Two years of turmoil, more to follow
ALMOST two years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked protests that toppled the Tunisian regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and prompted a chain reaction across large swathes of the Arab world against ostensibly well-ensconced dictatorships, the region remains volatile.
With its relatively smooth transition to a form of democracy, Tunisia receded from the headlines long ago. But recent events in Egypt have indicated that the turmoil in the second Arab country to experience a popular insurrection is far from over.
Uncertainty of a somewhat different nature hovers over Libya, where the United States and European powers with colonial experience intervened militarily to topple their longstanding bête noir Muammar Qadhafi, without fully comprehending the true nature of all the forces that opposed him.
Last September’s events in Benghazi might have given at least the US cause to pause for thought, but it does not necessarily follow that similar mistakes will not be made in Syria, where the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad has thus far managed to withstand the winds of change amid a bloodbath, but it looks like predictions of its demise are bound to be fulfilled sooner or later.
Western-led efforts to cobble together a resistance coalition that excludes the more vocal votaries of Al Qaeda — such as Jebhat al-Nusra — have ostensibly paid off, but it has been reported that some of the cash provided by France has helped Islamist groups such as Liwa al-Tawhid cope with their shortage of ammunition.
Other reports suggest the US has decided to arm the rebels with stockpiles left behind by the Qadhafi regime, via regional intermediaries.
At the same time, there is a concerted effort to reinforce the impression that Assad not only possesses chemical weapons but is prepared to deploy them against fellow Syrians.
The Americans have warned that by doing so he would be crossing a red line, implying that it could serve as a trigger for military action. British foreign secretary William Hague, however, was fairly vague when asked to bear out his claim of having seen “some evidence” that such weapons could be put to use.
If this trend rings a bell, it’s because it was barely a decade ago that propaganda about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction was used to make the case for aggression against Iraq. Tony Blair’s infamous dossier suggesting such weapons could be prepared for launch within 40 minutes helped back then to bolster the belligerent intent of his master in the White House.
There is little cause for complacency about the designs of Assad’s thoroughly beleaguered regime — or what’s left of it — but it would do no harm to remember that even in Aesop’s fable, the boy who cried wolf got away with it twice before his fantasy became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
None of the foregoing is intended to suggest that the Assad administration deserves to cling on to power, but prospects of a rosy post-Assad future are, sadly, unrealistic, at least in the short term.
Smooth sailing in the aftermath of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak was an unlikely scenario, too, but Egypt’s ship of state was sailing relatively smoothly until a few weeks ago. There was turmoil beneath the waves, but it surfaced only sporadically.
But with his Nov 22 decree — claiming more power, according to some of his opponents, than Mubarak wielded — Mohamed Morsi effectively steered the vessel into an iceberg.
Last weekend he rescinded the decree, but a great deal of damage has been done. The constitution-making process was hastily concluded by an assembly of (mostly) men that could not seriously be considered representative.
The document is set to be put to a referendum next Saturday, and is expected to win popular approval. If it does so by a margin comparable to Morsi’s in the presidential election, its legitimacy is bound to be disputed.
Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second choice as a candidate, but it’s pertinent to recall that the organisation, which largely remained on the sidelines during the mass mobilisation against Mubarak, had earlier declared it would not contest the presidential election.
It changed its mind, and Morsi scraped through in the second round against a representative of the old regime. Quite evidently, not everyone clamouring for Mubarak’s departure voted for him — and they may well have considered themselves vindicated by his recent words and actions.
Some of Morsi’s rhetoric last week, decrying those who had taken to the streets and crowded Tahrir Square as thugs and foreign agents, was redolent of his predecessor’s utterances. There was violence on both sides, and rival claims of victimisation.
Although some protesters have been yelling for him to go, the opposition coalition that has been hastily cobbled together has said it recognises him as the elected president. But Morsi has done himself no favours by ordering the army to maintain order and empowering it to arrest civilians.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which maintained the status quo after it persuaded Mubarak to take a hike, has meanwhile ominously warned that the alternative to a consensus on the constitution is “a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe, and that is something we will not allow”.
One of the reasons Egypt, like various other Arab states, was so vulnerable to a popular explosion was the state of its economy and the level of unemployment.
Not much has changed on that front, with the Morsi administration apparently willing to follow the same old neoliberal policies and kowtow to the IMF. Making Sharia the basis of all legislation is hardly likely to mollify for long even those segments of the masses that may be inclined towards a confessional polity.
The notion that Egypt has undergone a revolution is arguably mistaken, but it is important also to remember that even revolutionary change all too often does not live up to the expectations of those who make it possible.
It is all too common for one form of tyranny to make way for another, the Iranian transformation of 1979 being only one of the more recent examples of this phenomenon. Hopefully, that example will serve forward-looking Egyptians as a cautionary tale.