Thursday, August 18, 2011

There Is No Going Back On Freedom

Transition to democracy is painful and slow, but the Arab uprising against mighty autocrats is assured of victory
By Dr. Joseph A. Kechichian
Eight months after Mohammad Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, which toppled the Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali regime, and six months after young Egyptians first stormed into Tahrir Square in Cairo, which brought down the Hosni Mubarak government, Arab citizen revolts continue across the region.
While a few observers fear that the promise of the Arab Spring is wilting, street protests in Egypt and Yemen, along with sustained battles in Libya, as well as unprecedented assaults on mostly unarmed civilians throughout Syria, means that the old order can no longer rest on its meagre accomplishments.
Fear. Without taking anything away from Bouazizi, the real Arab Spring started on December 14, 2008, in Baghdad, when Muntadar Al Zaidi hurled his shoes at then US president George W. Bush during a joint press conference with the hapless Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. Though Bush ducked twice, and thus avoided being hit, the Iraqi stood straight and barely moved.
At the time, millions celebrated the reverse humiliation, though many were subliminally emboldened. Most concluded that if a lone reporter could do this to allegedly the most powerful man on earth, surely the same could be envisaged for Arab dictators.
In the aftermath of this significant development, a spark like Bouazizi was bound to inflame ordinary citizens, who shed long suppressed fears of security forces. Although decisive changes are still under way months later, which has led impatient commentators to perceive endurance qualities among seasoned autocracies, it is nearly impossible to perpetuate failed policies.
A radical break with the past is now permanent, precisely because most have lost their fear of pretentious leaders for life.
Truth and lies
Military. Naturally, as unfolding events in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen illustrate, the main reason why regimes survived was the continuing loyalties of their respective militaries. In Cairo, Field Marshal Mohammad Hussain Tantawi, Mubarak’s defence minister during the past two decades, consolidated his power while paying lip service to social justice, civil liberties and democracy.
With parliamentary and presidential elections promised for the fall, and circus-like trials entertaining the masses, the Egyptian armed forces hold the 2011 revolution hostage, hoping that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in general would create the opportunities to restore full military rule. Suffice to say that it is too soon to write the last chapter of this unfolding uprising even if the military holds a temporary advantage.
The situation in Libya is somewhat different in the sense that the regular armed forces are divided, which essentially means that the fate of Muammar Gaddafi is probably sealed, even if one discounts the UN-backed, Nato-led and Arab League-seconded international military force fighting in North Africa.
To his credit, and despite myriad internal problems associated with the Transitional National Council comprising 11 individuals, Mahmoud Jibril has managed to avoid a civil war. Despite the fact that it is fashionable to believe that Libya is mired in a stalemate, conditions on the ground are catastrophic, with an inevitable fall of the regime.
Regrettably, and because the Yemeni military command is also divided, a standoff is in place in Sana’a though an eventual return to power by President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been ruled out. While it may be possible to foresee an emerging balance of power between the government and determined opposition forces, one should not be under any illusions that Yemen’s fate — as Bahrain’s for that matter — is squarely in Saudi hands. Riyadh restored tranquility in the island kingdom and is carefully monitoring domestic challenges throughout Yemen to see how best to usher in a new government without a second military intervention.
The one country that actually poses a serious dilemma is Syria, where the military high command — surely an oxymoron given the willingness to launch tanks against civilians — remains relatively loyal to President Bashar Al Assad. Beyond the putative common affiliation to the Alawite sect, the Syrian brass is in an existential quandary, backing Al Assad as a “reformer” while preventing defections galore.
Equally important, Damascus confronts the threat of a debilitating sectarian civil war, which is more likely than many assume and which is precisely what Syria’s enemies wish for.
Democracy. Al Zaidi and Bouazizi, along with the thousands of nameless martyrs who fell — and keep falling — under friendly bullets in the Muslim world, have triumphed. As protesters continue their unrelenting pro-democracy activism, many realise that it is na├»ve to accept at face value past commitments that promised prosperity and justice but only delivered poverty and death.
To be sure, Tunisia and Egypt are not out of the proverbial woods yet, as conditions in both countries evolve at a slow pace. For their part, Yemen, Libya and Syria are literally mired in bloodshed, with more of the same over the horizon. Things are looking up in both Bahrain and Oman even if the two countries barely weathered their respective storms.
Six months after what must surely be one of the most important periods in contemporary history, two autocrats are gone with three more making final arrangements for imminent departures. Importantly, while the transition to democracy is neither guaranteed nor expeditious, popular uprisings against heavily armed foes — including naval bombardments that bewilder for their sheer vulgarity — are assured victory.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 18/08/2011
-Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs

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