’s only a temporary lead.

Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 20 years, Mubarak reigned in Egypt for 30 years, and Gadaffi has held Libya in a tight grip for 40 years. Yet their bravest challengers are 20- and 30-year-olds without ideological baggage, violent intentions or clear leaders. The groups that initiated and sustained protests have few meaningful experiences with public deliberation or voting, and little experience with successful protesting. These young activists are politically disciplined, pragmatic and collaborative. Where do young people who grow up in entrenched authoritarian regimes get political aspirations? How do they learn about political life in countries where faith and freedom coexist?

An Egyptian song for all

By Mohamed A. El-Erian
El-Erian is the CEO of PIMCO. He spent part of his childhood in Egypt where his father was a professor of international law at Cairo University and then served as an Egyptian diplomat and was elected to the International Court of Justice in 1978. The opinions expressed are his own.

For centuries, songs have provided populist narratives of historical movements. And, every once in a while, a song comes along that also succeeds in capturing forcefully the raw emotions of the moment. This is the case today with “Sout el Horeya,” or the “Voice of Freedom,” sung by Hany Adel and Amir Eid.

Coming out of Egypt, this song skillfully encapsulates the strong drivers behind the ongoing transformations impacting the Middle East and North Africa. It is a “must hear” for all those trying to understand previously-unthinkable developments in the region, including western governments whose sophisticated intelligence services have been caught flat-footed and are now playing rapid catch up.

Digital media and the Arab spring

BAHRAIN-CLASHES/

By Philip N. Howard, author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” and director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington. The opinions expressed are his own.

President Obama identified technology as one of the key variables that enabled and encouraged average Egyptians to protest. Digital media didn’t oust Mubarak, but it did provide the medium by which soulful calls for freedom have cascaded across North Africa and the Middle East. It is difficult to know when the Arab Spring will end, but we can already say something about the political casualties, long-term regional consequences and the modern recipe for democratization.

It all started with a desperate Tunisian shopkeeper who set himself on fire, which activated a transnational network of citizens exhausted by authoritarian rule. Within weeks, digitally-enabled protesters in Tunisia tossed out their dictator. It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success from Tunisia across North Africa and into the Middle East.

from Bernd Debusmann:

Egypt, America and a blow to al Qaeda

These must be difficult times for Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The uprising that swept away Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of huge demonstrations, none in the name of Islam, does not fit their ideology. In the war of ideas, al Qaeda suffered a major defeat.

Its leaders preach that the way to remove "apostate" rulers -- and Mubarak was high on the list -- is through violence. Al Qaeda's ideology does not embrace the kind of people power that brought down the Berlin wall, forced Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines into exile, and filled Cairo's Tahrir Square with tens of thousands of peaceful protesters day after day.

They waved the red-white-and-black flags of Egypt, not the green banners of Islam, in peaceful demonstrations that amounted to "a huge defeat in a country of central importance to its image," in the words of Noman Benotman, the former leader of a Libyan group often aligned with al Qaeda. "We are witnessing Osama bin Laden's nightmare," wrote Shibley Telhami, an Arab scholar at the University of Maryland.

The experts were wrong, again

By David Keyes, who is the director of CyberDissidents.org, an organization that highlights the writings and activities of dissident bloggers. The opinions expressed are his own.

Moments ago, Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down after 30 years in power — following on the heels of Tunisia’s dictator who fled his country after ruling for 23 years.

At this remarkable moment in Middle Eastern history, it is worth recalling what scholars, diplomats and pundits said in years past about stability in Egypt and Tunisia. This jog down memory lane is one of those delicious moments where the experts are yet again proved ignorant of the present and incapable of predicting the future.

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