08 May 2011

Arab Spring - Part 1: What If?

What if what took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria was not a spontaneous and romantic uprising by techno-savvy young people in search for freedom and democracy.

What if it could be better explained by good old fashioned Real Politik: powerful states triggering, sponsoring and manipulating events for their own goals and objectives.

Since there is no way of proving that states acted for a specific reason, all we can do is to look at the actions of the actors involved, attribute them motives in line with those actions and see if that line of explanation is more plausible than the romantic scenario about Arab youth overthrowing entrenched authoritarian regimes upon discovering Gene Sharp and FaceBook.

To understand who the actors are and what they aim, let's first take a look at what happened in Tunisia and Egypt (and Yemen).  And see if that makes sense when we add, Libya and Syria.

The role of the armies

Whether my suspicions about a single suicide being semiotically charged enough to trigger such momentous and sustained events in several countries are warranted or not, the fact remains that once the uprisings were underway, in both Tunisia and Egypt, the governments, asked their armies to suppress the revolt and in both cases, the army refused to intervene.

In fact, in both countries (the Egyptian case is better known but it happened in Tunisia as well, the army went one step further and protected the protesters from thugs sent by the supporters of the regime.

Why did they not intervene?

It is well known that Egypt's army is the second largest beneficiary of the US foreign military aid. The US provides training, material and equipment and maintains very close ties to make sure that the army does not stray from the role that was assigned to it. For instance, the peace accord signed by Anwar Sadat (later dubbed the Cold Peace) would not have survived his assassination without the Egyptian army's full support. The army sided with the US and Mubarak and kept the Gaza frontier closed despite near universal disapproval of Egyptians.

In other words, it is unthinkable for the Egyptian army to act in one way or another without the approval of its biggest benefactor and ally. And if the US gave them the signal to intervene, I have no doubt in my mind that they would have done so.

It is less well known that the Tunisian army is also equipped and trained by the US. As Ben Ali was deeply suspicious of an army that could overthrow him in a coup d'etat, he kept it as a small and marginal force. But because he was distrustful of the police force, which remained under the French influence, he placed the army "under US tutelage".

[...]over the past few decades, Ben Ali had effectively placed it under U.S. tutelage [my emphasis], where it was given training and modest arms transfers. This was a hedge against the French, who retained some influence over the police after Tunisian independence. They supplied and trained the security and intelligence forces, and even helped the government suppress an uprising in 1955. U.S. involvement with the military, Ben Ali supposed, would prevent the French from having a monopoly of influence over his country’s means of coercion.

In other words, as a marginalized force not invested in the regime, it is conceivable that the army could refuse a direct order from Ben Ali, but it is hard to imagine the army doing so without the approval of its primary benefactor and patron.

Is this a pattern?

It certainly holds in the first three cases, namely Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. In the loyal US ally Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh - who was so aligned with American interests that he was willing to take the blame for drone attacks against his population-  found himself deserted by his long time friend and army chief General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.  Just like Mubarak's friend and ally General "Mubarak's Poodle" Tantawi did in Egypt, General al-Ahmar abruptly switched camps and declared he was siding with the opposition ensuring the imminent departure of President Saleh.

In short, we have three armies under US tutelage who decided to overthrow their government by allowing popular protests to continue.

Why dismiss other causal frameworks?

My theory will be greeted with some skepticism as people are likely to prefer the more mainstream causal frameworks.

They sound...you know, less cynical, more hopeful.

True enough. And some of them contain a number of valid arguments.

Besides the tragic romanticism of a suicide triggered revolution theory preferred by the media, there are also long-term-corruption-and-repression-inevitably-leading-to-upheaval explanations, and a sub-category of those from the left trying to insert a confused class perspective using more or less the same causal elements.

All of these might have played a certain role in building up towards the uprising and during the unfolding of events. But to be useful causalities need to work in all similar cases. Unfortunately, when you look around, you see that in places like Algeria or most Arab countries in the Mashreq, long-term-corruption-and-ruthless-repression equation did not yield a democratic revolution.

In Bahrain, despite widespread discrimination, structural inequalities and human rights abuses against the majority Shiite population by the Sunni rulers, the same Arab Spring did not lead to a happy ending. There, not only did the army intervene to crush them, the world in general and the Americans in particular only voiced a subdued criticism when the carnage took place, even though some of it was done with the help of foreign troops provided by the erstwhile US ally, Saudi Arabia.  (To highlight the built-in double standards, this last move was universally condemned when it was implemented by Qaddafi in Libya, but in Bahrain, it was barely mentioned.)

I already mentioned Algeria and Morocco and if you add Kuwait or Saudi Arabia to autocratic places where nothing happened, suddenly the value of that causal framework becomes less evident.


There is also one other issue that makes me doubt the previously mentioned causal frameworks, namely the ability of the youth groups to organize rapidly and efficiently, to create extensive logistic networks out of the blue, to fund and sustain prolonged struggles. Young people are immortal, unable to think they will die. So they make great protesters. But there is more to a revolution than a general willingness to die.

What does it take to keep a quarter of a million of people in Tahrir Square for days? Who feeds them, who pays for feeding them, who provides toilets, clothes, who finds the cars to carry the wounded to hospitals, who distributes empty plastic bottles to use as shields (we are talking millions of empty plastic bottles for a group of at least 300,000)?

Who organizes the so called "Days of Rage" simultaneously in many cities? Was it just a bunch of wild-eyed young kids typing furiously on their laptop FaceBook instructions for the masses to follow?


I am not suggesting that these events were carefully planned and orchestrated by some outside power like the the US. I am simply stating the obvious fact that, even if we stipulate that they got their start in a yearning for freedom, without some financial and logistic support from outside it would be impossible for these young kids to sustain weeks of violent uprisings. In Tunisia there was no established group with the logistical and financial capacity to organize this quickly and efficiently. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had the ability to do it but they stayed out of it until quite late in the uprising. So while their late involvement might have been very beneficial to the revolution at that point, they are not in a position to take credit for the initial effort to organize, coordinate, finance and lead a successful and sustain uprising.

To me what convinces me that the Arab Spring was the result of climate change in the US is this this immutable fact: the US would never sacrificed an ally like Mubarak who was essential for Israel's security to look sympathetic to a bunch of young people. And as I argued they could have saved him any time by simply asking the army to intervene. In fact, under normal circumstances, there would be no need for such a request as the army would have intervened when Mubarak asked them to crush the uprising. Occam's Razor tells me that if the US gambled with Israel's security, that means they had a bigger game plan.

In other words, there was more, much more to these events than a tragic suicide or long term oppression and corruption.

Okay, you say, you got me dismayed by destroying my romantic illusions but you got me intrigued. But how do you explain Libya and why do you think that the Americans are foolish enough encourage/promote the destabilization of the entire region?

I am glad you asked...

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